Each semester, the Ronnie K. Irani Center for the Creation of Economic Wealth (CCEW) assigns high impact projects to interdisciplinary teams of undergraduate students, one of which focuses on social entrepreneurship. During the Fall 2016 semester, CCEW’s Social Entrepreneurship team was tasked with facilitating the expansion of the Zimbabwean company Educate. Educate provides Zimbabwean students with needed microloans for the tuition and fees to attend school. Educate’s business model is built for the typical Zimbabwean: it caters to the informally employed (over 70% of Zimbabweans), and relies on flexible payment plans for families with irregular income, like farmers. Over 60% of Zimbabwean students attend private school because government schools are sparse and of poor quality. Culturally, education is considered of the utmost importance. Thus, quality private schools pose a significant but necessary cost. As a direct result of said cost, more than 40% of Zimbabweans drop out between primary and secondary school. Zimbabweans also experience serious liquidity problems; frequent bank runs prevent families from withdrawing more than $50 at a time from ATM machines, and not without fees. Educate’s unique financial services allow students to receive the valuable education that will help spur social and economic growth within the country.
Our project focused on developing a growth plan for Educate, which addressed internal changes and new relationships with schools. Internally, we recommended new marketing strategies that Educate could use to reach a wider audience. Externally, we created a focused list of new schools with which Educate could partner. Additionally, as part of a wider financial expansion plan, we contacted regional investors with whom Educate can potentially partner for new capital. These recommendations were based upon an entire semester’s worth of research, including interviews with NGOs, embassies, schools, banks, and MFIs. We compiled our recommendations into a thirty-page document, so that Educate could reference our research in the future.
A trip to Bulawayo, Zimbabwe was extremely helpful in verifying our recommendations and their implementability. In fact, experiencing the economic environment was the final seal of validity we needed for our research. During the semester we could communicate frequently with Educate, contact several of their partner schools, and research the Zimbabwean education system online and by phone, in-person conversations are infinitely more valuable for such detailed research. In Bulawayo, we were able to meet with the other members of the Educate team to walk through our final report and discuss the specifics of the growth plan. We had the opportunity to meet with 12 partner schools and conduct in-depth interviews, which led to new recommendations, and improvements to original ones. Not only did these visits strengthened Educate’s relationships with their partnering institutions, but several schools also gave our CCEW team very frank feedback, which they surely would have never told Educate’s own staff.
Among the schools we visited was Whitestone primary school. We interviewed Cleo, the school’s bursar. She described the standard financial situation of her school’s families: parents will be a late paying tuition, because their paychecks are late, because their employers are waiting to be paid, and so on, and so forth. Cash is limited, and with sixteen currencies in the country, a solution is anything but simple. Financial difficulties piggy-back, until families are eventually incapable of affording their children’s school fees. During our interviews, we observed a remarkable patience in the Zimbabwean people, particularly in their schools. Cleo expressed trepidation in regards to the recent introduction of the USD-based bond note, but with a persistent hope for improvement. We observed consistently impressive curricula despite the surrounding difficulties. Girls College, an all-girls secondary school, teaches their fourteen year olds Python in their computer science courses. Students prepare for top universities in China, the United States, South Africa, and the United Kingdom.
As a result of these extensive interviews and first hand experiences, the trip to Bulawayo added significant value to our project with Educate. It thoroughly validated our already extensive research, and we are confident that Educate will enact our recommendations and consequently experience substantial and efficient growth.
The trip also added value to our own education by providing us with a truly unique international experience. None of us had ever visited any country in Africa, and our daily interactions in Zimbabwe introduced us to countless political and cultural differences. After stepping off the plane outside the Bulawayo airport, immigration almost refused us entry into the country because of suspicion regarding our trip’s purpose. The government is wary of foreigners and their power to produce “propaganda.” An airport employee instructed us to step aside, while he investigated and confirmed our trip’s purpose. This exchange was an introduction to the intense presence of a dictatorial government. A portrait of President Mugabe hung in every business and school, even though many in the country oppose his rule. President Mugabe is entering his twentieth year in office. The people’s frustrations amplify in the midst of an economic crisis in which people have little to no access to cash, jobs are scarce, and those who do have jobs hardly receive paychecks on time. Rampant corruption means police roadblocks around every corner, with officers demanding petty fines for doubtful violations. The only people who seem to be secure are those employed directly by the government.
Zimbabweans’ patience is interesting; through various conversations with Zimbabweans, we learned that most would rather wait silently and hope for change than protest and risk conflict or war. They attribute their prioritization of peace to education. Their powerlessness certainly shed a new light on the current American political conflict. We were in Bulawayo during the Presidential Inauguration, and consequently we had the opportunity to hear a lot of Zimbabwe’s perspective on the transition of power in the United States. Needless to say, visiting a country that has endured colonization, several severe economic crises, and the regime of one, unending President provides a certain level of perspective for those of us who have been privileged enough to live in a far less volatile environment.