Contrasting textbook Botswana to on the grounds Botswana – kicking off the Study Tour in Gaborone, Botswana

Botswana, here we are! One bright-eyed group of Sloanies from Boston, U.S.A. Happy to be on break in a warm, idyllic small country in Southern Africa, the supposed gemstone of Africa. It was our first full day of the trek, and we were starting big. Our itinerary included visiting an up and coming ag tech farm, lunch with local professionals, meeting the former President Masire (unfortunately he fell sick so this didn’t happen), the former President’s daughters and the U.S. Ambassador and members of the Embassy team at his residence. Dressed in business casual, we were ready to hear on the grounds accounts of Botswana from some of its influential members.

In the morning we visited Langdon Organics Farm, a young and promising ag tech company delivering high efficiency, sustainable and locally grown food products to Botswana. Langdon Organic’s CEO and Founder, Michelle Adelman, greeted us and spoke about starting her business in Botswana. She spoke with disarming candor about her challenges with hiring human capital, labelling a local attitude of “desert lethargy”, laziness and entitlement.

As the first speaker to introduce us to Botswana, her views surprised my classmates and me, contrasting greatly with the view we had developed from class materials. We had formed a picture for a pioneering, almost utopian society albeit needing to develop economic diversity beyond its core diamond industry. We were not expecting to hear such raw accounts of unmotivated locals with poor work ethic.

Providing ag-tech solutions in Botswana was a provocative and strategic choice for Michelle. Only 2% of Botswana’s land is arable and most of the nation’s food is imported from South Africa. Thus, it seemed that Michelle’s business was especially meaningful in the context of Botswana, a land with frequent droughts and almost entirely unsuitable land.

We toured her small farm, learning about her new fodder solution from Australia, a box truck container filled with dripping water and trays of budding seedlings, using only 2% of the water compared to usual feed. Next, we walked into her hydroponics farm; this was a state of the art facility that was good as any in the U.S. It was immediately beautiful upon entering – the facility was one long room with sunlight diffusing gently from above and off the white walls. Rows of leafy greens floated in water trays, followed by rows of vine plants, such as tomatoes and cucumbers, hanging from the ceiling. Our group was mesmerized and took many photos as we explored the rows of lush greens.

We broke off into small conversations for the next hour. I personally had a very interesting conversation with Michelle and the President’s daughter to learn more about their views on the young generation’s culture, work ethics and then about the HIV culture around transparency. Several of my classmates utilized this opportunity to talk to the several local young employees to hear their perspectives. Michelle often called upon her young employees with pointed questions about their perspective, however they would sort of retreat and mumble responses. I couldn’t tell if they were shy or couldn’t critically think or present themselves. Perhaps my view was already embedding judgments I had learned about their lack of talent and drive.

We drove to eat lunch at Cappucino’s Restaurant. During lunch, we broke off into small group conversations with various local professionals who joined us, including banks, development organizations and entrepreneurs. I spoke with a risk manager from Barclays and he confirmed very similar perspectives about the local work ethic and “sleepiness”. He further painted the story for us, describing a local culture around materialism and unhealthy spending habits. Most people, he claimed, used credit to spend beyond their means. Botswana were paid once a month, and shopping plazas were immediately packed with people for several days after until everyone had spent all their money.

Several times, our group drew parallels to Dubai – a society artificially propped up by natural resource wealth with a large central government providing entitlements to its citizens and generating a culture and youth class which was uninspiring. Wow! We were rapidly forming a negative picture of Botswana people’s personal qualities within our first several hours of talking to local professionals.

After lunch, we went to the U.S. Ambassador’s residence to spend the rest of the day. We were welcomed into a beautiful home with a spacious backyard courtyard set up with seats for our speaker events. Ambassador Earl Miller welcomed us with some context – here was a nation of contrasts facing a few critical issues: the need for economic diversification amidst the declining diamond industry, a new Opposition party arising for the first time since Independence and gender based violence amidst some of the world’s highest HIV infection rates.

We listened to a panel led by the U.S. embassy team including the Peace Corp country director, a public relations officer, an economics and commercial solutions consultant and a human rights portfolio manager. They each colored in more information to fill our understanding of Botswana, but of course always colored by a U.S. lens. We learned about increased social media censorship, difficulty of creating behavioral change, targeted initiatives to spur the economy and historical and geopolitical driving forces.

We received news that the former President Masire had fallen sick and wouldn’t be able to join us. We were naturally disappointed, but his two daughters attended and each delivered insightful speeches that provoked our questions and discussions. His eldest daughter spoke about Botswana’s first three presidents, summing their greatest strengths and a favorite quote for each. She painted a picture of pride and gratitude for her country’s first leaders. We juxtaposed this picture with the knowledge that the current President’s end of term was approaching and a new Opposition party was rising.

Before starting the evening cocktail reception, we were introduced to about ten young Botswana leaders including celebrities and entrepreneurs. They introduced themselves briefly and they all sounded passionate, articulate and energized for Botswana’s future.

For the rest of the evening, we were relieved to enjoy ourselves at the Ambassador’s cocktail, a setting that was both casual and posh. A group of 20 or so Executive MBA students from Loyola in L.A. joined the reception too. The courtyard was buzzing with well-dressed young professionals circling around mingling and sipping on wine and beers. As the night advanced, the D.J. picked up the music and declared a dance off between Americans and Botswana. Of course, we were shy at first, but we became more confident and created a big circle for dancing, egging each other into the middle to showcase our most dazzling moves. I was personally mesmerized with amusement and appreciation for Mike G’s youthful dancing. We ended the night in high spirits, laughing and dancing wildly. We signed the Ambassador’s book before departing.

The first day of our study tour in Botswana was very memorable. This experience was already standing out to me compared to my prior travel experiences, by providing me a program and group of people that would help me develop a more robust intellectual exercise of dissecting and understanding the new place I was visiting. The first day led me with two major insights and a new emerging view for Botswana:
• The circle of influence was very insular and connected in this small country of less than 2M population.
• Botswana was not the peachy place we had learned about in class; fundamental cultural and economic issues threaten the future welfare of the nation.

Well that’s a wrap on day 1 in Botswana. #botswanahavefun #sloanbrightlikeadiamond

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