Thursday, May 24, 2018

Big, Hairy, and Audacious


A truncated version of this story appeared on the cover of the January/February 2017 edition of Stanford magazine. The information included below was current at that time.

T
he trip to Psaltry does not fill one with an overwhelming sense of optimism. First, you must escape from Lagos and its 20 or 25 million people. For miles, your car jerks forward in stop-and-go traffic and then screams down eight- and ten-lane freeways bordered by luxury malls, athletic stadiums, office buildings, slums, single-story shops, apartment buildings, gated communities, and every kind of parking lot and open market imaginable. In a game of suicidal Whack-A-Mole, hundreds of school children, market women, and people on their way to work dash, dodge, zig and zag directly in front of your car for want of crosswalks and pedestrian bridges. Every 200 yards or so you just miss hitting another municipal worker as she sweeps the highway shoulder clean with an indifference to the passing mayhem that would impress Dr. Seuss’s Sneelock. Then, suddenly, without warning, the highway narrows, the pavement ends, and your car bottoms out. Repeatedly. The freeway has become the Ho Chi Minh trail—only without the jungle canopy. Semis, taxis, tankers, private cars, tractors, police cars, motorcycles, busses, military vehicles, and jitneys flop wildly from side to side as they lurch forward through chassis-swallowing craters of hardened mud, never ceding a millimeter to anyone. 

This bumper-to-bumper, fender-to-fender conga line lets you examine a post-apocalyptic, Mad Max world. People and commerce are everywhere. Vehicles ooze past one another like blood cells fighting to get around a coronary clot that needs a quintuple by-pass. Except for the occasional private car, there’s nothing on four wheels—or eighteen—that doesn’t look like a Demolition Derby veteran just released from the Marquis de Sade Body Shop.

Back on good road, you’re again moving too quickly to catch the small-print details of billboards like the one advertising “Shit Business is Serious Business.” You’ve already driven past several of Nigeria’s super-sized mega-churches—churches that can hold a quarter of a million, half a million, a million congregants on any given Sunday. Places that make Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church in Houston look like an AM/PM. How does anyone survive here, you wonder. How does any government govern this?

Now on a quiet, two-lane rural road you breathe calmly as you cruise through scrubland and low forest. Every ten miles or so—maybe every five—you are stopped by a soldier or a policeman and asked for papers. A bantering discussion hints at the need for a dash—a small bribe, or gratuity if you like—when a discrepancy is found between the number on your car’s engine and the one listed on the registration. You begin to think that corruption—after petroleum—might be Nigeria’s most important extractive industry. Eventually—with smiles and no money exchanged—you are waved through. The telephone lines have disappeared. The power lines are gone. There is no traffic. There appear to be no people. Now you are in pure bush.

Down the road a bit—at the speed of a California rolling stop—you slide through an immigration checkpoint that is improbably located 50 miles from the nearest international border. You will do so three more times today, mainly exchanging friendly waves with the men on duty. The fourth time through, however, you find yourself in hot pursuit by six of the same men, all of them brandishing AK-47s. “Who are you‽ Why didn’t you stop‽ Where’s your passport‽” they demand as if they’ve never seen you before. Although we are 750 miles from where the Boko Haram has been terrorizing northeastern Nigeria and 300 miles from where the Niger Delta Avengers have again been behaving badly—kidnapping oil workers, blowing up pipelines, killing Nigerian soldiers—the men explain, after seeing my passport, that these days they need to be extra vigilant. A Jamaican woman traveling in the car with me says she’s never been more scared in her life. That says something. The annual murder rate in the United States is 3.9 per 100,000 inhabitants. In Nigeria, it’s 10.3 citizens. In Jamaica it’s 36.1.

At last you reach the turn-off to Psaltry, which leads you from the middle of nowhere to the center of nowhere. The factory looms on the horizon, high above freshly turned fields. Halfway there, a Peugeot 404 pick-up—once the ubiquitous work horse of rural Africa—blocks the dirt track, its small engine propped on the front grill. Three men—their clothes, hands, and faces covered in grease—stand around waiting for a colleague to return with the part they need. They’ve been waiting for three days. 

You—if you’ve been lucky and missed the worst of Lagos’ notorious traffic—have made the trip to Psaltry in just under four hours. You’ve gone 100 miles. It’s a trip that has done nothing to undermine the hackneyed, etched-in-stone, NGO-donation-solicitation-reinforced, thousand-times told “single story” about Africa—a story just told once again here—of a continent mired in war, poverty, civil strife and dysfunction.

Who, you wonder, would ever have started a multi-million dollar business out here.

