Even terminal 5 in London Heathrow has only so much entertainment to offer during a 4,5 hour layover, so I’m going to use this time wisely to reflect on my time in Accra, Ghana, which I left just a couple of hours ago. I spent 10 days in Africa as part of the FIELD 2 course at HBS – a course aimed at immersing first-year MBA students in doing business in a developing country.
Students are randomly grouped in teams of six and are assigned to a global partner – a senior executive of a local business. The aim of FIELD 2 is to help the global business partners to develop a new product or service customized to their local market. As such, we allocated most of our time in Ghana to doing market research.
I loved the project I was working on. Our global partner was a Ghanaian toilet paper manufacturer that used to be the only toilet paper company on the market until Ghana was flooded by Chinese imports ten to fifteen years ago. The company has struggled ever since. The goal of our project was to come with innovative ideas to get them out of the ‘shit’ they were in… get it!?! 😉
Because of the nature of the product, the team I was working with quickly became very close. There might not be a better team building exercise than to discuss one’s toilet experiences in detail with others… or to spend hours on markets and slums in and around Accra querying people about what made them choose one or the other type of toilet paper.
Besides the project, I loved spending time with Ghanaian people and trying to understand how they live and work. I remember our very first visit to the toilet paper company, when one of the factory workers took the hand of the manager we were talking to. We figured they were man and wife. Turns out, they are just colleagues – and holding hands is a normal way of showing affection between friends in parts of Africa.
I was amazed by the resilience of the Ghanaians. In less than 10 days, I had two taxis and a bus break down. However, everything got fixed and worked out fine… albeit with some delays…. Delays that actually don’t even matter, as planning transportation in Accra is a lost cause. Traffic is horrific and unpredictable. The same trip might take 20 minutes on day and more than 2 hours the next day. Hence breakdowns are just part of the variability in transportation times. And in the end, we always reached our final destination.
I loved how nice the average Ghanaian is. While most of them live off 50 dollars a month or less, they are very kind and optimistic people. They were so nice that it even interfered with our market research. It happened on a couple of occasions where we would query people on our ‘Rose’ toilet paper brand. Instead of receiving the constructive feedback or criticism we were looking for, they would just tell us that they would switch to ‘Rose’ next time around… just to be nice… but NOT exactly the kind of answers we were looking for to progress with our market research… 😉
Finally, while I might be skeptical about HBS at times, I have adored this experience in Ghana. It was a really unique experience that enriched me in so many ways. Thank you HBS. Thank you Ghana. Bye Bye terminal 5. See you soon Boston!