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An African Journey

A Babson team travels to Rwanda to teach entrepreneurship, along the way discovering a nation, though haunted by heartbreak and tragedy, that’s hopeful about the future.

Rwanda is a land of rolling hills and resilient people. For their week in the country, Babson team members stay at a guesthouse (above) located next to a Catholic church (below).

When Clemence Nzayisenga tells me she’s an orphan, I don’t pry. I’ve learned not to ask too many questions when discussing the past in Rwanda.

We’re sitting on a bench at the Byimana School of Sciences, which is located in central Rwanda down a dirt road bumpy enough to jar bones and suspensions. A statue of St. Marcellin Champagnat, the Frenchman who founded the Marist Brothers religious order that runs this school, greets visitors soon after they enter Byimana’s gates. Over the school’s basketball courts, a Virgin Mary statue stands guard. Hills rise in the distance. Occasionally, the moo of a nearby cow is heard.

Ninety-plus high school students from around Rwanda have come to study entrepreneurship at Byimana. They are eager to learn and engage with their teachers, a team of Babson alumni, students, and staff. In late July, the team traveled thousands of miles to be here for a week, and I’ve tagged along as a listener, observer, chronicler. Sitting next to me between sessions, Nzayisenga speaks about her orphanage, where she first came to live in 2002 when she was 7 years old. She tells of the other children and how thankful they are to the orphanage’s founder, whose generosity gave them a place to live.

Talking of her personal history, Nzayisenga grows quiet and reserved. I wait for her to tell me more, to maybe talk of her parents and what happened to them, but she offers nothing else. It’s probably for the best. The story of her parents may not be an easy one to hear. Nzayisenga is almost 18, which means she was born in 1994, the year her country descended into a horror of mayhem, madness, and mass murder. In just 100 days, up to 1 million people lost their lives as one ethnic group systematically slaughtered another.

To imagine such cruelty and violence breaks your heart, but thankfully, joyfully, it soon mends after witnessing Rwandans’ resiliency. The students who gather at Byimana have grown up surrounded by the ghosts of genocide, not to mention a crushing poverty that affects many of the nation’s residents, but they are optimistic about their country. It’s moving forward, focusing on business’ ability to build and transform, and the students are poised to become part of this brighter future. “My goal is to be a businessman,” Nzayisenga tells me. “Then I will have money.” With that money, she wants to give back to others like her. “In my future, I want to help orphans.”

Wellesley may be a world away from Rwanda, but Babson is helping in a small yet critical way in the country’s rebirth. The College maintains a Rwandan center that promotes entrepreneurship, and it also sends teams to teach students the entrepreneurial process, from idea generation to rocket pitch. For Dennis Hanno, the leader of these efforts and the Murata Dean of the F.W. Olin Graduate School, Babson’s involvement in Rwanda makes sense. “If we truly believe in Entrepreneurship of All Kinds, if we truly believe in the power of entrepreneurship to change lives and communities, who needs it more than the people we work with right here?” he says.

Riding in Rwanda

Known as a Land of a Thousand Hills, Rwanda is a beautiful place. It’s also poor, crowded, and predominately rural. About 11 million people live in an area about the size of Maryland, making Rwanda the most densely populated country in Africa, according to The World Factbook of the CIA. Ninety percent of its people are engaged in farming, most of it subsistence, and the vast majority don’t have access to electricity. Drive around Rwanda at night and much of the countryside is covered in darkness.

Before the Babson team begins its teaching duties, we take some time to sightsee. Stuffed into a well-worn minibus, we watch as the country whizzes by. We pass corn stalks, banana trees, and fields crisscrossed with irrigation ditches. We pass wandering goats, women carrying loads on their heads, and police and soldiers with assault rifles dangling across their backs. We pass mud-brick houses with roofs of clay or corrugated metal, and shops covered in ads for Tigo cell phones and Primus beer.