I
t’s “a nice round figure,” Bob King says of the $100 million he and his wife Dottie initially planned to give Stanford. As word got around campus about the Stanford Institute for Innovation in Developing Economies—which would be headquartered in the business school—other schools wanted in. To make that possible, the Kings upped their ante to $150 million. They consider it an investment, not a gift.

Devout Christians, the Kings are deeply troubled by the increasing worldwide disparity between the haves and have-nots. They also are also firm believers in the power of free markets and capitalism to transform society. “When I think about how incredibly fortunate we have been over our adult lives, business careers, whatever,” Bob King says, “We feel we are called to be a blessing to others." The return they expect on their investment in “Seed”—as the Institute is commonly known—is to “solve poverty by job creation.” Seed will do this by providing intensive training and support to established entrepreneurs, making it possible for them to up their game by orders of magnitude and vastly expand employment opportunities.

Among other activities, Seed also supports academic research which Faculty Director Jesper Sørensen expects to produce “fundamental breakthroughs that will transform the way we think” about problems in the developing world and how they relate to poverty. Another ambition is to make Stanford “the leading research university for thinking about the challenges of poverty in the developing world.”

These are big, hairy, audacious goals worthy of the Business School’s motto: “Change Lives, Change Organizations, Change the World.” In their philanthropy, the Kings say they are “intentional” and “results oriented.” They would like to see Seed lift half a billion people out of extreme poverty—generally considered to be those living on something less than $2 a day—by the 2030s. “It’ll be after we’re gone,” says Bob, who is 81, while sitting next to Dottie, who is 80, on a sofa in their living room in Menlo Park. “But that’s okay.” 

In the history of the world, no institution and only one nation has ever raised up so many in such short order; China—where the Kings’ already considerable wealth was bolstered significantly by an early investment in Baidu, China’s homegrown version of Google. China—without the pesky distractions of democracy—managed this unprecedented achievement thanks to Deng Xiaoping’s Open Door and the country’s “one child” policy, which helped limit overall population growth since 1978 to about 30%. During the same period, the population of sub-Saharan Africa tripled from around 350 million to more than a billion. Estimates for 2100 range from two and half to four billion people, more than half of the world’s population today.

“If you look at the dimensions of the problem, no way can you get there with $150 million,” says former Seed Executive Director Tralance Addy. According to his calculations, the King’s goal is attainable—but it’s going to take more money. A lot more. Maybe a billion. Maybe more. Still, in the world of international development, lifting half a billion people out of extreme poverty for a billion dollars would constitute a bargain and an amazing success. Since 1960, Ghana and Nigeria—the two countries where Seed has been most active—have received the equivalent of more than $70 billion in foreign assistance, much of it to little enduring effect. Former Seed coach Hans Nilsson says the development money floods in and “evaporates.”

Announced in 2012, Seed got off the ground a year later with the launching of the Stanford Transformation Program (“STP”) in Accra, Ghana at the Institute’s first overseas center. The timing was auspicious. Two recent cover stories in The Economist had featured “Africa Rising;” one was graced by a giraffe with a neck shaped like the rapidly-rising growth curve of a Silicon Valley unicorn and the other with a child pulling a high-flying, rainbow-colored kite cut in the shape of the continent. Experts from the World Bank and IMF noted that high rates of return on investments in Africa could soon have the continent following “in the footsteps of Asia.” Few of them, however, seem to have given up their income-tax free, high-paying, low-risk jobs in Washington to move to Africa and give it a go.

E
mmanuel Kitcher is a compact bundle of energy who radiates optimism with a warmth that rivals the way the Sun warms the Earth. Kitcher—who had a long, successful career in Ghanaian industry before becoming Seed’s first Regional Director—views Africa’s economic potential through glasses ground in the “Silver Linings” school of optometry. Once people’s needs are met and their material problems solved, opportunities for businesses to make out-sized returns become harder to find. By this way of thinking, opportunities in Africa abound because consumer demand is only just ramping up and so much of everything is still in short supply. Kitcher expects 80% of the companies participating in Seed to takeoff. “I like the challenge of ‘impossible,’” he says as a way of explaining why he signed on with Seed. 

STP consists of intensive, MBA-style, executive education spread over six months when leaders from participating companies gather in Accra—and now in Nairobi at a center opened in May 2016—to attend seminars given predominantly by Stanford Graduate School of Business faculty and to network with peers from across the region. In Seed “1.0,” companies received up to a year’s worth of intensive, hands-on, “high-touch” coaching from seasoned business people like Nilsson who typically volunteer 12 to 18 months of their lives to advise, cajole, motivate and buoy the spirits of Seed companies across their regions. 

