Patricia Griffin on the business challenges and entrepreneurial opportunities of Africa

About a dozen years ago now, I had an opportunity to work on a project with a young, precocious engineering undergrad at the University of Michigan by the name of Patricia Griffin. Our lives have taken us in different directions over the course of past decade, but we’ve always done a pretty good job of keeping track of one another’s whereabouts, and up-to-date on what the other is up to. I’d send pictures of the offspring that I’d spawned, she’d send photos of kitchens that she’d demolished, and we’d exchange pleasantries. Well, a few years ago, she moved back to Michigan to get her MBA, and, now, she’s off again, living in Africa, and making plans to launch a company of her own. As I thought you might be interested, I asked her if she’d mind being interviewed. What follows is our exchange… If it doesn’t come through in the interview, I’m incredibly proud of everything that she’s achieved thus far, and looking forward to hearing great things from her in the future.

MARK: When you went back to school a few years ago, to get your MBA, what did you envision as your career trajectory? I ask because, when I knew you as a kid, I thought for sure that you’d find yourself doing something relatively dry, and, to be quite honest, boring (from my perspective), like industrial operations consulting. Granted, it’s been well over ten years ago now, since we first met, but I remember you as being extremely meticulous and focused. And I got the sense that you knew were you were headed, career-wise. At any rate, I wouldn’t have pictured you, after getting your MBA, heading to Africa and implementing tree planting initiatives… I do, however, seem to recall that you grew up on a farm, so maybe it’s not all that surprising… So, I guess what I’m asking is, are you surprised to find yourself in Africa, and, assuming the answer is yes, what do you attribute it to?

PATRICIA: When I went back to school a few years ago to get my MBA I was planning on being a Plant Manager in my own manufacturing company in the auto industry somewhere. That trajectory would’ve married up my IOE skills and my MBA nicely and sated my desire to do something entrepreneurial. However, during business school you might recall that Ross sent me to Uganda for my MAP. This tweaked my career trajectory. In Uganda, I was tasked with fixing a rural hospital’s supply chain management of their pharmaceuticals. After only 7 weeks the hospital stopped stocking out of drugs, and patients stopped dying unnecessarily. That was my epiphany: I realized I could go back to Ford Motor Company and eke out 2 seconds of productivity on the Mustang assembly line, or come to a region of the world where my skill set is rare (and desperately needed) and make the world a better place. I decided to pursue Operations Management in the Base of the Pyramid at a startup trying to scale their services and systems. I was fortunate to find such an opportunity in Nairobi, Kenya through LGT Venture Philanthropy iCats Fellowship and have since moved onto the 2nd opportunity at KOMAZA.

MARK: While at U-M, you studied under C.K. Prahalad. I’m familiar with his work, but I never had the opportunity to work with him. (Prahalad passed away unexpectedly two years ago.) I was wondering if you could speak a bit about “Base of the Pyramid” philosophy, as he taught it, and how, if at all, you’re now seeing it in action, on the ground in Africa?

PATRICIA: Yes, I was in Prahalad’s last Strategy class that he taught before he passed away. His class was what inspired me to take the plunge into the BOP space. Sitting in Strategy class with Prahalad and discussing business for the BOP made the philosophy sound exciting, glamorous, and a bit altruistic. Now that I’m on the ground, and actually implementing some of those strategies, the task is daunting, and rarely glamorous.

When I first arrived, I was working at a private, for-profit educational institution based in Nairobi offering primary education to slum children. I found myself slopping through two feet of mud & sewage after a night of rain, to reach one of our schools that bordered a polluted river that constantly spewed its contents into our school’s playground. Another time, I awoke to a phone call that our HQ office had been burglarized and all the laptops stolen. We eventually determined that the perpetrators were employees who had colluded with the security company to steal all of the laptops. We never recovered the laptops and the perpetrators are still at large nine months later because the judicial system is so slow and incompetent.

Yet despite all the daunting realities on the ground, most days I look forward to getting up and going to work. I no longer have to be self-motivated to go to work because the mission and vision of the company is motivating enough in itself. Being inspired by my career is worth every sacrifice I’ve made to be here. I feel privileged to be in this space because not many people can say their life’s work inspires them.

MARK: I have a dear friend who travels quite often to Africa and speaks of the resourcefulness and entrepreneurship of the people. We were, for instance, just talking about a rural entrepreneur who is building small solar fields for the charging of cell phones. And, he’s told me several times of people using their mosquito nets for fishing, and any number of other non-intended purposes (sometimes leading to less than optimal health outcomes when it comes to malaria transmission). In terms of infrastructure, I think it’s safe to say that the United States is far ahead of Africa, and, clearly, there’s a lot that you and others can teach the people of Africa about modern business practices and the like, but I suspect there are lessons that we could learn from them as well. Are there any instances that you can share where you thought, “Wow, that’s a great idea”?

