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Ngozi

It’s possible that one day you’ll be walking down a street in Ngozi, a little village fit into the green hills of Burundi in Africa, and you’ll see on your left, a container. You have been traveling around Africa for a bit and you know how things can get reused, so there is nothing strange in seeing an orange cargo container parked in a garden. This one has a door, a window and it’s covered by a nice pergola. But what makes your heart skip is the Harvard Business School logo stacked on one side of the container.

So you cross the street, pass the little fence, dribbling between some furniture spread under the pergola and you are in front of the logo that for two years meant so much to you. From closer in you see that it is hand-painted.

You want to know more about the logo. You enter the door and step inside the container.

Two boys are playing cards using a chair as a table. As they see you, they jump up in surprise. One boy must be sixteen; the other one is just a kid. So you ask about the logo.

The young kid says it’s a brand of a new coke. The sixteen-year-old says, “Sorry, Sir, he’s too young, he doesn’t know anything. This is the brand of a new car, you know, a very expensive one, like a BMW. But if you wait sometime Jacinta will come, she’s the manager, she knows the story of that logo, ’cause she started this shop and she knows everything, sir. Please sit.”

In Africa, time is relative, but your day is free and you take the coke and sit on a table. The container, now it’s clear, is a little shop. On one wall there are jars of jam, well-aligned with handmade labels on them. On the next wall a few shirts and shorts are piled. The rest is full of furniture, small and big. The smell of wood, mixed with the fresh mist of the morning that reflects the green of the hills is energizing.

When Jacinta arrives driving an old car, the sun is already high in the sky and you have been sitting outside, under the veranda, watching the boys welcoming the clients, most of them coming to buy furniture.

The boys run to her, pointing at the visitor, smiling.

Jacinta looks middle-aged. She wears a blue gown-you realize she is a nun. Her posture and mode reveal the spirit of a leader. You stand up and say: “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

A few minutes later you are hearing Jacinta’s story, about her family, her decision to become a nun, and her house, from which she saw thousands of people escape Rwanda in the 1990s, and dead bodies coming down from the river. She talks to you about the bombs of the last years on Bujumbura, Capital of Burundi, 120 kilometers south. She describes her Africa. And sometimes it is a cruel story.

The boys are orphans and Jacinta is a manager of the Businga Orphanage founded in 1920. The container is one of the satellite enterprises of the orphanage. And you know what? This all started with the support of HBS in 2008.

But back to the story, in 1997, she decided to get an academic degree, in order to help her community and country. While most of other nuns were sent to become doctors or nurses, Jacinta decided to become an architect, since, as she says, to be a doctor you need a hospital and someone has to build it. So Jacinta went to Milano in Italy to study at Politecnico for five years.

It’s again a long story-a new language to learn, nights awake to study, episodes of racism, little money, and so many other hard things she went through. But luckily Italy is also the place where she met new people and eventually some good friends. One of them was a student a few years ahead of her, Marco. They became good friends: he helped her with some exams and she tried to teach him French.

After university, Jacinta came back to Africa and her work started, along with lots of adventures. Marco is still in contact with her and tries to help her on architectural and logistic issues.

In 2008 Marco’s fiancée, Rakhi, starts her MBA at the Harvard Business School. There they both become friends with Martina and Gaia and they all share their ideals on social entrepreneurship. Martina has been volunteering in an orphanage in Tanzania before her MBA and she is looking for ways to contribute towards bettering the lives of orphans in East Africa. Gaia has always dreamed of being involved in such a project and she wants to use her time at HBS to explore this new field.

The group of friends starts interacting with Jacinta and a new project is born: to assist the Businga orphanage to become self-sustaining through the development of small entrepreneurial businesses. These businesses will provide stable income sources for the orphanage, which will no longer need to rely on charitable donations or additional resources to improve nutrition, health and education of the children. At the same time they will also offer training and job opportunities for the older children at the orphanage.

Jacinta tells you that a few years ago she had started a carpenter shop connected to the orphanage, but it had never been more than a training ground for the orphans, due do the fact that Businga is very difficult to reach for potential clients. It seemed obvious to business educated people that moving the shop to a more captive area would have been a good way to leverage existing assets and skills to create a commercially viable business. Other resources already existed to build a garage shop just next to the petrol pump in the main city of Ngozi. The orphanage also owned another piece of land in the city that could be used to build a little warehouse where the building materials donated to the orphanage could be deposited.

So many opportunities but so little resources to realize the vision. And just when the dream was coming true the civil war started again in Burundi in the summer of 2008. But Jacinta said that if they were to stop because of the war then we will never do anything in her country. And so the group of friends pursued the dream and started to look for funding.

Well let’s admit it: one of the advantages of being at HBS is that resources are at a much easier reach than for most people. And so the group did not have to look too far. Two very generous contributions came within a few weeks from the Student Association “Community Impact Fund” and from the charity auction of 2009 Section H. Who knew that HBS could have an everlasting impact so far as in Burundi? It takes much less than you think. The Harvard Business School and the Student Association, as well as your own classmates, are always ready to support you for a good cause.

“So-Jacinta continues-we used three containers that an Italian NGO gave us and with the money from the HBS we built this shop, the warehouses and we started the garage. Meanwhile the girls at the orphanage started to produce homemade products and apparel.”

“And the logo-she says smiling-has been painted in 2009 by one nun that studied art. Every year we have to retouch it a little but we are proud of it! Many people ask about it.”

You thank Jacinta for her time and say goodbye. The sun is setting and you walk away carrying a bag of wooden utensils you bought in the shop.

You try recalling Gaia, Martina and Rakhi, because you, too, are of the Class of 2009, but you can’t remember. But then yes, you remember reading something about the Student Association Community Impact Fund and HBS students helping an orphanage in Africa. It was an article in The Harbus.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

Gaia Bradicich has recently joined RIM, where she currently co-manages the Marketing and Sales Business Unit dealing with the major carrier in the Italian market. Gaia has an extensive experience in the Telecom Industry, having worked for Vodafone, Hutchinson 3G, and BT with various roles ranging from finance to consumer marketing. Prior to HBS, she studied Economics and Business Administration at the Universit… del Piemonte Orientale, Novara, Italy (2001).

Martina Cusano is currently working on her business plan to start a company in the fashion industry while collaborating with an emerging fashion designer in Madrid. Before HBS she worked in investment banking in London and spent time volunteering in an orphanage in Tanzania as well as helping emerging designers to launch their business. She studied Business Administration and Finance at Bocconi University, Milan, Italy (1999-2004).

Rakhi Mehra is founding partner of Micro Home Solutions, a social enterprise in affordable housing based in New Delhi, India. The organization’s objective is to bring better design, affordability and community engagement to housing for the poor.ÿRakhi has extensive development experience with CARE, Grameen Bank, Rabo Bank, Jeffrey Sachs’ office at Columbia University in New York. She studied Economics at St. Stephens College, Delhi (2001), and read Politics, Philosophy & Economics at Oxford University (2001-2003) on the Rhodes Scholarship.

October 26, 2009
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