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February 15, 2008

The Case Method Makes Room for Africa

Ryan Petersen ’08
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Over the past decade, leading African business schools have adopted the traditional case method. But how much can students really learn from these cases when they are about American companies that routinely leave Africa out of their operating plans altogether?

So during winter break, I was one of 30 CBS students who traveled to Africa to write case studies about successful entrepreneurial businesses on the continent. (See previous posts here and here.)

Our goal was to develop a world-class business school case study about Computer Warehouse Group (CWG). This project presented the opportunity to dispel the myth that there are no sophisticated businesses on the African continent — or worse, that businesses there can only get ahead through corruption.

We knew only that the firm had experienced explosive growth over the past few years, achieving some $100 million in revenues in 2007. We knew the firm was an early reseller for Dell, and that it was an important partner for a variety of blue chip Silicon Valley firms, including Cisco, Sun Microsystems and Oracle. We understood CWG’s strategy to position the firm as a strategic partner capable of delivering turn-key IT solutions for big companies, and we knew that a well-known global private equity fund had made an offer to purchase a minority stake in the company.

And until we got to Lagos, we didn’t have any sense of this company’s culture. Was it a one-man show, heavily dependent on its charismatic founder, Austin Okere? Or did it have people and processes in place to ensure continued growth into the future? Did employees at the bottom live the values expressed by those at the top? Or was it more of a show to impress customers, potential investors or other stakeholders?

To answer these questions about the company’s culture, we interviewed dozens of employees, from the most senior management to the most junior customer service and sales teams.

As it turned out, we couldn’t have picked a better company to lay these stereotypes to rest. The company has thrived in difficult circumstances because of an entrepreneurial culture that embodies the work ethic, personal responsibility and integrity of its founder. The firm has distinguished itself from the competition by consistently delivering on promises to customers and is one of Nigeria’s 50 fastest growing companies.

A rep from Cisco told us that the firm is “probably the most entrepreneurial company in Nigeria, certainly in the most entrepreneurial in IT sector.” The founder of the competing firm, who has since sold his business to a larger international player, expressed similar respect for his former rivals.

Because the case study requires a valuation of the company, we also spent a good deal of time learning about the country’s capital markets in general and the private equity group’s offer in particular. We interviewed senior leaders at several private equity firms, the founder of a local investment bank and high-ranking officials from Citigroup. The information we gained from these meetings was invaluable for understanding the similarities and differences between Nigerian capital markets and those of more developed economies.

We concluded our trip with a visit to the Lagos Business School, a member of the Association of African Business Schools and a huge supporter of our project. The folks there not only linked us up with Computer Warehouse Group at the outset but also booked our hotels and even provided our team with a driver during our stay. The school’s ultramodern facilities and helpful administrators were very impressive. We are excited that our work will help contribute to the world-class institution they are building in the heart of Africa.

Comments

by Asmau Ahmed | February 15, 2008 at 11:47 PM

It truly warms my heart to finally read an article that dispells the stereotypes that often plaques African businesses. It's infinitely more difficult for Africans to convince the rest of the world that there is so much more to us than what the media portrays - corruption, famine, and diseases. It takes forward thinking institutions, such as CBS; and students, such as Ryan and the entire group that visited Lagos, to "lay the stereotypes to rest". Thank you for a job well done! Asmau Ahmed CBS - Class of 2006

by Wole M. Fayemi | February 17, 2008 at 4:25 PM

It is good to see that some are making attempts to dispelling many negative stereotypes and myths surrounding Nigeria. Much of this, I believe, can be blamed upon the media and lay press. Nigeria is by far the most populous country in Africa, and accounts for approximately 1 out of 6 Africans in the world. Yet, when one reviews the media coverage surrounding Nigeria, it is quite sparse, though when it does exist, it is always negative (how many more "internet scam" stories on Dateline NBC can one tolerate?), or other countries are disproportionately covered relative to their populations. If not for "internet scams", the only other reporting one regularly seems to hear about Nigeria is the disruption of oil production in the Delta region by locals who feel they have been, and continue to be, exploited by the oil companies (if nothing else, because it impacts the price of oil in the commodities markets). Though there is a kernel of truth about the corruption which exists, the overwhelming number of people in Nigeria are honest, well educated and hard working. It strikes me as odd that the U.S., and many other countries, strike stronger relationships with other oil producing countries who are openly and publicly against Western values, policies and beliefs, particularly in light of 9/11, the current war in Iraq, and recent development in Venuzuela. It is sad that American must enter Nigeria with preconceived notions and stereotypes which are so negative. As a American of Nigerian descent (raised in the United States), I can say unequivocally that many of these stereotypes, unfortunately, extend outside of the country to Nigerians who reside in America. Until the media's portrayal of this country becomes less slanted, Westerners will continue to view it as a haven for corruption, and a place to be avoided and/or feared.