PATRICIA: Absolutely! I see the ingenuity and resourcefulness of Africans all the time. Out of necessity, they are some of the most resourceful & entrepreneurial people I’ve met. The book titled, “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind” is a perfect example of this in action. My favorite example of this is the company EcoPost.

They also have to be creative in how they attract investment. No one is willing to take a risk and give Africans credit or capital, so they must find ways to create their own opportunities. They create savings and credit cooperatives (SACCOs) all over the countryside with groups of 10 or more, and start small businesses with the $2 cash infusion they receive each time it’s their turn to receive that week’s investment. Whereas an American can just go to a bank and take out an unsecured loan, the African market barely even has credit cards. That’s why Kiva is so popular. It’s one of the few ways Africans can get a loan and not be charged exorbitant micro-finance caliber interest rates.

MARK: You mentioned, in an earlier email, an apple-like fruit that grows on the cashew tree in Africa. As a business person, when you see something like that, does it immediately strike you that there may be an opportunity here for an export business that could employ local people, help raise the standard of living, etc?

PATRICIA: Absolutely. Yes. I see business opportunities all day long. I’ve recently started writing all of my ideas down, so the list is growing by the week. I’m reminded of when Prahalad said that he was trying to teach us opportunity-sensing instead of problem-solving. I definitely sense opportunities around me all the time, like the cashew apple. I’m already in the process of getting my own LLC registered in Kenya so I can eventually, finally convert these opportunities into businesses that will employ local people, help raise the standard of living, etc.

MARK: Speaking of creating economic opportunities for the people of Africa, we’ve never had this conversation, but, judging from our exchanges, I think it’s pretty clear that you aren’t in Africa to get rich. Would it be safe to say that you’re there because you have an interest in setting up systems, through which, the people in your region can begin to better provide for themselves? Is that the ultimate criteria by which you’ll determine whether or not your time in Africa has been successful?

PATRICIA: Yes, exactly; I’m not here to get rich. If I’d wanted to get rich, I would’ve stayed in the US and taken a job in the auto industry, paid off my mountain of grad school debt, and been socking money away in my Roth IRA. (As it is, I’m probably going to pillage my Roth IRA to bootstrap, and get my business in Africa started.) I’m here to help develop the region and make the world a better place by setting up systems that can help people provide for themselves and participate in the global economy without relying on fickle donors or aid organizations.

MARK: My site doesn’t have a great many readers. On a good day, I can get about a thousand people to stop by for a few seconds, if only to scowl and roll their eyes. So it’s not like I’m offering you any great platform from which to address the nation, but I do want to ask what, if anything, you think that folks in the U.S. should know about Africa and its people.

PATRICIA: I wish more of my fellow US citizens would step foot on the African continent and experience it for themselves. There is no substitute for engaging with the place directly on its own terms. For those who can’t, or won’t, engage with it directly, I suppose sharing my experience will have to suffice….

I knew to expect reverse culture shock when I returned to the US on vacation for the first time since moving to Africa. I wasn’t sure what feelings would accompany this shock though…. Before commencing my vacation, I suspected I might become disgruntled with the wealth disparity I already knew existed between Kenya and the US. But this wasn’t the case. I think that two years of business school has made me enough of a capitalist entrepreneur that I didn’t feel an overwhelming urge to take money away from the rich and give it to the poor. Honestly, that doesn’t help anybody anyway; it just creates a culture of dependency. Mostly, I felt sad for my fellow Americans because the overwhelming impression I got was that we seem to be searching for fulfillment and meaning in life through materialism. As a Kenyan friend said to me, “Y’all have to invent new (and sometimes even hazardous) forms of entertainment just to keep yourselves and your money occupied.” It hit home how true that is. The meaning and fulfillment I’ve found in serving others in Africa more than compensates for the house, car, lawnmower, garage, and other material wealth I gave up to come here. Material wealth doesn’t satisfy, it just creates more responsibilities, headaches and heartaches for its owners. One of my favorite quotes says: “Success is getting what you want, but happiness is wanting what you get.” I wonder how many Americans are happy with what they’ve got….? Judging by the container ships in the port of Mombasa dropping thousands of bales of Goodwill donations, I’d say not many.

MARK: I don’t know if you’ll want to answer this, but I think it’s safe to say that there’s a great deal of corruption in Africa. At least, I’ve heard a number of horror stories, for instance, about vaccines being donated, and then, somehow, ending up on the black market. I was wondering what advice you might have for other MBAs who might be looking to follow in your footsteps and apply their trade in Africa, when it comes to navigating corruption.

