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A New Kind of Africa Business Conference

Strolling across the fourth floor of Evans Hall on November 1, you’d find fifty students from seven schools buried in the details of mobile payments regulation in five countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. And another 12 students from business schools in Lagos and Cape Town, chatting back and forth by video, as though there were no such thing as distance learning.

It was an unusual sight for Yale SOM. And within the community of top U.S. business schools focused on Africa, the inaugural Yale Africa Business Practicum was nothing short of a revolution.

For several years before coming back to Yale, I frequented the Africa business conference circuit, both as a speaker and as an attendee. At Harvard, Wharton, Columbia, and other schools, I would sit through panels and network at the well-heeled after party. I departed with a stack of business cards, energized about Africa’s tremendous potential, but never feeling like I had truly engaged.

So I was gratified to hear that Yale’s emerging Africa community had a different model in mind. Last spring, a planning team of first and second year MBAs decided to build a day of creative, collaborative problem solving focused on results for Africa. No stale panels. No uplifting speeches. Half case competition and half workshop, the experience would be interactive and innovative, and produce deliverables for a real company in one day. 

Our first challenge was sourcing a live partner who would understand and support our goals. I tapped the network I’d developed writing a book on technology and business in Africa—explaining our ambitions and asking for a firm that fit the bill. Ory Okolloh, a director of Africa investments for eBay founder Pierre Omidyar’s venture capital fund, responded almost immediately: Zoona.

The more I learned about the company (pronounced Zoh-na), I understood why she had made the recommendation. Zoona is a social business and Omidyar investee with operations in South Africa, Zambia and Malawi. They facilitate mobile payments for underbanked populations (80% of Malawians, for example, have no access to finance), and build franchise businesses for ordinary entrepreneurs. They believe in the “double bottom line”—improving lives using market forces—and leverage cutting edge technology. 

Supporting Zoona was a great fit for Yale’s mission and methods. In fact, leading the case development process, I realized that we were offering the participants the SOM experience in a nutshell. With the help of SOM faculty and law school colleagues, we built a raw case to deconstruct Zoona’s challenges using diverse, real-world perspectives: Competitor, Customer, Employee, Investor, and Innovator. As students from sister schools finished the day—anchored by fantastic keynotes from our sponsors, IBM and Atlas Mara—the feedback was superlative. Participants loved a taste of what it’s like to attend Yale, and the opportunity to put their skills to the test in service of African business.
I’m so proud of the team that took this idea from imagination to execution, and for the Yale Africa community for showing what it’s made of. I’ll be back next year. 

Dayo Olopade ‘15 is the author of The Bright Continent: Breaking Rules and Making Change in Modern Africa.