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June 30, 2009

Tour Report: Hope and Challenge in Africa

Shehab Hamad '11
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This post is part of a series following the “Pre-MBA World Tour,” a program of international trips organized by incoming students in the class of 2011.

Shortly after we began our journey on the World Tour, our South African host took us on a road trip close to the southern most tip of the African continent. The breathtaking setting of the Cape of Good Hope seemed an appropriate point to stop and reflect on the vast inequalities we had witnessed over the first few days of the tour. From the hope and despair of Johannesburg’s Soweto township to the luxury villas and trendy bars of Cape Town’s Clifton Beach, South Africa seemed to represent the full range of potential and challenges that coexist in Africa.

The following travel-filled days — by plane, bus and car ride — were full of discussions about global social welfare and the role of business in achieving it. There was plenty of personal experience to draw on — we have students from Greece, Germany, Egypt and the U.S in our group. Jon Kornik ’11 is working on renewable energy in Africa and Sekher Suryanarayanan ’11 is wrapping up a project aimed at bringing solar-powered lights to Tanzania and beyond. Another group member was reading Jeffrey Sachs’ The End of Poverty, which was an apt book to be passed around the bus on our journey to Kenya. The country is a relative economic success story for Africa, but it is also home to perhaps the world’s biggest slum in Kibera. On the same bus journey, a heated discussion broke out about a Bruce Greenwald lecture attended by Georgios Dimopoulos ’11 and Sekher, who came away with almost completely opposing opinions. We concluded that one of the things we were most looking forward to over the next two years was plenty more intelligent and passionate disagreements!

Traveling in Africa, which is in many ways the world’s final socio-economic frontier, reconfirmed to me that the roles of business and commerce are, in fact, humanity’s true universal languages (step aside pretenders art, music and even love!). Entrepreneurship may take less formal roles but human ingenuity is on offer everywhere you look (street hawkers, foreign exchange touts, Masai tour guides and souvenir sellers) often in spite of, or in outright defiance of, local governments and local laws. I was often reminded of Dean Glenn Hubbard’s “business is social development” phrase.

The following days included a brief stopover in a surprisingly hip Nairobi and a visit with Babafemi Agboola ’11 to the Badagry slave museum a few hours outside of Lagos, Nigeria. A few days later (and just after President Obama’s visit) I found myself retracing the president’s steps alongside Alexander Gordon ’11 and Takayuki Matsunaga ’11 in Cairo, Egypt.

Now, from the historical Middle East to the future Middle East, we’re on to Dubai and Abu Dhabi next and have company visits planned with Google, GE and Mubadala amongst others. The historic events unfolding in Iran mean that portion of the trip will need to be postponed to next year’s World Tour. There’s a sense of uncertainty and wonder about how these economic times will pan out amongst the incoming Class of 2011 but it is more than offset by an infectious mix of ambition and optimism.

Photo credit: Shehab Hamad