“You almost live with the companies,” says Geoffrey Otiendo, a Kenyan and former director of Nokia, of his experience as a coach. Despite the coaches being “incredibly motivated and incredibly passionate,” Sørensen says the challenge is that it's expensive to recruit them, support them, and—because of the intensive nature of the coach/company relationship—“they don’t scale,” which restricted the number of companies Seed could accept. It’s a bottleneck that Seed “2.0”—rolled out in September 2016—is expected to resolve. 

Now, instead of the coaches, locally hired facilitators, supervised by Kweku Fleming, work with Seed companies in between weeks of STP training to bring staff members up to speed on the gist of what their bosses are going over in class. Many CEOs get “swallowed up” by the day-to-day at work and hardly have time to teach the STP curriculum to others. This is where many business development programs fall down, because although they teach “the talk,” they don’t help companies “walk the walk.” If—after STP—companies revert to form, “Then you haven’t achieved anything,” says Tralance Addy. Faculty Director Sørensen expects Seed’s use of facilitators to free up time for coaches and to “bridge the gap” between knowing and doing, between book knowledge and applied action and changed behaviors at STP companies. 

Not every businessperson is striving for the kind of success that will them bring champagne wishes and caviar dreams says Emmanuel Kitcher. “Many are already content.” When Seed approaches them and says, “You can be a regional leader. You can be a global leader. You can employ large numbers of people and help eradicate poverty. You just need to scale up, to transform” this does not make everyone “jump up.” Many wonder if Seed is seeing the same reality that they do. “We knew it was not going to be an easy mission, selling this dream.” But for those for whom the message does resonate, it seems to resonate powerfully on a life-changing frequency.

Mrs. O. T. Aderinwale, CEO of Justrite, a Nigerian chain of big box discount stores, says that after an STP module on design thinking “My brain just opened… I became a changed person.” It had taken her 11 years to open her second store. In the last three years, she’s opened four more, and plans to open another 36 by 2021. Prior to participating in STP, Femi Oye, co-founder and CEO of SMEFunds, says he’d been working for months on a plan to open four new outlets. Subsequently, his company didn’t open four, but twelve, which, he says, previously would have taken four years. They did it in 12 months.

According to former coach Jerry Hudson, a problem with Seed 1.0 was that too many of the companies selected were too small, too young or insufficiently committed to benefit in a cost-effective way from what Seed had to offer. In Seed 2.0, “high touch” coaching is extended to STP companies based on leadership skills, on their potential for innovation, revenue growth, expanded employment and profitability, and on their application of the managerial techniques covered during STP. In another significant change, participation in STP now costs; $5,000 for the training and $5,000 for the coaching, considerable amounts for businesses at the smaller end of the range that qualifies them for participation in Seed—$150,000 to $15 million in annual revenues—but still heavily subsidized. Constantin Salameh extended his commitment to Seed for a second year and relocated from Accra to Nairobi. “Ultimately you need to charge. If (the companies) get it for free... they won’t value it the same.”

As of November 2016, 23 coaches, 23 Stanford faculty, eight regional lecturers, and 160 companies had participated in the STP; 134 in six West African cohorts and 26 in the first East African cohort. Seed expects to open its next center sometime in 2017, either in Southeast or South Asia. Longer-term plans include opening three or four more centers to expand the Institute’s reach and to facilitate “south-south” networking and the cross-pollination.

Y
emisi Iranloye had heard it over and over again. “It’s not going to work. It’s going to fail.” After all, how could a city girl and 40-something mother of two who had never lived in a village—“Not for one day!”—build a food-grade starch factory in the back of the Nigerian beyond? There was no water at the site. The nearest electricity was 10 miles away. She’d need technicians and young professionals willing to work far from any bright lights other than the stars at night. Plus, she’d have to convince hundreds of semi- and non-literate farmers to change age-old practices for them to be able to supply her with sufficient quantities of raw material, cassava. And she’d have to give up a steady job as the COO of a major Nigerian agricultural processing company. Even her parents didn’t believe it would work. None of the naysaying got to her. In 2012, she built a small house atop a huge granite dome from where she would be able to overlook—and oversee—the company’s and farmers’ fields, demonstration plots, farm settlements, and her factory. Because Iranloye thought the word—found in the Old Testament and almost nowhere else—sounded sweet, she named her company Psaltry. 

