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Digital solutions for Africa: The 2018 MIT Sloan Africa Innovate Conference convenes at the MIT Media Lab April 7

Africa. In many ways it has a long way to travel to compete as a peer in the contemporary global marketplace. But from another perspective, the population is highly motivated to find solutions to crippling problems and incentivized to reinvent those systems that are barriers to progress. The MIT Sloan Africa Innovate Conference is an annual touchstone for just how far Africa has come and where it goes next.

Ismail Ahmed, WorldRemit founder & CEO, one of the keynote speakers at the 2018
MIT Africa Innovate Conference.

“Digitization for Inclusive Growth” is the theme of the 2018 conference, which is organized by the MIT Africa Business Club and takes place at the MIT Media Lab on April 7. Workshops and panels will evaluate the lessons of the last decade of technological advancement and explore how to leverage digitization to ensure that Africa’s progress is as inclusive as possible.

The conference will feature a Solveathon led by the MIT Solve Center. Teams of entrepreneurs will develop and pitch solutions related to coastal communities, healthcare, education, and the future of work. In addition, panels will delve into the most intractable challenges that countries on the African continent still face—challenges that require strategic innovation on a grand scale. Those panels will include investigations into:

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MIT and China partner to plot the growth of future cities

Where is the city going? What is the future of “urban?” How can we increase quality of life, solve transportation and energy issues, and provide affordable housing for millions of forthcoming city dwellers? MIT and China are partnering to find answers with the new Future City Innovation Connector (FCIC), which will be headquartered in a new space called the MIT China Future City Lab.

MIT and Tsinghua University in Beijing have established this revolutionary collaboration to support research and startup teams that will develop leading-edge ideas that address the challenges presented by China’s rapidly growing cities. As a result, the partners hope to develop new models for urban living and infrastructure that address issues of urban resilience, health, housing, environmental sustainability, responsive urban management, and the development of smart cities.

The FCIC will draw upon MIT research to identify innovative concepts and technologies that can be implemented in China. The program’s founder and faculty director Siqi Zheng is the Samuel Tak Lee Associate Professor of Real Estate Development and Entrepreneurship in MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning and Center for Real Estate. She is also a visiting professor at Tsinghua University.

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More than one way to be multinational

Global expansion is a core goal of many major corporations, but some are beginning to rewrite the multinational rules of the road. With 300 locations around the world, General Electric (GE) is one such pathfinder, recently rethinking which functions should be regionalized and which should remain local.

Global Operations Executive Leader, Oleg Bodiul, SF ’13 took on the vast transformation role as part of a GE leadership team tasked with creating a global shared-services organization that would centralize many of the company’s key functions, including accounting, finance, and commercial operations.

Among the top 100 firms in the world, GE is a digital-industrial player providing software-defined machines and solutions for markets ranging from aviation, power generation, and oil and gas to renewables, healthcare, and financial services. “Historically, functions like accounting and order management were performed in hundreds of locations around the globe. The objective was to centralize, where possible, into a few locations to leverage scale and deliver better outcomes for our customers, employees, and shareholders.”

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Smart phones are outwitting poverty

Alexander Graham Bell would be astonished at the power of today’s smart phones. Yes, the app that makes it possible to find a Starbucks along an unfamiliar highway can feel like a miracle, but the true revolutionary power of the telephone is felt most in developing countries. In Kenya, for example, the mobile phone has, to some extent, stabilized the economy for many citizens and transformed quality of life.

Nearly all Kenyan households own at least one mobile phone—not state-of-the-art smart phones, but phones “smart” enough to accommodate at least one M-Pesa account. Available to any customer of Safaricom, Kenya’s mobile network leader, M-Pesa is a money transfer service that allows a daughter at one corner of the country to send money safely and securely to her mother in a village seven hours away. Previously, she would have entrusted an envelope of cash to a bus driver heading to her mother’s village (at considerable risk) or relied on a money transfer that took days—and a daunting amount of red tape—to process.

Of course, to withdraw funds through an M-Pesa account you must have access to an agent who can disperse the cash. Happily, in response to the popularity of M-Pesa, the network across Kenya has mushroomed to 150,000 agents. Working with Innovations for Poverty Action, Associate Professor of Applied Economics Tavneet Suri, a native Kenyan, and her colleague William Jack have been tracking incomes in regions where new agents have opened for business. They compared the financial health of those regions with that of regions where agents are not as accessible.

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African Governments Must Inspire New Enterprise

Local governments across Africa should make every effort to promote entrepreneurship, says Flavian Marwa, SF ’10, but they shouldn’t enter the risky business of picking and backing winners. Founder of Sebelda Global Development Advisors and a consultant for the World Bank Group’s Africa region, Marwa is responsible for developing sustainable models of technology-based startup incubators with a focus on Africa.

“When governments provide seed money,” he says, “new enterprises tend to rely on it rather than learn to compete in the real marketplace. They lose their incentive to make it work when they know they can get capital infusions from the government.” Marwa believes that governments can best promote a healthy enterprise culture by partnering with industry to create mentorship programs. “Governments need to facilitate connections between young entrepreneurs and seasoned business leaders who can help them anticipate and navigate thorny patches,” he says.

Marwa also stresses the importance of promoting a healthy lending climate. He notes that government investment is critical, but not straight-out subsidies. “It costs investors a relatively steep sum of money to write a loan, and that discourages them from making the small-scale loans that would be appropriate to help a startup.” He believes that governments can offset loan origination costs with incentive programs—and similarly provide economic perks in the form of tax breaks or subsidies to motivate established businesses to invest in new enterprises.