PATRICIA: Yes, corruption is a problem. I experience it first-hand quite frequently when trying to make purchases on behalf of my company. Procurement & distribution practices are quite vulnerable to corruption due to the fact that we work in a cash-based society. Another common form of corruption is greasing the hands of government bureaucrats to get them to do their jobs. Because politicians & bureaucrats wield so much power, common folk are at their mercy and therefore regularly pay bribes. My practical advice to other MBAs who follow in my footsteps: 1) realize that this is the reality on the ground, 2) learn from experienced others about the innumerable scams, so you are not surprised when they reach out and bite you, 3) be patient with the inefficiency of the systems and the incompetence or outright impunity of those running those systems because the minute you become impatient is when they’ll see they have you over a barrel and ask for a bribe.

My philosophical advice to other MBAs who follow in my footsteps: ask yourself what systems are needed to curb corruption at its root cause. Think about how power can corrupt if left without any system of accountability. Even Barack Obama isn’t given power without a system of Congressional checks and balances. So for us to drop off a container-load of donated pharmaceuticals (a large infusion of power) but not put any kind of accountability system in place to ensure those pharmaceuticals reach the intended recipients is a failure on our part.

And the root cause of that failure is the fact that we don’t fully understand the people or the problems on their own terms. For instance, donating pharmaceuticals to a person who can’t even feed their children in the first place is backward. That family will immediately sell the pharmaceuticals on the black market to feed their children. I call upon Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to guide us in prioritizing what needs must be met first. Basically, those who have reached Maslow’s self-actualization pinnacle are trying to help those struggling to meet physiological needs. It’s difficult to understand the chasm between these divergent worlds without actually seeing it with one’s own eyes, hence my call for more fellow citizens to visit Africa themselves.

MARK: What’s next for you?

PATRICIA: I’m trying to get my own social enterprise started to turn some of those opportunities I’ve sensed into actual income-generating activities for the people in this region. It’s taken me 4 months to get the company registered and probably another 4 to get the government bureaucrats to do their job and give me a taxpayer identification number. Nevertheless, I push on in the hope that I can economically empower more people and make the world a better place.

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  1. Edward
    Posted April 5, 2012 at 6:01 am | Permalink

    I wasn’t prepared to wake up this morning to have my assumptions about University of Michigan MBAs challenged.

  2. Delilah
    Posted April 5, 2012 at 7:35 am | Permalink

    Working in Africa is great. Working in Ypsilanti is better.

  3. anonymous
    Posted April 5, 2012 at 9:53 am | Permalink

    Maybe I’m reading too much into your comment, Delilah. Are you suggesting that it would be better if she were here, in Michigan, building things and creating jobs? If so, I think that your criticism might be better directed elsewhere. A huge percentage of U-M MBAs go into investment banking. They essentially get wealthy shuffling around derivatives and selling investments that they know are shit. They create nothing of value. Only money. And they don’t do it in Michigan. At least this young woman is working for the greater good. I think that’s to be commended.

  4. Posted April 5, 2012 at 10:02 am | Permalink

    I work at the UM business school now. I can personally say that the lady interviewed in this article is not alone. There are some really quite amazing and well intentioned people at Ross, students, staff and faculty.

    My perception of the B school and of the private sector in general has changed radically snide I started working there.

    Good work.

  5. Posted April 5, 2012 at 10:02 am | Permalink

    Since not snide

  6. Meta
    Posted April 5, 2012 at 10:16 am | Permalink

    Don’t ask me how I know this, but there’s a talk at the B School tomorrow, hosted by the William Davidson Institute, on African health care.

    The managing director of a private equity fund that invests in African healthcare companies will talk about the need for a new development paradigm as part of the WDI Global Impact Speaker Series at noon Friday, April 6 in Room 1230 at the Ross School of Business.

    Onno Schellekens, managing director of the Investment Fund for Health in Africa (IFHA), will give a talk, “When Markets Fail: The Need for a New Development Paradigm.” The talk is free and open to the public. Refreshments will be served following the talk.

    Africa is positioning itself as an attractive market for alternative investments because of its GDP growth, improved political stability and increased foreign investment. This private sector development is crucial to achieving a better healthcare system in Africa. Still, investing in healthcare in Africa remains risky, and Schellekens will detail the challenges IFHA faces during his talk.

    IFHA makes small to medium size equity investments in private healthcare companies in Africa. It is dedicated to improving the social, environmental, and development impact of its portfolio companies, which predominantly focuses on those active in pharmaceutical supplies, health insurance, private hospitals and laboratories.

    IFHA gained investments from Pfizer, International Finance Corporation (IFC), African Development Bank (AfDB), FMO (the Dutch development bank), APG (a large Dutch pension fund), Goldman Sachs and SIFA (a financial vehicle fueled by grants from large corporations such as Shell, Heineken, Unilever, Aegon, Achmea and SNS Reaal).

    Read more:

  7. Knox
    Posted April 5, 2012 at 10:18 am | Permalink

    Thank you, Peter, for finally acknowledging that the snide comments you leave on this site are uncalled for.