The landscape is green and rolling, and our drive is a constant up, down, and up again. With American Top 40 songs playing on the radio, the bus wheezes up hills and passes people walking with their bicycles because the road is so steep. As we climb higher and higher, our ears pop slightly, but soon enough the bus is careening downhill, hugging the curves. Taking in the long, spectacular vistas, we watch the land rise and fall into the distance.

Each member of the Babson team teaches entrepreneurship to a class of high school students. Doing double duty, Amy Malinowski ’13 (above) had spent the previous week teaching the subject in Ghana before coming to Rwanda.

Chris Smith ’09, MSM’10, and Ben Cox ’10 sit on the bus, but they don’t pay much attention to the views outside. Both are buried in books. Smith is reading Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, and Cox is studying French. They don’t look up even as the ride starts to resemble a video game, the bus dodging motorbike taxis carrying passengers, trucks spewing thick exhaust, and the continuous stream of people walking on the side of the road.

Smith and Cox have seen it all before. Since 2010, they’ve lived in Kigali, the country’s capital and main urban center, and served as directors of the Babson-Rwanda Entrepreneurship Center. A partnership with the Private Sector Federation, an umbrella organization for chambers of commerce in the country, the center acts as a consultant to help entrepreneurs start and grow businesses. It also works to improve the entrepreneurial ecosystem that supports startups in the country.

All and all, living and working in Rwanda has been a positive experience for the pair, says Smith. They’re surrounded by an interesting community of ex-pats performing important work in the country, and they have enjoyed the weather, which outside of the country’s two rainy seasons, seems almost perfect. The days are sunny and warm, but not oppressively so, and temperatures dip in the evenings in the cool mountain air. As for safety, Rwanda may have a violent past, but crime isn’t a major problem nowadays. Smith has heard stories of thievery in a village and the locals banding together to find out who did it. “I feel safer walking around 12 o’clock at night here than in Detroit or Boston,” Smith says. “It’s one of the safest countries I’ve ever traveled to.”

Smith and I sit together on the minibus, the air smelling of intermittent trash fires, our driver honking the horn in greeting at the other buses as they pass by us. As we discuss life in Rwanda, the conversation inevitably turns to the genocide. Its memory silently haunts the country. “People don’t discuss it much,” Smith says. “It’s taboo. It’s not dinner conversation.” The only time that changes is in April when, to commemorate the start of the genocide, memorials are held throughout the country. Survivors and even some perpetrators will give public testimonials about what happened that bloody spring.

Living in a country with such a traumatic past can make for a surreal experience. The hotel depicted in the movie Hotel Rwanda, for instance, is still in operation. More than 1,200 people took refuge from the genocide there, but today it’s one of Kigali’s nicest hotels, offering Sunday brunch and Thursday night happy hours, where Smith has met friends for drinks. Celebrating in a place that has known desperate, dire times can create a weird disconnect. “It’s bizarre to imagine,” Smith says. “I don’t dwell on it.”

Trying not to dwell on it isn’t always easy. As we ride down the road, the sun shines, and Smith lets his mind wander. The whole country was affected by the genocide, and if you start thinking about it, you imagine what the land has witnessed. History is everywhere. “I wonder what happened on this road 18 years ago,” Smith says.

Hell on Earth

To better understand the events of the genocide, the Babson team members visit the Kigali Memorial Centre soon after landing in the country. The center is located among the whirl and noise of the capital, where billboards tout anti-corruption messages and the Parliament building still exhibits damage from fighting in 1994. Houses crammed together hug the city’s hillsides.

The center is a peaceful place, though the hum of the city and its many motorbikes and people can still be heard. When we arrive, we’re stunned by a sign pointing to a burial place where the remains of more than 250,000 people are interred. Such a large number is hard to wrap your mind around, and that figure represents only the people who died in Kigali. Many more perished in the countryside.

The center’s mass graves aren’t stately monuments covered in granite or marble. Rather, they are stark crypts made of concrete, eight of them in all, that serve as disturbing reminders of the evil that human beings can do to each other. Surrounding them are serene gardens and a wall of names honoring victims, though the list of the dead is far from complete. Statues of elephants stand around the grounds. Known for their long memories, the elephants symbolize the need to never forget what happened.