Four years later, Psaltry’s factory—where capacity has already been doubled—is profitable and produces between 20 and 30 tons of cassava starch a day for buyers like Nestle, Heineken and Nigerian Breweries. The company has 200 employees and 10,000 job applications in its database. Hundreds of farmers supply the factory and are paid through a mobile phone banking app. Twenty thousand others have requested training. International food companies want Iranloye to replicate her model in other African countries. She’d like to do so first in other parts of Nigeria. What she wishes is that her own government had supported her the way it did in a program to resettle highly-experienced white farmers, who had been run off their landed in Zimbabwe by Robert Mugabe. Once in Nigeria those farmers got roads, power, loans, tax holidays and more—“Ev-er-y-ting what they would not give their own farmers”—and still nearly all of them failed. With similar backing, Iranloye says Psaltry would be ten times ahead of where it is now. “Where is the level playing field?”

Despite her success—and that of many Seed CEOs—every day Iranloye and her STP colleagues must lean in at angles that would have highly regarded, serial entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley looking up from the pavement wondering what had hit them. Iranloye spent half a million dollars to bring electricity from the national grid to the plant site. It works so sporadically that it’s now a backup for her back-up generators, which she must run days on end at a time. In 2016, when Nigeria—despite being Africa’s largest oil producer (and the 13th largest in the world)—was running out of refined fuel, Iranloye faced the prospect of no grid power and no diesel for the generators. “It was hell,” she says.

Or take the case of GHS, an affordable housing company operating in and around Accra. When they decided to open GHS, husband and wife Baffour and Benedicta Osei had never heard of William Levitt, the white, Jewish builder whose eponymously named suburbs in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania transformed the American way of life after World War II. They hoped to do the same thing for Ghanaian expatriates and middle-class families in the predominantly agricultural suburbs of Accra. Trying to do so from London, they lost over $100,000 on land deals gone bad and nearly lost their home as well. Baffour gave up a promising and secure job with Bechtel working on the London subway system and relocated to Ghana.

By 2013 GHS was on a roll. The Osei’s plan to build 2,500 homes on rezoned agricultural land 40 minutes out of Accra might just fly. Then, in February 2014, with no warning, the Bank of Ghana closed its foreign currency window. Bank loans, if you could get one, rose to 3%—a month.

Nearly all of GHS’s buyers received their salaries in Ghanaian cedis. Yet GHS homes had been priced in dollars. Overnight, the nominal cost of GHS’s homes quadrupled. Clients’ salaries, which hadn’t changed, no longer were sufficient for mortgages they had arranged. The result was devastating. In 2013, Baffour and Benedicta had sold 128 houses. In 2014, they sold three.

Then there’s the case of DrugStoc, a Nigerian drug distribution company, where co-founders Adham Eyhia and Chibuzo Opara, MD, have been planning the “health care revolution” of the poorly regulated medical and pharmaceutical industries since they met in 2009. Now their start-up must overcome deeply entrenched credibility issues in a country where as many as 70% of all drugs on the market are either substandard or out-and-out fakes.

And there’s the incredible situation that confronted Justrite CEO Aderinwale in 2016, when the Nigerian naira began to plummet against the dollar. In an instant  she started hearing from her suppliers almost continuously. Why? Because many of them were adjusting their prices upward—three and four times a week.

Doing business where such events are the rule and not the exception is “not for the faint-hearted,” says Victor Oduguwa. After 20 years of industrial and corporate experience in the U.K. and Nigeria, Victor Oduguwa was at the top of his game but bored. As a black man in England, he knew “there’s always going to be a ceiling and the ceiling was there.” But what troubled him more was the never-ending discussions about what was wrong with his homeland. “One thing you will get amongst people of color—intellectual people of color—we are very good at articulating our problems, but we are a little bit short on finding solutions to these problems. Or the guts to do it. That's a problem.” In 2004, he returned to Nigeria. It was two years before his wife decided to follow him.

At MTN/Nigeria Oduguwa was responsible for putting up thousands of cell phone towers all across Nigeria. It wasn’t enough. He wanted to prove a point, that even with all the enormous challenges it faces, Nigeria—and perhaps all of Africa—can become the powerhouse that has been predicted for decades. So in 2012 he gave up his high-powered, high-paying job with MTN (a South Africa multinational) to go into what he says Nigerians call a “laughable profession,” something to do when you are retired; chicken farming. 

In fact, Oduguwa isn’t just in the egg and poultry business. He’s also in the compost/fertilizer business as he works out the best option for the nine tons of manure his birds produce every day. Everyone said he was crazy—including Abiola his wife and now business partner who has degrees in microbiology, bio-informatics, and drug discovery and artificial intelligence from the U.K. At MTN, Oduguwa was at the top of his game. “I was comfortable. I was safe.” But his life was mapped out for him until the end of time. “I didn’t want that.”

