Mercerians helped local entrepreneurs take their businesses to the next level during a three-week trip to Rwanda earlier this summer.
Since 2015, faculty and students from Mercer’s School of Business have visited capital city Kigali for this Mercer On Mission program, which was initiated by Associate Professor of Marketing Dr. Etienne Musonera, who is originally from Rwanda. Dr. Musonera, School of Business Dean Dr. Julie Petherbridge and Associate Dean Dr. Vijaya Subrahmanyam led 30 students on the most recent trip.
In partnership with local organizations GAERG and MindLeaps, the business group worked with more than 100 Rwandan entrepreneurs, most of them widows and orphans of the 1994 genocide. They helped them to create, implement and improve plans for the businesses, which included a pig farm, restaurants, coffee shops, tailor shops and stores selling fruit, mobile services, and car and bicycle parts. Some of the entrepreneurs had worked with the Mercer team previously, Dr. Petherbridge said.
“We’re working with them to create business plans for them to be able to then survive on their own. It allows them to move to that next level and allows this next generation to be able to go on to school and be able to sustain their livelihood for years to come,” she said. “That’s what we’re after, and they’re very open to it. They’ll apply what we do. So it’s fun to go back and see how far the company has grown and the companies that have outgrown us.”
Abigail Trejo-Medellin, who graduated in May with a Master of Business Administration in global business, worked with a woman who owns a grocery store and the owner of a hair salon.
“It was really good to see all the ideas that they had for their businesses and how to grow them,” she said. “They want to do more than just run these businesses. They want to create a legacy for families.”
Patrick Tweel, a graduate student pursuing a Master of Business Administration in innovation, welcomed the opportunity for experiential learning in a new culture through this Mercer On Mission trip. He helped a group of mostly engineers create plans for a business venture connecting skilled candidates with jobs. He also worked with people who sold chicken eggs, chicken meat and flowers.
The Mercer students assisted the retailers in establishing and refining their inventory systems and worked on setting up a social enterprise and tax system for a group of tailors, Dr. Petherbridge said. The latter is connected to an ongoing School of Business project.
During the 2021 Mercer On Mission trip, several Rwandan women with separate tailoring businesses formed a collective partnership and developed a brand called Agaciro. During the 2021-22 academic year, Mercer entrepreneurship and marketing and research students created the infrastructure to sell the women’s handmade bags and purses online and in pop-up shops in Georgia. All the profits go back to the entrepreneurs.
“It’s been really good for the students to learn,” Dr. Petherbridge said. “They’re doing everything from the market research to having customers and dealing with the problems. They’re really learning a lot of real-world skills between trips.”
More tailors have now joined the cooperative, and the Mercer group just brought back another shipment of goods to the United States to sell. During the upcoming year, Agaciro’s inventory will be expanded to include jewelry made by Rwandans through a new partnership with a healing center.
Layne Davis, a rising senior majoring in marketing and management, participated in the Mercer On Mission Rwanda trip last summer as well as this year and was part of the team that worked on the Agaciro project during the 2021-22 academic year.
“I wanted to go back and see how the marketing plans have developed the businesses and continue working on the project,” she said. “I got to be with some of the same women that I worked with last year. To see their progress and see some of them come back a second time, it was really special.”
Davis said she helped the entrepreneurs arrange their shops more efficiently and continued developing their marketing plans to ensure sustainability. The trip showed her how much of an impact she can make in a short amount of time. She’s continuing to work on the Agaciro project this summer in Georgia through an internship.
The Mercer students visited the homes and businesses of the entrepreneurs they worked with, and they also walked children connected with the MindLeaps organization home from school, which the college students found to be particularly impactful, Dr. Petherbridge said. In some cases, those walks were three miles long.
“I’m a big backpacker, and this was a pretty treacherous three miles,” Tweel said. “Then we get to their homes, and these are just poverty scenarios I’ve never encountered before. To really be in their living room and sitting on their furniture and having these conversations about their limited options. … I don’t think that’ll escape me anytime soon.
“Anytime you can build empathy and be a little uncomfortable doing it is going to stick with you. If you’re in isolation and not understanding anybody else’s perspective, you don’t understand why people think, look or live differently from you.”
While walking a child home, Davis passed the house of a little girl she met the previous year. Davis said the girl remembered her and ran out to give her a hug, and it was wonderful to reconnect with her.
Outside their business work, the Mercer group visited Lake Kivu, Ellen DeGeneres’ Gorilla Conservation Campus, coffee washing stations, and a youth center; cooked a meal together at a women’s center; learned how to bargain and buy at local markets; went on a safari; and experienced local cuisine, Dr. Petherbridge said.
Some of the Mercer students had never been outside the United States, making the Mercer On Mission trip an especially eye-opening as well as life-changing experience for them. They saw the resilience of the people amid their circumstances and wanted to do whatever they could to help.
Genocide has affected every single Rwandan, causing generations of negative impact, and it was fulfilling to be able to offer encouragement and be a voice of optimism to the entrepreneurs, Tweel said.
Trejo-Medellin said she feels like she has a bigger purpose now as she enters her career. After visiting nonprofits in Rwanda, she can see herself getting involved in nonprofit work in the future. She learned a lot from the determination exhibited by the Rwandan entrepreneurs that she met and will carry that with her.
Feature photo courtesy Abigail Trejo-Medellin