Spotlight - Stories and Interviews

Harvard Business School Emerging Markets Interviews

Harvard Business School has created a unique collection of interviews, the Emerging Market Interviews, from prominent international business and other leaders, offering compelling insights into their strategies and how they perceived their wider societal responsibilities. The below interviews are a selection specifically related to Africa:


Student Interviews:

Cameroonian HKS student contributes to reform of sub-Saharan Africa’s corporate laws

By Junius O. Williams 

An editorial in the Harvard Kennedy School’s Africa Policy Journal describes 2015 as “the year of the African entrepreneur.” Over the past few decades, investment in African companies has continued to skyrocket. Enterprises in once dire markets persistently prove their ability to generate returns for shareholders, despite myriad political and social challenges. However, entrepreneurial ventures only achieve sustainability when the public sector establishes business regulations, enforces them, and ensures that they do not become corrupted by politics; such is the challenge many African governments face.

Jacques Jonathan Nyemb strives to bridge this gap. Nyemb, a former associate at international law firm Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP, and originally from Cameroon, is a first-year MPA candidate at Harvard Kennedy School. He hopes to build efficient corporate legal and regulatory practices in sub-Saharan Africa that will better align public and private interests to increase flows of domestic and international capital.

Having served for three years as the youngest expert on a team commissioned by the World Bank to revise corporate laws in West and Central Africa, and as the former Secretary-General of the African Business Lawyers’ Club, Nyemb’s expertise is far-reaching. He reviewed the governing treaty of L’Organization pour L’Harmonisation en Afrique du Droit des Affaires (Organization for the Harmonization of Business Law in Africa), or OHADA. Francophone African countries, seeking to establish a regional framework for common challenges in corporate law, founded the organization in 1997. The OHADA treatise allows member states to standardize agreements on capital regulation, corporate governance, and preferential equity on a regional basis. However, as Nyemb noted in a recent interview with the Center for African Studies, the global business and investment landscape has changed since OHADA’s inception. In a 2014 report for the International Financial Law Review, he wrote, “When the OHADA corporate law was adopted in the late 1990s, the lawmakers had not anticipated that private equity would one day become the key provider of finance for African local companies.”

Progressively, the nature of capital accrual and financial instrumentation has changed in Africa. As a result, there is even greater need for skilled lawyers, like Nyemb, to bolster regulatory structures, negotiate fair deals, and understand the fine print of corporate law. He envisions a system whereby governments make doing business in their respective countries attractive to both global and domestic investors. Along with building an efficient financial sector and capital markets, he highlights “fostering and scaling SME’s” (small and medium enterprises) as one of the main ways African countries can encourage local entrepreneurship and create a more business friendly climate.

Yet Nyemb identifies several challenges to expanding competitive regulatory systems for entrepreneurship in under-resourced African countries. Legal practitioners often lack adequate information to innovate corporate regulations and learn from best practices, while deeply entrenched cultures of bureaucracy have inefficiently duplicated rules within the same country. As a result, states often lack capacity to provide alternative dispute resolution and arbitration for SMEs, let alone institutional memory to build sound legal structures. Most of all, though, Jacques Nyemb suggests that poor investment in human capital greatly hinders the development of sustainable corporate regulation in Africa.

This is the intersection between his professional and personal goals: to establish efficient business laws and to train the next generation of Africa’s leaders. In 2010, Nyemb founded Oser l’Afrique (Dare Africa), an organization that connects young leaders and entrepreneurs from across Africa to build what he calls “the Davos of the African youth.” His organization, comprised mainly of Francophone Africans, pairs aspiring leaders with senior mentors, and attempts to break the barriers of national borders by hosting several pan-African symposia each year.

Though educated in Europe, where he earned a law degree from the London School of Economics and a master’s degree from Université Panthéon-Assas, Jacques Nyemb fully intends to return to Cameroon after completing his studies in the United States. “The idea was always to go back to the place where I could bring some sort of change,” he said. In his home country, he hopes to start a consultancy for firms and governments in need of corporate regulatory and arbitration advice. Fundamentally, Nyemb’s goal is one of a public servant, a mindset he says requires “bringing back to the community.” 

Investing in Potential: Harvard Undergraduates Lead Uganda NGO

By Junius O. Williams 

After completing an internship in Paris during the summer of 2012, Joon Yang, then a high school senior, landed at Entebbe, Uganda; unbeknownst to him, this trip would change his perception of the world. Upon the recommendation of a colleague, he visited Ethical Encounters, the parent organization of a struggling orphanage and school in Nabwere, several kilometers outside Kampala. What he found was a broken organization attempting to manage both the orphanage and school under intense financial and logistical constraints. Despite the daily challenges the community faced, he was awed by their ability to persevere. Inspired by their resilience, Yang decided to take action.