With a sweep of his arm, Oduguwa, who completed the Global Management Program at Harvard and has an MBA and a PhD in engineering from the UK, says, “This,” NationFeeders—the business the Oduguwas started in 2012 on family farmland an hour outside of Lagos—“is a real case study.” Like Yemisi Iranloye, the Oduguwas started without water, without roads, without power. Oduguwa likens running a business where so many of the structures that are taken for granted elsewhere are missing or don’t work to “trying to stand on water.” For most entrepreneurs in the so-called “third-world,” failure simply isn’t an option.

“It’s a badge of honor to fail in Silicon Valley,” says former Seed coach Clinton Etheridge, who first went to Africa in 1970 as a Peace Corps volunteer. “If you go out of business in Africa, it’s your extended family (that) is going to suffer.”

Emmanuel Kitcher says that Donald Trump, long before he ever got close to the situation the Osei’s found themselves, would have declared Chapter 11. In West Africa, Kitcher says, “There is no book. There is no chapter.” You simply have to do whatever is necessary to survive. The Osei’s credit former coach Andrew Meade with helping them pull through. In his own career, Meade had experienced the wild swings of the construction and real estate industries and could share with them the lessons he had learned not just on a white board but also in the hard, cold, unforgiving reality of concrete. “It isn’t like we are such geniuses,” Hans Nilsson says of the coaches’ ability to bring real world lessons into play. “It’s just 30 years of learning stupid things that we stumbled on to... If you’re 34, you just don’t know.” Former coach Noelene Hosking says that had she been faced with so many things that are beyond any individual company’s control at a similar stage in her 30-year career she might well have given up.

Y
emisi Iranloye sometimes notices visitors poking their heads around Psaltry’s offices and factory as though looking for something they expect to find but cannot; the white or Asian expatriate who is running the place. Even Nigerians are surprised when they learn that Psaltry is owned and operated solely by locals. “We have refused to believe in ourselves,” Iranloye says even as she herself exudes the confidence of someone who would not be daunted if commanded to part the Red Sea and lead her people—peasant farmers—to the Promised Land.

Her comment about the lack of self-confidence among her compatriots is one I heard over and over again when I sat in on week three of the STP in Accra and met with 15 Seed CEOs over the course of sixteen days last July in Ghana and Nigeria. 

Samuel Agyapong Appenteng and a brother started their own business after their father—a serial entrepreneur—passed away. Divvying up the three companies their father left behind for his 22 children was just the kind of situation—albeit with more complicated arithmetic—that is a common source of demise for family firms everywhere. Now Appenteng is the managing director of Joissam, a well-drilling and water service company based in Accra. He remembers being told and taught as a child that everything African was inferior. He shakes his head recounting how many Ghanaians still believe that the only solution for their country is to be recolonized. Decades of handouts and ineffective government have created an atmosphere of hopelessness and disempowerment for millions of ordinary citizens who have been “developed” into dependency. In their collective 118 years of independence, Ghana and Nigeria have had 27 governments between them, 11 of which were brought about by coups, assassinations, or both. Leslye Obiora served as Minister for Mines and Steel Development under Nigeria President Olusegun. She says that by the time one government gets settled in, the plans of previous ones “have grown legs and run away.” The combined effect is made clear by one of the most oft-repeated statistics in development economics; that in 1960 Ghana’s per capita gross domestic product was higher than South Korea’s. Now it’s about one-twentieth of Korea’s. 

Though the physical, financial, and structural challenges facing Africa may appear to be daunting, it may be entrenched cultural and psychological practices that present the highest, though intangible, hurdles. 

“We've outsourced our ability to think for ourselves,” says Alex Adjei Bram, who, in 2005, co-founded SMSGH—a rapidly growing, apps developer—with his best friend from high school. They’ve since surpassed $10 million a year in revenues and their 80-plus employees will soon outgrow the office building they put up in downtown Accra.

Bram says that what he sees happening in Ghana and elsewhere in Africa reminds him of what a school teacher told him and his classmates long ago: “You’ve grown, but you’ve not developed. You haven’t learned anything about yourself.” This lack of a national and continental vision is one that Obiora, now a law professor at the University of Arizona, underscored at the 2016 Stanford Africa Business Forum. 

“We've not really built that national identity, let alone had a conversation about who really are we, where are we going, and who do we want to become,” she said. If Nigeria and other African nations continue racing head-long down the western, consumer-based model of development, they risk losing “the cultural heterogeneity and uniqueness of our people” which will be a “tragedy.” “We're going to be this hodgepodge of wannabes.” When, over lunch, Afua Tetteh, a Ghanaian researcher at the medical school, hears that Obiora is a Stanford graduate, she congratulates her effusively.

