Lessons for the business world

Gorilla

It isn’t often that a graduate business class needs to weigh the needs of pygmies and gorillas, but that’s what a Saint Mary’s class called “Doing Business in Africa” led by Professor Linda Herkenhoff did recently as part of a study of sustainable economics.

The unusual research, which was carried out in a remote Bwindi village in southern Uganda, was all part of the coursework for a recent cohort in Saint Mary’s Trans-Global Executive MBA (T-GEMBA) curriculum.

Herkenhoff, T-GEMBA program director, became interested in the pygmies, known as Batwa, when she learned that they had been expelled from their jungle home in 1989 as part of a plan to create a protected habitat for endangered mountain gorillas. Since then, the gorilla population has rebounded from 620 in 1989 to 786 in 2011.

“It seemed that we were protecting the gorillas, but the pygmies weren’t doing so well,” said Herkenhoff, who has a particular interest in sustainability studies and recently received an HSBA Sustainability Leadership Fellowship in Oxford, England.

Although it has been 24 years since the Batwa were forced out of their forest home, they have failed to create a sustainable local economy—perhaps not surprising for a people who never had a monetary system and whose language has no future tense. 

Last March, four students from the class of 22 set out for Uganda to see how they could use their business acumen to help the Batwa.

When they reached the Bwindi area, they interviewed the pygmies and aid groups to gather information for a handful of projects, with the goal of helping the Batwa become more self-sufficient. They investigated opportunities for microfinance loans to spur economic growth and studied the needs of the local hospital to learn how it could become less dependent on outside aid.

They also explored opportunities for eco-tourism, which is negligible in the region, and for exporting local crafts for profit. Then they brought their data home and shared it with the rest of the class, who crafted recommendations and returned to Africa in October to present their business models, which will be carried out by the Batwa.

Although the aim of the class was to learn about real-world strategies to create a more sustainable economy, Herkenhoff said there was an interesting side benefit —the class members also learned from the pygmies about how to work in collectives and how to look at the natural world in a different way.

Western notions of sustainability are not a panacea, Herkenhoff said. “Everything we talk about in terms of sustainability, they were doing in the forest,” she said. “Their whole culture is about being in harmony with nature.”

—Teresa Castle

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