Yang, now a sophomore at Harvard College concentrating in Computer Science, along with high school classmate and current Harvard sophomore, Haley Baker, studying History and Literature, founded Raise Uganda Now (RUN). Their organization manages the existing orphanage and school, formally replacing the bankrupt Ethical Encounters in August 2014. In part, Baker partnered with Yang because she felt unfulfilled at Harvard, trapped in what she called “the Cambridge Bubble.” Compelled by the photos and stories Yang brought back from Nabwere, she joined him as RUN’s co-president.

Currently, RUN serves 22 orphans and 66 local schoolchildren and employs a local staff of 17 Ugandan managers and teachers, supplemented by the occasional volunteer from overseas. At RUN’s onset, eight similarly minded students joined the staff in the US and Europe to assist in launching the organization.

Almost immediately after founding Raise Uganda Now, its two leaders faced substantial challenges. Upon inheriting the orphanage, they learned of its financial insolvency, or what Yang describes as its “decrepit state.” From August to December 2014, the organization did not intake any new funds, a fact of which Baker and Yang were not aware until October. At that point, says Yang, “we could have chosen one of two options. One was to say ‘we’re done.’” “The other option,” he continues, “was to step up to the challenge and keep the orphanage running.” Inspired by their belief in the children’s potential, and fearful of the possible consequences should they abandon the project, Baker and Yang chose to rise to the challenge.

During the last months of 2014, RUN launched an emergency campaign to pay the organization’s debt of roughly $5,000. Their fundraising strategy included soliciting funds from friends and family, and an online crowdsourcing campaign. Though RUN successfully paid its debts by early 2015, Baker and Yang still grapple with the question of how to make funding sustainable. In February, RUN obtained its 501(c)(3) certification, a move they hope will incentivize corporate sponsorship from US firms. Similarly, they are building a base of donors and grants that will support RUN in the long term.

Baker and Yang characterize RUN as rigorous in its financial accounting and documentation. They obey a model of total transparency: local employees keep each receipt for each purchase, no matter how small. Moreover, unlike many larger non-profit organizations, RUN specifically documents the financial trail of each donor dollar. Baker and Yang specifically implemented this model as an alternative to the previously unsuccessful one.

Three children at Raise Uganda Now's site in Nabwere (Photo courtesy of RUN).

RUN’s rapid recovery would be impressive enough in its own right, but the fact that both Yang and Baker are simultaneously full-time Harvard students speaks to their inspirational level of dedication. Yang recalled the moment during the early fall when the onsite manager, Franklin Muhindo, informed him that the school’s teachers complained to the police after several months of not being paid. Amidst their studies and extracurricular activities (Yang is a staff member of Harvard Model Congress, while Baker is a varsity track and field athlete), RUN’s Cambridge staff members sprung into action, wiring emergency funds to the schoolteachers. Each day brings a unique set of challenges that require vigilant communication. Despite these hurdles, Baker and Yang recognize the gravity of their work and the significant roles they play in the lives of the orphans. “It’s a matter of life or death for them,” said Yang.

The idea that non-government organizations (NGOs) can solve the problems of economic injustice in under-resourced countries has recently come under fire. Many critics of NGO’s working in development contend that volunteer organizations have little regard for the complex fabric of the communities in which they operate and total disregard for the long-term. Furthermore, some suggest that Western volunteers, always wealthier than those they serve, create an unsustainable model of dependency whereby assistance is contingent upon donors’ whims. Baker, when asked to respond to this idea, replied: “We do have a lot of privilege here, and with that privilege comes responsibility. That responsibility is to utilize our resources and partner with people who can make something with that. We’re not blindly pouring money into this orphanage. We’re trying to build a team.”

With a confident demeanor and patient determination, Joon Yang and Haley Baker exude a spirit of optimism, both for the future of RUN and that of Nabwere. They hope to create a vocational training program to generate job security for older students in the school, build a playground at the orphanage, and provide more direct access to healthcare. What continuously motivates Baker and Yang is a combination of humanitarian compassion and the concerted hope that they can slowly chip away at the systemic injustices impoverished Ugandans encounter daily. Most of all, they are acutely aware of the need to emphasize commonalities between two seemingly opposite communities: Cambridge and Nabwere. “The community in Uganda is just as real as this one,” Yang reminded, a call to action that instills hope and inspires transformative change.