“Please,” the former minister says dismissively. “I graduated from the University of Nigeria, which was more of an achievement.”

A
lex Adjei Bram was indifferent when he first heard about Seed. A graduate in chemistry from the Kwame Nkrumah Institute of Science and Technology in Kumasi, Ghana, he was already a serial entrepreneur, albeit at a small scale. He didn’t get how CEOs were supposed to take significant chunks of time off to do “this”—strategy, organizational design, finance, accounting, value chain, ethics, governance, leadership, marketing, value proposition, HR, design thinking, and come up with a transformation plan that would, well, transform their companies. Skeptical, he dropped in on day one of the STP. If there were anything useful, maybe he’d stay. If not, he had plenty to do at the office. By Wednesday, he says that if, “They had asked me to jump,” he would have answered, “How high?”

Nicole Amarteifio’s expectations were equally modest. The Ghanaian graduate of Brandeis and Georgetown had finding an accountant and going from “a to b” as her big goals for STP. She was just too busy working on An African City—her taboo-breaking, intentionally explicit, made-for-the-web, Sex in the City knock-off television show—to think about anything else. Now, she says it feels like she’s gone from “A to Z.”

Amarteifio, like many others in STP, is a repatriate, or “re-pat,” someone who spent years overseas then decided to come home for good. She did so with two objectives in mind; to help make “Gollywood” a thriving, global, film, and television location that gets mentioned with Hollywood, Bollywood (India) and Nollywood (Nigeria), and to disrupt the single story of Africa. 

Starting with a season of ten 13-minute episodes, Amarteifio built a television series around five young, rich, privileged Ghanaian women trying to find romance and success back on native soil. For doing so, she was repeatedly asked—by Ghanaians and foreigners—why didn’t she create a show about “Sodom and Gomorrah,” the colloquial name for one of Accra’s roughest neighborhoods. To her that would have been just another “single story” show. She wanted to highlight a segment of African society that many people—off the continent and on—don’t know exists.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the MacArthur award-winning Nigerian author of Half of a Yellow Sun and Amerikanah, spoke to the debilitating consequences of the single story in a 2009 TED Talk. Upon arriving in the U.S. for the first time in the mid-90s, she was surprised and stunned that her college roommate, who knew nothing about Adichie, already felt sorry for her—just because was African. The roommate’s “default position” was “a kind of patronizing, well-meaning pity.” It’s an attitude that—among NGOs, international development agencies, faith-based relief organizations, and others—is as persistent and malignant as cancer, at once infantilizing, co-opting, and demeaning. When a show comes out in the U.S. about people living large, no one questions it even though it does not represent how the majority lives. Why does doing so in an African setting brings up questions and criticism, Amarteifio wants to know. To her, it indicates just how deeply entrenched the single story is in the world’s limited image of an entire continent. Says Clinton Etheridge, “Stereotypes about Africa die hard.”

An African City is already changing some of those images. It’s been picked up by Ebony Live TV and Canal Afrique, and featured in dozens of venues including Forbes, The New YorkerEbony, and the BBC. With its bare-bones budget, tiny cast and crew, it’s unlikely that An African City will make much of a direct contribution toward the Kings’ goal of lifting half a billion people out of poverty. But it might put Ghanaian haute couture on the map. Amarteifio’s five heroines switch outfits—each one more fabulous than the last—more often than Kate and Pippa Middleton put together. 

L
ike any start-up, Seed is not without its tensions, conflicts, once-promising dead-ends, and existential and operational contradictions. No one should be surprised that—by putting together an Institute with stakeholders that include research-oriented academics, pragmatic business executives, philanthropists, hard-pressed and hard-pressing CEOs—it was pretty much a certainty that differences of opinion about what Seed should be doing—and when and where—would flourish. Despite vast financial and academic resources, Seed has not always germinated according to plan. Two of its early prime movers, Tralance Addy and former GSB Dean Garth Saloner, are no longer in their posts. 

Addy, a Ghanaian by birth and a long-time senior executive at Johnson & Johnson, remains an enthusiastic advocate for Seed even though he’d rather not discuss the circumstance under which he left the Institute’s leadership except to say he had done as much as he could “under the circumstances”—circumstances that included differences of opinion about the balance between academic research and hands-on support to businesses in the field, and a frenzy of unfavorable media attention concerning Saloner’s leadership.

Sørensen says Seed is a “very complex project never tried by a university before” and that “It’s unrealistic to think that there’s a perfect vision and no growing pains.” Will it work? Who knows. “Five years down the road, we might be in a better position to answer that question,” says Constantin Salameh.