by Hayley Goldsmith | February 18, 2008 at 3:39 AM

It is great to see that more quality case studies are being written about African companies, especially from US Business School schools. However, we must not forget those cases that are written from within Africa itself. The Case Clearing House (www.ecch.com) distribute high quality case studies from Lagos Business School, WITS Business School, University of Cape Town and others. As these cases are written from within Africa the content is rich with knowledge and perspectives from those living and working in the environment.

by Adebua Babayemi | February 19, 2008 at 6:59 AM

I think more of such bloqs should be posted. There are a million and one positive things coming out out africa that don't get reported. The spheres are quite wide. Talk of sports, business, academics, agriculture,engineering, science and technology e.t.c. Reports about such things should be read about worldwide. I think all in all, we africans need to blow our own trumpets more. No one will do this for us. We should stop "winking in th dark". Great one from CBS. Long live Africa

by RUTH TOYE | February 21, 2008 at 9:49 AM

This is actually not the first and it will definitely not be the last. Nigerians have done greatly not only in Africa, even abroad. Examples are Philip Emeagwali who was named Hero of the Year by Time magazine in 2004. winner of the 989 Gordon Bell Prize ( reputed as "supercomputing's Nobel Prize"), He was a Primary One student in Sapele, in the the western Nigeria (now Delta State). He was extolled by Bill Clinton, former president of the U.S. as "one of the great minds of the Information Age" And described by CNN as "a Father of the Internet." He is among the world's leading research scientists.Some people call him "The Bill Gates of Africa". (2) A woman, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala who has won many awards across the world, including the Euromarket Forum Award for Vision and Courage, three years ago, and was named Hero of the Year by Time magazine in 2004. She has worked with World Bank and back to serve her country- Nigeria. To mention but a few. But what I want to say to you is there is another Philip Emeagwali, Okonjo Iweala -- or hundreds of them --or thousands of them-- growing up in Nigeria today. Nigeria is a beautiful country full of beautiful people.Also check out Africa, Please, don't always go to where there is war and always show us the ugly side of it. As for Computer Warehouse Group, you a'int seen nothing, this is just the beginning,will appear at the world's capital market soon. Watch out! To all Nigerians and Africans as a whole, I hail you, keep flying higher. To CBS, I really appreciate you, Keep doing the good job.

by Chidiebele Iwuchukwu | February 22, 2008 at 1:25 PM

Its Good to see contents like this being made public. Hey Ryan, i owe you a take out once i get to New York. One of the reasons I chose to attend CBS is its perspective on issues. Its willingness to go against all odds to give everyone an opportunity to air ideas in its natural content. Nigeria and Africa as a whole is emerging and with institutions like CBS, Africa would grow out of its image as a poverty stricken continent to a virgin market for the best businesses. Chidi MBA Class of 2010

by Peter | February 27, 2008 at 9:48 AM

To follow on from this brilliant work, i would like to propose a project that might be ineresting for business students to take on. I call it the global consutling model. it is akin to the way new standards (or RFCs) are adopted on the Intgernet or the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers introduce new standard only for adoption by local governments and communities in the developing nations who do not have access to first tier consultants but who have challenging issues that only innovative minds can profer a solution to. Quite simply, the local authorityy puts out an RFI/RFP for issues that they face be it housing policy, education policy, energy etc (with the dynamics on the ground) and the consulting teams answer to this and a panel of stakeholders review response and the best is chosen for implementation in conjunction with the consultants. Surely it is an idea with developing and refining or is it totally unworkable?

by Ryan Petersen | March 08, 2008 at 7:32 PM

Chidi, I would be honored to get together when you get to Columbia! Congratulations on your admission, e-mail me anytime once you're in New York! Ryan

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