Interview with Mary Shelman, Director of Agribusiness Program, Harvard Business School
By Skye Lawrence, Africa Agribusiness Magazine
I spoke with Mary Shelman, the Director of the Agribusiness Program at Harvard Business School. She discusses with me a unique project called the African Agribusiness Consortium which consists of six African business schools in Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa, Tanzania and Kenya that are developing agribusiness management courses. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation supports the Consortium’s goals of building capacity in the agricultural sector using action learning and case studies specifically tailored to the African context.
Skye: Good morning Mary. Tell me a bit about the African Agribusiness Consortium and
how the curriculum is designed.
Shelman: I’ve had the pleasure of being involved for three years with the Africa Agribusiness Consortium, a group of business schools that are beginning to offer agribusiness management short courses for managers. With funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and strong support from AABS (the Association of African Business Schools), they developed a standard curriculum that can be delivered on a local basis. Many existing business schools do not really understand agribusiness so the AAC is addressing this problem with basic training and agribusiness master classes.
The question is, how do you raise the skill level for those professionals who are already working in these countries? How do you make the courses practical and relevant? It is not just about learning theory from books. It’s about sharing concepts and information that will be relevant and useful to their everyday work.
The curriculum needs to be effective and accessible, but the case studies we use here at Harvard Business School are not accessible to small entrepreneurs. They need local cases on African agribusiness. Today there are only a few of these cases but more are being written all the time, some specifically for this program. Along with case discussions, the courses include learning projects that allow participants to go beyond the classroom and test taking. They also go out and physically look at operating plants, storage facilities and markets. Continual curriculum refinement is key to creating dynamic, accessible courses.
Skye: How are the courses structured?
Shelman: The program is designed as three one-week modules, spread across three months. In between the sessions the participants work on a project that’s very specifically related to their own business. The course is very practical. These are managers that are already working in the field so they can talk about their experience and learning it with their peers. In the process they start to form a network that they can tap into later on.
Skye: Is the private sector involved in these trainings?
Shelman: They’re getting more involved because they are seeing the importance. I’ve heard time and again that talent is the biggest challenge for companies operating in Africa. The trainings are very much case study based with project work involved. The private sector has been training people and seeing that this can have a significant impact. I think there are more partnerships that are evolving. There is a change in the delivery and funding model of these courses going on right now.
Skye: Tell me about the African business case studies you and your colleagues are working on?
Shelman: Sure, myself and two other co-editors—one from industry and the other from TechnoServe–compiled a special set of case studies on African agribusiness success stories. This volume was published in conjunction with the global forum of the International Food and Agribusiness Management Association (IFAMA) that was held in Cape Town this past June. You can find them on the IFAMA website.
What was fun about these case studies was hearing and learning the things that we don’t normally encounter. The common threads in all of the cases were the need be creative to overcome problems and the challenge of scaling up. Everything goes okay so long as you are a small business, but getting the operation to scale has many hurdles. This is where the management courses can play a critical role.
Women have a particular challenge with getting financing to scale up because financing is tied to land titling. Even though women might be doing all of the farming, they typically don’t hold the title to their land- a key piece of collateral to get a loan. Even in many cases where there is clear land title is respected it is not in the women’s hands therefore the decision making power doesn’t necessary move over to the woman involved in the business. There is a serious disconnection between women farmers and access to the resources they need for scaling up production or expanding into value-creating activities, such as processing.
One particularly creative and telling case example is about Lovin Kobusingye, woman entrepreneur in Uganda, who worked with local producers to grow more fish. It turned out they produced more fish, but there was not a market for them, so she goes out and she develops a new product, the fish sausage. This is such a fantastic story because it shows how much the value chain needs to be connected by local people that know the local market. She built a market for a new product as well as creating the product.
This story illustrates the need for the total value chain approach. If you work with the local farmers to produce something you don’t have a market for, you’re in no better shape than where you started, maybe even in worse shape. You need to connect that entire chain.
Skye: What can foreign businesswomen do to work with local African women?
Shelman: I think a woman-to-woman mentoring opportunity to do social investing could work well, something that would be more personal, maybe a program that would match up experienced business women who could provide advice and act as a sounding board to other women entrepreneurs. It is the personal connection that is really effective in building long-term success. It also means that small business owners can get their specific questions addressed.
The challenge becomes, how could you make this mentoring system scalable without losing the effectiveness of one-on-one mentorship? A train-the-trainer model could be the answer. This is what we are trying to do with the alumni network from the recent IFAMA training.
Skye: If there was an African Women in Agribusiness conference what do you think would be some of the panel topics that would be? It sounds like financing would be one.
Shelman: Yes, it is access to capital and financing, access to markets and there would definitely be a panel on how you build a sustainable business. The big question is, how do you cross that gap from getting a very small, basically household-level business to something that’s a viable business.
The biggest challenge I see with the smaller companies and entrepreneurs is not being able to operate to the high quality standard required by processors and supermarkets on a consistent basis, day-in and day-out. If you lose business due to the inability to meet these standards you don’t get it back. Our trainings address this challenge.
Skye: Are these courses going run on a regular basis throughout Africa or in South Africa?
Shelman: Yes. They will run in Nigeria, Kenya, and Ghana, among others. The goal is that they would be offered regularly in different countries and that more countries will be involved and more locations will come online. We are now setting up shorter master courses that may be three days or so. They deal with very specific issues. That’s much more like what we do here at Harvard.
We are still trying to figure out the funding model and delivery strategy. Every delivery module requires faculty members who have a good understanding of agribusiness in order to add the right type of value. You can’t just reach into a business school and pluck a marketing professor out of a business school. They need to have a good understanding of marketing specifically in the agribusiness food chain, for example.
Skye: If a company wanted their employees to be trained in one of these courses what would they need to do?
Shelman: Companies can send their people to attend trainings at various universities across Africa (see African Agribusiness Consortium) where the attendees’ network can start growing. This is how the model works at our Agribusiness Seminar at Harvard Business School. Every year, this four-day executive education course attracts more than 200 participants from all over the world and all parts of the supply chain. By discussing cases with peers from outside your own company, you learn more because they all share their diverse perspectives.
Skye: For our readers who read about the Consortium and say, “This is such a great opportunity. We want to get involved.” Who can they contact for more information?”
Shelman: They would need to contact Dinah Hanson, the Project Director at the Association of African Business Schools. She has really been the driver and chief organizer behind the courses. All are welcome to attend the courses. Usually participants are from NGO’s, managers in companies, or local entrepreneurs. We do a lot of work to arrange a class mix so that participants will get as much out of the experience as possible.
Skye: This is exciting work. It will be interesting to hear more about these courses as they develop. Thank you for your time today.
Mary: Thank you. It was a pleasure.