One touchy question yet to be resolved is whether Seed will find the billion dollars Tralance Addy calculated it needs. With the Kings $150 million investment, standard endowment mathematics indicate that Seed’s budget is around $7.5 million a year. (Seed administration declined to comment, citing GSB policy.) If finances currently are the governor on Seed’s ability to grow, why then are faculty members compensated, and “compensated well” according to one professor, to teach when Seed coaches, like doctors on medical missions, volunteer months or years of their time for nothing but expenses.

According to Sørensen and others, when Seed was started, executive education-like compensation, which runs to many thousands of dollars per session, was thought necessary to encourage faculty members to take up the call to “Change Lives.” Now that Seed is well underway, why, one might ask, is that still necessary.

Research is another area where some believe Seed’s approach may need a serious re-think. To date it has spent more than $9.5 million on around 100 research projects with no fundamental breakthroughs of the kind Sørensen hopes for. Although the titles of most of the projects indicate some connection with the challenges presented by entrenched poverty, none of them has yet proposed some type of unified theory to bring it all together. And many seem to cover ground that has been tilled by researchers for decades. While noting that it’s still early in the game, one GSB professor characterized the work done so far as “pathetic.”

One piece of promising Seed-supported research is “Does Management Matter? Evidence from India,” co-authored by professors Nicholas Bloom, John Roberts, and three others. Their work showed that Seed-like coaching led to a 17% increase in productivity in a segment of the Indian textile industry in the first year and the opening of more plants within three years. Aside from anecdotal evidence, this type of cause and effect data has not yet been collected and studied by Seed. 

In the absence of data, some suggest using proxies to assess Seed’s impact so far; for example, in the case of coaches, how many STP companies have offered to pay former coaches to continue advising them or to join their boards of directors after their formal commitment has ended. Constantin Salameh now serves on seven boards and Hans Nilsson on three. Several other “retired” coaches continue to consult with their STP companies, some formally, others informally, and/or sit on boards of advisors and boards of directors. Maybe coaches are “scalable” but in a way that Seed didn’t originally imagine.

Trying to conquer something as complicated as poverty is frighteningly complicated. While Bloom and Roberts’ research is promising, improved productivity, and even opening new plants, does not necessarily translate to greater employment. High-growth, high-tech companies like SMSGH are unlikely to hire the poorest of the poor. They need engineers and university graduates. Agricultural endeavors like Psaltry may very well elevate the economic status of indigent farmers. Others in the same sector, like NationFeeders, may not. Even as the Oduguwas plan to increase the number of their layers by 150% from 100,000 to a quarter of a million, their expanded use of automated equipment means that employment levels grow only slightly, if at all.

Managing academics famously makes herding cats look like an easy career choice. But if Seed is to solve a “BHAG” (big, hairy, audacious goal) as complex as extreme poverty it is likely to require the coordinated focus of a Manhattan Project. After all, the World Bank, UN, IMF, and countless NGOs, think tanks, and others have been at it for decades. While a few grand slams have been hit—the green revolution in agriculture, the eradication of smallpox, for example—no silver bullet has been found, not in Africa, not in Asia, not in Appalachia, not in East Palo Alto. Research that is focused laser-like on extreme poverty may need to take priority over academics’ own particular areas of interest. Highlighting the differences between stakeholders, one coach told me that, "The interest of Stanford Business School is for them to do the research and to do the teaching. Whether companies end up creating value, destroying value, helping create value is maybe less important.”

Surprisingly, since the world’s first business school opened in Paris nearly 200 years ago, very little research has been done anywhere that proves that business education actually makes a demonstrable difference in company performance. Rather than the teaching, some have suggested that the selection of participants—whether in Seed, at the GSB, in undergraduate admissions or in Executive Education—is the key predictor of future success.  Seed’s portfolio of CEOs abounds with highly-credentialed scientists, lawyers, IT professionals, doctors, accountants, MBAs, engineers, and other professionals with years of experience and degrees from Harvard, Stanford, Dartmouth, Oxford, MIT and elite African universities. These are people who have already succeeded in and out of Africa. And a degree from abroad is not a necessary condition for success. When Yemisi Iranloye refers to her alma mater—the “great U.I.”—she’s not referring to the homes of Herky the Hawk of the University of Iowa or the Illini of Illinois. She’s talking about where she got her second degree in biochemistry; the University of Ibadan, Nigeria’s oldest.

One thing many STP executives are excited about is the nascent and growing network of Seed graduates. Because of traditions in which the elder’s word is law—and much of Africa’s turbulent history in which nails that stood out tended to get pounded down, often very hard and relentlessly—across the continent, there remains a strong hesitation to share, whether in a touch-feely way, or about business ideas and performance, the kind of conversations that are now commonplace in many parts of the word. 

