Can MBAs Make a Difference among the Poor?

Micro-Enterprise Development in the Central African Republic

During June 2006, John Terrill, Director for InterVarsity’s Professional Schools Ministries, and Al Erisman, Director for the Center of Integrity in Business at Seattle Pacific University, led an exploratory MBA missions project to the Central African Republic (C.A.R.). Other team members included Francis Friend, Urbana Operations Manager; Susan Tseng, InterVarsity graduate from Harvard Business School, now working in the healthcare industry in New York City; and Ilka Montross, a 2006 graduate from Vanderbilt University’s (Owen School of Management) MBA program.

Our team partnered with Integrated Community Development International (ICDI), a ministry focused on water-well drilling, orphan care, AIDS education and prevention, Christian educational radio broadcasting, and micro-enterprise development (MED).

The purpose for the project was twofold. First, we sought to support ICDI in its efforts to understand more clearly the climate for enterprise development, as well as shape and guide its own micro-enterprise initiatives in the C.A.R. In impoverished countries like the C.A.R., micro-enterprise development is one of the most effective vehicles for spiritual, social, and economic transformation. We interviewed approximately 140 individuals working in business, education (including the IFES group at Bangui University), government, non-government organizations (NGOs), and the church. Our team also met and interviewed villagers and village leaders to understand the unique economic challenges of village life. The final product of all of this research will be an economic assessment of the country and recommendations for next steps for ICDI in the development of its MED program.

Second, we assessed whether work in the C.A.R. could be a viable long-term project for future InterVarsity teams, especially groups of MBA students, graduates, and faculty. We believe it does, and we are tentatively planning to send a team during June 2007. These kinds of projects, which utilize the unique skills, experiences, and training of business practitioners, are part of a larger, growing movement called Business-As-Mission (BAM). Given the forces of globalization in the world, the BAM movement seeks to harness the unique opportunities available to business practitioners for holistic transformation in the lives of people, institutions, and countries around the world. The Open for Business track offered at Urbana 06 is specifically geared to explore such possibilities.

Located in Central Africa, the C.A.R. is slightly smaller than Texas and is completely landlocked. Its capitol is Bangui, a city of nearly 800,000 people.

The C.A.R. (formerly a part of the Federation of French Equatorial Africa) gained independence from France in 1960. With a population of 3.7 million, it is one of the poorest countries in the world and represents one of the most underdeveloped regions in Africa. In 2000, annual per capita income was $310 (US). The Central African Republic is near the bottom of the world in spending on healthcare, education, law enforcement, and other basic human services.

The factors that work against economic development in the C.A.R. are varied and include: government corruption and financial instability, lack of security, the spread of AIDS, lack of medical care, lack of schools, absence of transportation and banking infrastructure, fundamental poverty, and lawlessness. The church, which is quite large (estimates vary from 30-80% of the population identifying itself as Christian), also at times impedes economic progress by focusing exclusively on issues of personal salvation and not on issues of Christian faith and daily life. This result is people going to church on Sunday, but divorcing issues of faith from work on Monday. We heard this from a number of leaders across various segments of society, including Dr. Augustin Hibaile, a former pastor and present Executive Director for CIDEL, a Central African Ethics Forum and Advocacy Group.

To give you an indication of the general instability and financial problems of the government, the Central African Republic has suffered four military mutinies and a six-month war over the last ten years. In addition, our team learned during our visit that retired government workers who paid into social security at a 17% annual rate over many years draw no money at all, and many sources told us that government workers have not been paid a full wage for forty months.