Inside the center is a museum that outlines in harrowing detail how Rwanda’s colonial rulers played up ethnic differences and how those differences simmered through the decades until they finally exploded. Rwanda collapsed into apocalypse as the majority Hutus used machetes, clubs, and guns to murder Tutsis and moderate Hutus, while the rest of the world stood by and watched.

The center isn’t an easy place to visit. “I was overwhelmed,” says Sam Perkins, MBA’93, a case writer and research associate with Babson Executive Education. “Given what took place here, you would describe it as hell on earth.” For Sarah Schwartz, BEE program coordinator, the center drudged up thoughts of the Holocaust and relatives lost in that calamity. “I had a hard time with it,” she says. “It’s mind-boggling to think of the numbers.” While the team visited the center, people dressed in black and purple, the color of remembrance, gathered for a memorial service. They left flowers on one of the concrete crypts. Watching the scene, Schwartz says, “I just lost it.”

Visiting the center illustrates how amazingly far Rwanda has come since those dark days, when neighbors were literally killing neighbors and the country’s infrastructure was laid to waste. Today, Rwanda is peaceful, business-friendly, and flourishing. “Fifteen years ago, if someone said to me, ‘You’re going to be teaching entrepreneurship in Rwanda,’ I would have thought that was as likely as me going to the moon,” Perkins says. Despite the visible progress, however, we’re keenly aware that everyone we encounter on our trip, from students to waiters to drivers, was affected by the genocide in some way. “There aren’t obvious scars,” says Perkins. But tapping his heart, he adds, “You know in here they are carrying scars.”

Open for Business

The scars of the past still linger, but Rwanda is dreaming of better times. Having cracked down on corruption, paved major roads, restricted red tape, completed a fiberoptic network, and launched a stock market, it’s a country open for business. Poverty remains a major concern, with an estimated 45 percent of the population below the poverty line, but The World Factbook states that Rwanda’s GDP has grown an average of 7 to 8 percent since 2003.

Much credit for these accomplishments goes to Rwanda’s president, Paul Kagame, who is, to put it mildly, a complicated figure. On the one hand, the authoritarian Kagame has been accused of abusing human rights, silencing opposition, and supporting rebels in the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo. On the other hand, he has kept order in a country that needed it, and according to The Economist, the ambitious Kagame wants to turn Rwanda into an economic hub, a Singapore of central Africa.

Students are eager to interact and ask questions of team members, including John Crawford of Babson Magazine (above) and Sarah Schwartz of Babson Executive Education (below).

The country’s economic growth is evident at the Rwanda International Trade Fair, a boisterous event in Kigali visited by the Babson team. At booths set up across the crowded fairgrounds, vendors blast music and shout into microphones to pitch their wares, which include everything from jewelry, sandals, and tea to construction materials, motorcycles, and solar-powered lanterns. Wandering among the booths, Laura Foote talks with Rwandan companies hungry for customers and foreign businesses eager to break into an emerging consumer market. “I felt a sense of optimism,” says the former lecturer of the Management Division.

Given Rwanda’s promotion of a robust business climate, the nation seems a logical place for Babson to be, especially considering how much the country values entrepreneurship. The subject is taught in Rwanda’s schools, and fostering entrepreneurship to create jobs, wealth, and innovation is a main goal of Vision 2020, the government’s development plan for the future. “It’s an incredible story Rwanda is writing,” Cox says. “To contribute to that story is an incredible opportunity.”

Taking a break from touring, we stop for lunch in Huye (also known as Butare), a city in the country’s south that’s home to the National University of Rwanda. We’re sitting in a cafe that’s inside a grocery store. Matar Supermarket may claim to be a supermarket, but with only a few aisles, it would be dwarfed by an American equivalent. A sign outside promises “Cheers, Coffee, and Fast Food.” How fast, though, becomes a question. As videos by Alicia Keys and Nicki Minaj play on a television, the channel tuned to MTV, we wait for our order, sipping from bottles of Mutzig beer as the minutes tick by. Cox isn’t concerned. Patience is needed when eating in Rwandan restaurants. Waits of an hour for food are typical, and Cox has more than once waited two hours.