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New Zealand marries indigenous wisdom and worldliness for enterprise success

How does an isolated nation like New Zealand become a major player in the international marketplace?  The short answer is that they know how to weave. Lynne Dovey, SF ’02, who has spent the last four decades working for the New Zealand government in a range of policy roles, notes that the nation’s remoteness has inspired Kiwi entrepreneurs to embrace new ideas from around the world through trade relationships, scientific collaborations, and commercial partnerships.

But the country has a prodigious store of indigenous wisdom, Dovey says, and that knowledge is a vital part of the mix. Dovey says that the New Zealand government promotes a culture of entrepreneurship that leverages proprietary knowledge in areas that have become the nation’s province like biosecurity, healthcare, earthquake science, and renewable energy. Into that approach it integrates a healthy dose of ancient, homegrown Māori wisdom, the body of knowledge first brought to New Zealand by the Polynesian ancestors of present-day Māori. Woven together, these components have made for a thriving enterprise climate.

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The world is watching—and emulating—this Latin American innovation hub

“Work hard and keep your head down—that’s Chile’s unofficial motto,” says Rocio Fonseca, SF ’14, executive director of Start-Up Chile. “The goal of the average Chilean is to get a job working for a corporation.” Fonseca adds that small and medium-sized businesses in Chile are not innovation driven. “They tend to err on the side of playing it safe—and that complacency curbs growth and evolution. Chile is not an entrepreneurial culture.”

In 2010, the Chilean government launched the ambitious enterprise accelerator Start-Up Chile to help it turn that national attitude around. The program helps early-stage, high-potential entrepreneurs bootstrap their startups using Chile as a platform to go global. With an annual portfolio of 200-250 companies, Start-Up Chile has fast become the best business accelerator program in Latin America and is counted among the top five worldwide. It’s also the cornerstone of Chile’s national economic development strategy.

Start-Up Chile is actually a collection of three programs: a pre-acceleration program for early-stage enterprises, a seed program for startups with a functioning product and early validation, and a follow-on fund for top performing startups looking to scale up in Latin American and globally. With robust training programs, workshops, peer-to-peer mentoring, and a busy calendar of networking events, Fonseca fosters a fertile environment that connects Chilean innovators with early-stage, high potential entrepreneurs around the world.

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Social responsibility must be a team effort

You’re a founder of a new enterprise and one of your top priorities is social and environmental responsibility. Your management team, however, can’t think of anything but the balance sheet.  By year’s end, your bottom line is healthy, but you don’t feel your new enterprise has contributed much to society.

It’s a common dilemma that comes down to a core disconnect that many founders don’t think to look for when pulling together their C-suites. But compatibility surrounding worldview, ethical issues, and dedication to social responsibility can be as important to the success of a business as professional qualifications.

Gustavo Mamão, SF ’11, founder of the Brazilian startup Flourish, which guides entrepreneurs in the creation of mission-driven organizations, has always focused on businesses that demonstrate how a company dedicated to a better world can also be profitable. But it’s an ethic, he says, that the whole management team must get behind. “The extent to which a business embraces sustainability and environmental goals is something that should be decided among founders and investors in the earliest days of the enterprise.”

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Robert McKersie merges management theory and activism

What does advanced management theory have to do with social and economic justice? Everything, according to MIT Sloan Professor of Management Emeritus Robert B. McKersie. In his latest book, A Decisive Decade: An Insider’s View of the Chicago Civil Rights Movement During the 1960s, McKersie reveals how his convictions and his scholarship merged on the front lines of historic events in the civil rights movement—strategy sessions, marches, boycotts, and negotiations.

Robert McKersieMcKersie is best known for his pioneering work in industrial relations. His groundbreaking publications include A Behavioral Theory of Labor Negotiations (with coauthor Richard E. Walton) and The Transformation of American Industrial Relations, honored with the George R. Terry Award by the Academy of Management as the most outstanding contribution to the advancement of management knowledge in 1986. McKersie’s Strategic Negotiations: A Theory of Change in Labor-Management Relations (with Walton and Joel E. Cutcher-Gershenfeld) has been used effectively in the Northern Ireland peace process as well as in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

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East Africa: A Fertile Entrepreneurial Frontier

flavianmarwa_HeadshotThe African continent is, in many realms, an untapped frontier, and many global business analysts believe that one of those areas is entrepreneurship. “East Africa, in particular, is very green ground for basic entrepreneurship,” says Flavian Marwa, SF ’10. “Here, it’s more important to execute a simple idea well than to come up with an idea that no one has thought of. You don’t have to be a sophisticated technologist to take advantage of this environment.”

A consultant with the International Finance Corporation (IFC), an arm of the World Bank Group, Marwa uses his insights into the continent to advise the IFC on how African countries can implement policies that stimulate the creation and growth of small and medium enterprises (SMEs). “The idea is to bring in the private sector as much as possible. We know this approach leads to sustainable development. To be effective, however, policies to support SMEs also must address impediments in the value chain of targeted sectors.” Impediments like the skills gap, lack of mentorship, and information asymmetry.

Marwa says that leaders who are committed to a robust education system—from primary to secondary to university levels—will enable their citizens to develop a keen eye for opportunities and empower them with the skills to launch businesses. He notes that in Tanzania and other East African countries, the IFC is encouraging multinational companies to collaborate with universities to develop curricula that are relevant to what is actually happening in industry.

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