Students connect with Rwandan people, culture during business MOM trip

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Mercer On Mission participants are pictured in Rwanda in December 2020.
Mercer On Mission participants are pictured in Rwanda in December 2020.

Mercer University students put their business knowledge to practical use in a different country and culture during the latest Mercer On Mission (MOM) experience.

Last month, Associate Professor of Marketing Dr. Etienne Musonera and Stetson-Hatcher School of Business Interim Dean Dr. Julie Petherbridge led about 20 undergraduate and graduate students on a two-week trip to Kigali, Rwanda. University Minister Dr. Craig McMahan also joined the team for a portion of the program, which was initiated by Dr. Musonera, originally from Rwanda, in 2015. 

The summer 2019 MOM experiences were canceled due to COVID-19, but Rwanda’s efficient and strict protocols made this December trip possible. The participants were tested before leaving the United States; upon entering Rwanda, where they were quarantined for about 24 hours until their results came back; and once more before leaving Rwanda. Mask-wearing and social distancing were strictly observed throughout their travels. 

“We never felt at risk for COVID,” Dr. Petherbridge said. “Rwanda has very few cases, and they want to keep it that way. We had no issues there or back. Not a single student tested positive.”

In partnership with an organization called MindLeaps, the Mercer team helped 48 Rwandan entrepreneurs — many of them widows and orphans of the 1994 genocide — improve their business plans, skills and practices. 

Mercer On Mission participants work with Rwandan entrepreneurs.

“When we teach them, we’re teaching or training the trainers,” Dr. Musonera said. “The people we train, they go back to the village. They are also teaching their families. They become more confident about themselves and what they can do. They change the way they do business. They incorporate what they learned.”

Divided into groups, the Mercer students worked with Rwandans who were running restaurants and selling sewn products, fruits and vegetables, and goats. They tackled business topics such as how to find the best shop location, collaborate with other entrepreneurs, price items, and make products more efficiently, said Dr. Petherbridge.

Senior Megan Smith, a sports marketing and analytics major, and her group helped Rwandans with clothing businesses create marketing plans to improve their profitability and efficiency.

Duane Williams, who will graduate with his Master of Business Administration from Mercer in May, was in the group that focused on selling produce. He said they looked at cost-benefit analysis, how many products needed to be sold to break even and make a profit, business partnerships, and the importance of thinking ahead to the future. 

“This was my first time in Rwanda. I was eager to see what it was we were doing and how our students interfaced with the clients,” Dr. McMahan said. “Our students were able to give them a new window through which to look at their work. … I’m impressed with our students, how professional they acted, how seriously they took their responsibilities and how successful they were.

“In these COVID times, this was more challenging than usual. I was very pleased with the work. We look forward to an ongoing relationship with (MindLeaps) as we continue this project.”

Mercer students learn business principles in the classroom, but this trip showed them real startup businesses in action and the barriers that entrepreneurs can face. They saw how business owners can be creative and advance amid limited resources, Dr. Petherbridge said.

Williams, who already has some years of business experience under his belt and is a senior procurement consultant for a medical device company, said the decision to participate in this MOM Rwanda trip was more personal than professional for him.

Rwandan entrepreneurs answer questions during a presentation during the Mercer On Mission training.

“My family is from West Africa, Sierra Leone. Whenever I have the opportunity to help, I’m there. I also wanted to understand the differences between East and West Africa, not just the climate but the people and culture,” he said. “I’ve always been interested in international development. This was another experience that helps me with that purpose and passion.”

Smith said she had wanted to go to Africa since she was a kid, and she was thrilled to be selected as one of the MOM participants. As soon as she arrived in Rwanda, she knew she wanted to go back. She hopes to take a year off and travel to Africa before she gets a full-time job. 

“The best part of the trip was connecting with the people there and learning about their culture,” she said. “I knew nothing about Rwanda before. It was so different and surreal once I got there. I know everyone says it’s a life-changing experience, but it really was.

“I think it’s something that I’m going to think about for the rest of my life, and it’s going to create more opportunities for me now that I’ve done it.”

Amid their work, the Mercer students and faculty had a little down time to explore Kigali and experience Rwandan culture. They went on a safari, ate at local restaurants, spent time at the market, visited the Rwandan genocide memorial and Hotel Rwanda, toured a coffee plantation that has a storefront in Atlanta, and went to Lake Kivu.

Williams said it’s going to take time before the Rwandan entrepreneurs see improvement in their businesses, but establishing this new business mindset is the first step. The next MOM Rwanda trip is only six months away in summer 2021, and Mercer students will keep contact with the Rwandan clients via Zoom until then, Dr. Petherbridge said. 

“We’re going to do monthly check-ins to see how they’re adapting,” Williams said. “We want to keep building on that. The biggest thing is maintaining and keeping the momentum.”

The Mercer team already is working on ways to expand its reach before the next trip. Dr. Petherbridge said both basic and intermediate business workshops will be offered to clients, and Mercer student participants will learn how to conduct these trainings before they go. In addition, Mercer students will launch a website for online pre-orders of handbags crafted by some of the Rwandan sewers, which will help increase their profitability and customer base. 

Mercer On Mission participants are pictured with the Rwandan entrepreneurs they worked with in December 2020.

 

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