Cox says Rwanda isn’t following the typical path of developing countries. It’s not plagued by corruption, and it’s not wasting away aid money. The country has a communal feel, as if everyone were working toward a common goal of a better future. “It’s one of the poorest places on the planet doing things differently and bringing positive results,” he says. “Entrepreneurs break the mold. I consider Rwanda to be an entrepreneurial nation.”

Cox and Smith have done good work in the country. Among other accomplishments, they have increased communication among Rwanda’s entrepreneurship organizations, created a website where entrepreneurs can find business support, and served as national hosts for Global Entrepreneurship Week. But the pair’s time in Rwanda is growing short. Smith, who wants to continue living abroad as a management consultant, will stay until December and help the next two young College alumni taking over as the entrepreneurship center’s directors. Cox is leaving earlier. In just over a month, he will move to Democratic Republic of the Congo with his girlfriend, who works in public health. Congo isn’t as safe as Rwanda, and Cox still doesn’t have work lined up, but he’s keeping calm about what lies ahead. “I pride myself on my adaptability,” he says. Whatever work he finds, it will follow his “guiding principle” of making a difference and leaving something behind.

At the cafe, our pizza and sandwiches eventually arrive in less than an hour. “That was fast,” Cox says.

First Day of School

The Rwanda program concludes with a rocket pitch competition, so as the week goes on, students fine-tune their pitches and practice speaking in front of the classroom.

After sightseeing, the Babson team prepares to meet the Rwandan students for the first time. On late Sunday afternoon, we gather in the parking lot of the Centre Saint Andre, the guesthouse that’s our home for the week. Located in the town of Gitarama, about an hour west of the capital, the guesthouse offers modest rooms with mosquito nets above the beds and showers that sometimes provide warm water, sometimes not so warm. The guesthouse sits next to a Catholic church, its bells chiming out every dawn as light fills the sky. Earlier that day, people wearing their Sunday best streamed in from miles around, most of them on foot, to attend services. Their angelic singing could be heard from our rooms.

In the parking lot, we once again find ourselves waiting, this time for the minibus that will take us to the Byimana School of Sciences. “It’s on Rwanda time,” team members joke as they share last-minute teaching tips with each other. Among the group are Dennis Hanno, Amy Malinowski ’13, and Salisa Napathorn ’14. The three spent the previous week teaching entrepreneurship in Ghana, but because they missed a flight, they endured a grueling 31 hours traveling across the continent to Rwanda. They arrived at the guesthouse only a couple of hours earlier and now, without much rest, were ready to launch into another week of teaching.

The College conducts its entrepreneurship teaching program, known as the Babson Entrepreneurial Leadership Academy, in three African countries: Ghana, Rwanda, and Tanzania. In 2013, three more countries could be added: Tunisia, Uganda, and, due to interest by the U.S. State Department, Kenya. Worried about Somalian refugees in Kenya who may turn to terrorism, the State Department views the academy as a counterterrorism initiative because it can provide hope and opportunity to the troubled population, Hanno says.

Hanno leads these many efforts. He started coming to Africa in 2000, when he worked at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Upon the invitation of a colleague, Hanno visited Ghana and set up a computer center. Unexpectedly, the trip changed his life. Africa became a passion. Hanno now spends about five weeks there annually, and over the years, more than 500 people have accompanied him on jaunts to the continent. This year alone, almost 100 people from the Babson community have volunteered for his Africa trips. He’s grateful for their help. “I don’t forget who comes along with me,” he says.

Students and teachers help Dennis Hanno with an accounting exercise. Hanno, Murata Dean of the graduate school, has been coming to Africa since 2000.