  8. Posted April 5, 2012 at 10:43 am | Permalink

    No problem.

    As for Africa, it’s a great place. I agree with Patricia that people in the US really have no idea what’s going on over there.

    Whenever I travel, I am always floored by how completely exciting the world is, and at how resourceful and motivated the poorest of the poor really are. People in Kenya and Malawi are incredibly excited by technology, novel means of application and are constantly inventing and reinventing new tools and new methods with which to use old tools.

    I think that all Americans should be given a free trip to countries like Malawi, Kenya, Ghana, Angola, Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, South Africa, Mozambique and everywhere else. I guarantee that all will feel incredibly humbled by the experience.

    Here in the US, we are just continually treading water, trying desperately to maintain a standard of living that uses antiquated and inefficient models. In developing countries, people are working from the bottom up, creating new and exciting ways of generating money to do simple things like send their kids to school and create ways of accessing basic health care. They have nowhere to go but up.

    It makes me incredibly sad to hear people focus on Africa’s problems, without ever having visited the place or even interacted with Africans. It’s a wonderful and exciting place.

    As for the B-School, the same is true. Even people on the UM campus are largely ignorant of what goes on over there. There’s great work, Prahalad’s work is just an example.

  9. Tommy
    Posted April 5, 2012 at 11:49 am | Permalink

    Africa is positioning itself as an attractive market for alternative investments because of its GDP growth, improved political stability and increased foreign investment? I would argue that Africa is positioning itself as an attractive market for alternative investments because of its …. raw materials and natural resources that have yet to be exploited. Political stability just means there is a better chance of paying off the right guy.

    Regardless, keep up the good work Patricia!

  10. j
    Posted April 5, 2012 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

    Agree with all sentiments above. Just two quibbles.

    “… I didn’t feel an overwhelming urge to take money away from the rich and give it to the poor. Honestly, that doesn’t help anybody anyway; it just creates a culture of dependency.”

    Why is this never said about Wall Street, or our corporate bosses? “I’d give you more of the fruits of my labor, but I wouldn’t want to create a culture of dependency.” It’s a little absurd to ascribe a “culture of dependency” to those doing the work when they demand that the leaches give back some of what they have appropriated.

    I have also met a good number of Ross people doing good things. Unfortunately, the vast majority of their peers fit the B-school stereotype.

  11. Posted April 5, 2012 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

    Actually, resource exploitation has been happening in Africa for centuries. The most unstable areas are the areas that are the most exploited and the least likely to profit off of extraction operations. Extraction firms desire instability.

    The more politically stable countries are the ones best able bargain effective contracts and reinvest earnings from sales of raw materials. Think, Botswana.

    Political stability comes with accountability and the participation of the electorate along with true representation in government. No political body is perfect, however.

  12. Anonymous Mike
    Posted April 5, 2012 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

    I was interested.

    The cashew tree, Anacardium occidentale L., is called marañon in most Spanish-speaking countries, but merely in Venezuela; and caju or cajueiro in Portuguese. The true fruit of the tree is the cashew nut resembling a miniature boxing-glove; consisting of a double shell containing a caustic phenolic resin in honeycomb-like cells, enclosing the edible kidney-shaped kernel. An interesting feature of the cashew is that the nut develops first and when it is full-grown but not yet ripe, its peduncle or, more technically, receptacle, fills out, becomes plump, fleshy, pear-shaped or rhomboid-to-ovate, 2 to 4 1/2 in (5-11.25 cm) in length, with waxy, yellow, red, or red-and-yellow skin and spongy, fibrous, very juicy, astringent, acid to subacid, yellow pulp. Thus is formed the conspicuous, so-called cashew apple.

    You had me at “caustic phenolic resin in honeycomb-like cells.”

  13. Patricia
    Posted April 10, 2012 at 12:15 am | Permalink

    Hi Delilah,

    I’m not sure exactly what you meant by the comment about Ypsilanti vs. Africa either. When I moved to Africa my friends asked why I wasn’t willing to stay in my home state & create jobs there because Michigan needs jobs too. To that I responded that unemployment in the US is laughable when compared to unemployment rates in Kenya of 60-80%. The need is greater in Africa so that’s where I choose to help. Yes, I agree, Ypsilanti and Michigan need jobs too and that’s why folks like Mark Maynard are there converting university-spawned technology into business opportunities. For the time being though, I’ll stay in Kenya and try to bring unemployment down to below 50%.

  14. Posted April 10, 2012 at 7:03 am | Permalink

    Keep up the good work, Patricia.

  15. Posted May 26, 2013 at 8:37 am | Permalink

    Sounds like it’s about time to check back in with Patricia. I just received the following note from her.

    “Almost ready to buy machines to process coconut fruit and open my factory.”

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