In September 2016, 92 past participants from Nigeria, Ghana, Senegal, and Ivory Coast gathered in Lagos for the first meeting of the Seed Transformation Network. The hope is that when the number of companies that have been through STP reaches a certain scale—250 or 500 companies are figures that have been mentioned—a critical mass will start and a Silicon Valley-like reaction will take place with ideas generating more ideas and companies spawning start-ups at an accelerating rate. However, unlike Silicon Valley, which began with Terman, Hewlett and Packard in the 1930s and has remained intensely focused, both geographically and in terms of industries, Seed’s valley will span the globe and include companies from high-tech to low-tech. Whether critical mass can be achieved in such an expansive, distributed network is another question for Seed. The answer may already be forming or not known for years. 

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he Kings and many others have been encouraged by Seed’s results so far. Numerous companies have grown quickly, doubling sales two and three times and more. The Nigerian cosmetics and beauty business, House of Tara, has seen its employment numbers increase many fold. Kweku Fleming, who started coaching with the first STP cohort in 2013, has worked directly with more Seed companies than anyone else. To him, Seed is a “world changing institution” that will help bring African companies into positions of global leadership. He believes that—in the near future—a few high profile deals involving Seed companies will “change the game for entrepreneurs in Africa.”

Others are less sanguine. Few people have pedigrees as deep and impressive in international development as Bill Grant. Grandson of public health pioneers in China, Peace Corps volunteer in the Central African Empire—arriving when notorious Jean-Bedél Bokassa was emperor and staying on in the Central African Republic after the emperor was deposed—Grant has been at DAI—a global powerhouse in economic development—since 1986 where he is now in charge of DAI’s Market Systems Development practice. Grant literally grew up in international development. His father, the late Jim Grant, was a deputy administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development in the 1960s and later the Executive Director of UNICEF for 15 years.

“If you want a platinum-plated experience,” Grant says, “then Seed is the place to go.” Were he to assess Seed using the “Value for Money” approach promoted by the U.K.’s Department for International Development, he’d have to give it “a failing mark.” 

For others, Seed’s ultimate success or failure doesn’t diminish rewards already felt. Many STP graduates rave about the classes they took. Joissam’s Samuel Agyapong Appenteng can recite content from the curriculum as easily as he does from the Bible. Joissam’s transformation plan—nearly as thick as an old Manhattan telephone directory—is never far from his reach. 

The learning, however, is not a stream that flows only one-way from academics to practitioners. Jesper Sørensen says that faculty members encounter objections from STP participants who say “No, no, no, that’s not how it works.” It drives the faculty “crazy to think their theory of the world” may not be applicable everywhere. Bob King chuckles as he recalls professors who came back to campus thinking ‘Maybe I don’t know everything.’ He hopes they’ll bring back ideas applicable in the U.S. The early, anecdotal accolades continue.

Professor Jonathan Levav says that Seed represents “the most rewarding teaching assignment that I've ever had,” a sentiment common among other faculty. Coach Constantin Salameh says that—after a 30-year career in the private sector—he’s finally discovered his true passion, which is to do this—coach—“for the rest of my life.” At his 60th birthday party in September, 2016 he had to pause many times to hold back the tears as he tried to express how thankful he has been to have Seed in his life. Yemisi Iranloye has her own idea of what success for Seed would mean—when some of her once-impoverished farmers children can attend Stanford. “Why not?” she says. “Who knows.”

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he day after my arrival in Lagos in July 2016—six weeks before Nigeria’s economy was officially declared to be in recession—the New York Times ran yet another lengthy “single story” story; “Nigeria Finds a National Crisis in Every Direction It Turns.” The next morning, I sat down with CEO Yetunde Oghomienor and her senior staff at Aframero, a woodworking products and services business in Lagos. In the corner of a low, dimly lit room, a single fan—powered by Aframero’s back-up generator—turned languidly. Once again, there was no local power. What, I asked, in light of the New York Times article, would the Aframero staff like to say to the people who would read this article?

With a certainty about the future and the rhythm, intonation, and depth of conviction that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. could not have improved upon, operations manager Blessing Okurafor spoke out.

"TRUE, we have Boko Harem issues here,” she said. “TRUE, we have Niger Delta Avengers disturbing us. I will tell this to the New York Times writers—in America—what is happening in Nigeria, if it happened in America, they would all go down immediately. But that's not happening in Nigeria. We wake up with hope ev-er-y-day that tomorrow is going to be better than yesterday.” (“YES!” her colleagues call out as one.) “That is one thing we have in Nigeria and nobody can take it away from us.”