Hanno sees great value in the entrepreneurial training, how it makes African students more confident and empowered. Surveys show that the students’ perceptions of obstacles to becoming an entrepreneur (money, competition, lack of support) drop significantly after the program. Furthermore, he knows how the Africa trips have changed his values. He’s no longer as concerned about material needs. While Hanno is in Rwanda, his daughter in the U.S. texts saying that it’s raining and she can’t put up the top of her Mini Cooper. He texts back, “First-world problems.”

At the guesthouse, the minibus finally arrives 30 minutes late. All 12 team members squeeze into the bus, which struggles in first gear before puttering down the road. After a 10-minute ride, we pull through the gates of the Byimana School of Sciences. The waiting students break into applause, and Brother Straton Malisaba, the school’s finance officer and an adviser to Babson’s program, gives Hanno a hug. “We are honored,” Malisaba tells the Babson team. “We are very happy.”

The students come from 29 schools across the country, and headmasters and parents have been calling Malisaba and pleading that more students be allowed to attend. Babson’s program is the right course at the right time for Rwandans, who are starting to search beyond farming for new ways to make a living. “Everyone is looking for opportunity,” Malisaba says. “We have no oil. We have no minerals. We have to create our own wealth. We create through knowledge.”

Under humming fluorescent lights, the students sit on benches in a plain auditorium painted green. Chirping crickets can be heard through the open windows, and as in many places in Rwanda, a portrait of Kagame, captioned “His Excellency,” looks on from the wall. Standing in front, Hanno pulls out a Babson flag. “We need to fly the Babson flag,” he says. “Babson is in the house.” Introducing himself and the Babson team, he lays out the plans for the week and talks about the College, his experiences in Africa, and, most important, entrepreneurship. Quiet and attentive, the students nod their heads as he speaks. “Entrepreneurship is power,” he says. “How can it change you, your family, your nation, and the world?”

Questions and Answers

For the rest of the week, the Babson team settles into a routine. Every morning, we gather for breakfast in the guesthouse’s dining room, where pictures of Pope John Paul II hang on the wall and random American movies such as Rocky and Angels in the Outfield play on the TV. After eating hard-boiled eggs, sweet bananas, and bread covered in chocolate spread, we climb aboard the minibus and head to school. Along the way, we pass farmers tending their small plots of land. With no modern machines to help them, they work hard under the bright sun.

Rwanda’s rigid educational system emphasizes memorization and the repeating of information back to the instructor, so students are surprised by the give and take they experience with Babson teachers.

At the school, the students are divided into groups and assigned to their Babson teachers. Sitting in classrooms at old, rickety desks covered in names carved in the wood, the students are given a crash course on starting and running a business. As the week progresses, the Babson teachers cover a litany of topics: identifying passions, finding needs in the community, marketing, accounting, public speaking, leadership.

The students are serious. When the Babson team arrives in the morning, they scurry to their seats. When they’re asked a question, the students give it careful consideration. If a class runs late, no one is anxious to leave, even if lunch is waiting. “They’re focused,” says Laura Bucci ’09, MBA’13, assistant director, Alumni and Friends Network. “They want to learn as much as they can.”

For the students, the give-and-take discussions they have with the Babson teachers are a new experience. Education in Rwanda typically focuses on memorization and repeating information back to the instructor. “I didn’t think it would be like this,” says Chantal Marie Umuhoza, 18. “I didn’t know I could communicate with the teachers. I like it so much. In Rwanda, you can’t talk with teachers like that.” The students take advantage of this openness. Curious about America and the lives of the Babson team, they ask questions about a dizzying array of subjects, from the personal to the political and everything in between. They ask me about President Obama, about what church I attend, about how many children I have and will I have any more, about winter and what it’s like, about what I studied in college, about my job, about how much housework I do, about whether I’ve been to Africa before.

The week isn't entirely devoted to entrepreneurship, as students and teachers make time for fun, games, and frivolity. One evening, the students put on a talent show. Another evening features a spirited basketball game between them and the Babson team.