Lack of government financial resources in turn creates security problems in the country — bandits terrorize by blocking roads, ambushing travelers, and pillaging villages. During our visit, thirty-five C.A.R. soldiers were ambushed and massacred by rebel soldiers in N’deli, which sits along a major road connecting Gamboula and Bayanga. Lack of financial resources also leads to inadequate transportation systems. In spite of featuring a railroad on the 10,000 CFA bill (the common currency for six central African nations, including the C.A.R.), there are no railroads in the C.A.R. Most roads are in dilapidated condition (of the 13,700 miles of roads in the C.A.R., only 300 miles are paved), and dozens upon dozens of checkpoints make it nearly impossible to move products to market in a timely manner. We were told that a truck coming from neighboring Cameroon might need to be stopped and possibly be detained at a 100 checkpoints in order to deliver products to Bangui.

Complicating hope for significant economic development is an underdeveloped banking system that is inaccessible to most Central Africans. One report we reviewed indicated that an annual income of $400 (US) was required in order to open up a savings account. This locks out most citizens, since two-thirds of the population earns less than $1 (US) per day. AIDS also takes a terrible toll on the people and resources of the country. In the capital city of Bangui alone, with a population of almost 800,000, we were given an estimate of 100,000 AIDS orphans. Education systems do not offer much hope either. The C.A.R. ranks 168th out of 175 countries in the world on the Human Education Indicator.

Although there are many serious impediments to business, we see signs of hope for enterprise development in the C.A.R. There are good examples of entrepreneurs who are starting and growing business in the face of all these challenges. There is a growing desire by leaders across many segments of society to stand up to the corruption in the country (two deputy ministers told us that two national laws had been passed in the past year to combat corruption). And there are important changes taking place in the educational system as well. Bangui University is introducing new courses in business and entrepreneurship, and the local arts school is introducing courses in marketing to help artists with the business side of producing art.

Micro-enterprise development efforts that result in sustainable jobs, commerce, and small business are welcomed by the people of the C.A.R. and open up numerous doors for the gospel of Jesus Christ to take deep root. Many examples come to mind from the dozens of interviews we held while in the C.A.R. The women of Zako struck us as an especially encouraging example. The village of Zako, about 13 km from Bangui, has about 9,000 people under the responsibility of three chiefs. Six women from this village heard about the research we were conducting, and lacking transportation, walked to see us.

Starting in their village as an AIDS awareness group, the women of Zako recognized that they needed to help meet the financial needs of their families, as the salary of the men was not enough. To get started with an entrepreneurial venture, they taxed themselves, collecting the necessary funds to start a business producing tomato paste, soap, and handbags. They have overcome every challenge before them and have generated a profitable business. Armed with a business plan in hand, they approached our team with the request for a micro-loan to grow their business.

These women are wise beyond their education. They are imaginative in their product and marketing plans. They are not waiting for a handout but are moving ahead for something better with the resources they generate. They readily acknowledged that life in the C.A.R. is hard and dealing with so many orphans is a burden. But they are determined to make progress, and they inspired us.

There are several possibilities for the future. We are recommending that ICDI grow its MED capability, perhaps in collaboration with partners. Education will have to be a strong component of this growth because there is so little business education or experience in the country. One significant opportunity for making a difference in the C.A.R. is to find churches that are open to a more holistic view of faith. Through the church, it is possible to get out the message of the importance of daily work representing the Kingdom of God. This includes both avoiding negative things like corruption in business, and creating positive opportunities for people to meet needs for themselves and their neighbors through good work. One church, in particular, suggested we return and do some training sessions for their members on basic business skills and entrepreneurship.

As a team, we gained so much from our time in the C.A.R. The country has a rich cultural history. Worshiping and celebrating with the Central Africans was a gift that we will not soon forget. It is a country that remains hopeful, teaching us much about trust and faith amid the daily struggles of life and work. The C.A.R. is also a country with many courageous and gifted leaders, and we met many of them in our interviews. They fight for what is right, and they lead valiantly with limited resources and support. Providing a rich environment for the integration of Christian faith and business and the power of economics to enrich lives and bring healing, a mission project focused on enterprise development left our team with a much deeper sense of how our vocations in business are an integral part of God’s plan to bring economic, social, and spiritual vitality to communities around the world.


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