Walking across the basketball courts on the way to lunch one day, I talk with Vincent Igirimbabazi, 17. He’s asking various questions, and eventually he comes to a big one. In careful English, he asks, “What is the difference between Rwanda and the U.S.?” In one form or another, this is the most common question I hear, and it is a hard one to answer. Figuring out what to say to Igirimbabazi, I think of Rwanda's beauty and the strength of its people, but mostly, my mind dwells on the genocide and the poverty I’ve seen. I tell him, “I was lucky to have been born in the U.S.”

The students, though, try not to linger on the past or the problems of the present. Yes, they were born during a time of indescribable heartbreak, but their lifetimes also have seen tremendous growth and ambition in Rwanda. “I see a country where people can do anything,” says William Ngizwenayo, 18. “I want to be an entrepreneur. I see opportunity.”

“Our future is the best one,” says Jeanne D’Arc Niyomahoro, 17, who dreams of becoming a doctor and perhaps opening her own hospital and pharmacy one day. She wants to help people who were maimed in the genocide, such as her Auntie Claire, who lost her leg. “She is so beautiful,” Niyomahoro says. “I love her so much. I want to study to help her and those similar to her.”

A Time for Goodbye

The program finishes on Friday afternoon. Throughout the week, students have been fine-tuning rocket pitches, and now the best ones are delivered in the auditorium. With the Babson flag hanging on the wall behind them, students propose ideas for a video production company, a movie theater, a hardware store, a computer school, and a business that delivers food by motorbike. “Keep that passion,” Hanno advises the students. “Don’t ever lose it.” In attendance are United Nations officials and a Rwandan TV crew, as well as about two dozen entrepreneurship instructors from Rwanda learning how to better teach the subject. The learning by rote common in the country’s schools is not conducive to entrepreneurial education, so the teachers are studying the more hands-on Babson approach as part of a pilot program that eventually may be expanded across the country.

Besides the rocket pitches, Friday is a time for goodbyes. In Malinowski’s class, the students huddle in a circle, with their arms around each other, and Malinowski asks what they will take away from the week. On the blackboard of Foote’s classroom, someone has written, “We love you, Laura. We’ll miss you so much.” All over the school, students hug, promise to email, and express their gratitude to Babson. “We are so pleased that you have taken such a long journey, to a small country like this, to improve our knowledge,” says James Kabano, 20. “We will affect others from the knowledge you gave us.”

For the Babson team, a long journey home awaits, and there is much to reflect on. When thinking of Rwanda and the many people I met, my mind turns to Diane Kirabo. Late one afternoon at the school, as the sun descends, we talk near the statue of St. Marcellin Champagnat. An orphan, Kirabo tells me that her mom passed away in 1999, and that after living with her aunt for a while, she has lived with her older sister since 2003. Other details about her family are left unsaid, and this being Rwanda, I don’t ask further questions.

Kirabo is 21 and set to graduate high school in a few months. She is eager to travel and work in tourism. “I am hungry to know the world,” she says. Kirabo watches the Disney Channel and envies the carefree lives of the American teens—Hannah Montana, the Jonas Brothers—on the TV shows. “I love their life,” she says. “They’re free. They’re independent.” Kirabo’s sister, though, is overly protective. Kirabo may be 21, but her sister doesn’t want her roaming too far away.

In a way, Kirabo’s problems are universal. She’s a typical young person longing for more freedom and the chance to explore. But this is Rwanda, and things are complicated. I picture Kirabo’s sister, who has served as protector in a world too often gone wrong, and I can understand why letting go would be hard. “She loves me,” Kirabo says. “She’s scared.”

Despite the pain of the past, Kirabo persists in looking to the future. And so, when I think of beautiful Rwanda, I think of her.

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A Babson team travels to Rwanda to teach entrepreneurship, along the way discovering a nation, though haunted by heartbreak and tragedy, that’s hopeful about the future.

By John Crawford

Photography by Jonathan Torgovnik

 

A Tour of Rwanda

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Senior editor John Crawford shares photos and stories from his African trip.

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Rwandan students and Babson volunteers talk about what entrepreneurship means to them.

Babson Rwanda Entrepreneurship Center