TEM Lab: Rwanda – RD Tech
The first, and most obvious, leadership challenge has been what high school English teachers would categorize as man-versus-himself. I suspect that this is no revelation to those who I have worked with before. I enjoy being a workhorse and have often led groups by defining the objective, distributing the tasks, and motivating the group members to execute. Sure, there are times when emotional bonding and group reflection are necessary, but by-and-large the leadership has been objective oriented; when execution has lacked, I have simply picked up the slack and given everyone credit. But frankly, this isn’t really leadership. At best it’s leadership in name but not in substance. True leadership requires defining an objective, communicating it effectively, and then creating an environment in which the team as a whole is able to reach its maximum potential. Of course there are times when the leader must dig down to move the entire group forward, but this is the exception, not the rule.
In the case of the Rwanda TEM lab team, I have been fortunate enough to have a team composed of 3 very capable, skilled, and hard-working members. None of them need me to carry their load, yet all of them define themselves in some sense through the intensity and quality of the work they do, something I too have often done in the past. In fact, there are times when I look at the team and see 3 Mike-like workhorses staring right back at me. “What a dream!” some would say, but for a person who enjoys the heavy lifting it’s not as straightforward as it may seem. How will I balance their needs versus mine? At what point do I sacrifice my desire for tangible work for the betterment of the team? When do I claim a task for myself to foment my own internal drive?
In order to initially satisfy their voracious appetites, I have left myself with little of the traditional heavy lifting opting for the often invisible work of leadership instead. In some ways I am learning a lesson in patience. Leadership doesn’t necessarily produce immediate results that are easily quantifiable: pages written, calculations completed, or hours in the can. Instead, its immediate product is an ephemeral sense that things are going in the right direction and that the group is achieving at its optimal level. There is no question that I am doing energy-draining work on a daily basis, evidenced by the fact that I fall hard asleep every night, but it’s not the concrete and tactile product by which I am used to gauging myself.
Further complicating the situation is leading in an ambiguous environment, one in which not only do I have incomplete information, but in which my ability to assess the risks of one strategy versus another is aided only through past experiences of tangential importance. If I were in Jordan, Brazil, or Spain, places where I have some past work experience, I would be better able to assess the plausibility of my decisions and access much better information. In Rwanda, however, I am relying on a sixth sense that is largely based on past experiences in high context tribal societies, which may or may not be applicable to Rwanda. Sure, these past experience are valuable, but I am keenly aware that their application has its limits. And all the while my team looks to me for direction through this foreign landscape, while, warranted or not, I feel the burden of their and the project’s relatively fast-paced Western temporal expectations ticking in the back of my head.
Lastly, there is the challenge of leading an American team through consensus and empowerment while maintaining my legitimacy in the eyes of a culture that expects leadership through strong hierarchical decision making. In the case of the team, I trust completely in the abilities of the group and believe that we will reach our full potential by leading through consensus and limited hierarchy. As a group, each individual member needs to be invested in the project and feel that they have created value. In order to attain this, I have purposely tried to create a constant dialogue among the group members and reach out for their input on most decisions. Sure, we could end up getting lost in the process, but so far this has not been a problem. Instead, we have been able to take advantage of the skills of each group member, maintain emotional cohesion, and solicit thoughts that have helped us avoid hasty decisions.
Yet, despite the apparent success of this strategy with the group, I sometimes wonder whether this approach delegitimizes my leadership in the eyes of the client. Rwandan leadership consists of a healthy dose of top down management. Our client, Jules, is a prime example. In his home, company, and church community, he is someone who demands respect from others and generally has a vision and pulls the others along with him. In other words, Jules leads as a general and is respected for it.
However, in stark contrast to Jules’ leadership expectations he often sees me leading through consensus and team-building – a style which he may be not accustomed to and I suspect he may regard as lacking leadership. The easy answer would be to lead as a general in his presence and lead through consensus behind closed doors, but this is highly unlikely considering the proximity of our living and working quarters to the client. As you may have noticed from the other blogs, we live, eat, work, and sleep in the same general vicinity as the client. In fact, this past weekend I was once again reminded of Jules’ perspective as he coached me on how to choose a table at a restaurant. After talking to a waitress about where to sit, he quickly interjected and explained to me that there was no need to ask for permission to sit down. Instead, I need to go where I please and only move if the restaurant staff insists.
If it gets to a point that I feel I need to breach the subject, I will more than likely ask Jules about how he manages and motivates his employees in Rwandan. This would not only give me insight into his personal thoughts on leadership but also a Rwandan cultural perspective. I might even steer that conversation towards a discussion of his impressions of the group, but at the current moment I think that this conversation is a little premature.
The last two weeks of the project, split between Kigali and Glendale, AZ, were perhaps the most intense despite having the between them weekend off. While there was no doubt that our work and deliverables were valuable, we were compelled to endlessly check our calculations for accuracy and concerned with assuring that none of our findings would be lost in their transfer to the client.
As we transitioned from Rwanda back to the States, we were challenged by jet lag, project burnout, and self-imposed expectations of turning the on campus project presentation into the defining moment of our Thunderbird carriers. Although I expected week 6’s preparation for the final presentation to be more relaxed than previous weeks’, it was not. Naturally, it was a different kind of work: formatting slides, editing multimedia, and practicing presentation routines, but it was draining all the same. Yet, in the end it was worth all the effort. The final presentation took place late Friday morning of week 6. It was attended by some 50 students, staff members, and faculty, and generated the most enthusiastic reception and feedback that any of the team had received since beginning their MBA’s. It was the crowning moment that we had shed so much blood, sweat, and tears to achieve.
Week 5: Wrapping Up the Loose Ends
The line between week 5 and week 4 was blurry at best. Over the weekend, the team finalized, reviewed and polished its spreadsheets for both accuracy and aesthetics. During the course of this process, numerous errors were found. In some cases, the errors had little effect on the results of the project and the recommendations; however, in two particular cases the recommendation was directly affected by the mistakes. In a matter of two days, the team went from considering Mombasa as the future scenario recommendation to Dar es Salaam and then finally back to Mombasa. Although all the errors were inadvertent and understandable considering the size and interconnectedness of the data and their analysis, the unexpected changes did wreak havoc on the group’s nerves and patience.
The final recommendations to the clients were determined to be: RD Tech Abridged Executive Summary
With the final recommendations in hand, the group turned its attention to drafting the final report and presenting these results to the client. Caroline led the assembly and editing effort as the whole team divided the various sections of the report and began composition. With the report due on Thursday afternoon, the group decided to create a Wednesday noon deadline for all drafts. Ninety percent of the drafts were in by the deadline, and the entire report had been composed and reviewed by two group members by Wednesday night.
Thursday morning was used as buffer time to finish polishing the deliverables. During this time the slide deck was revised, the report cover was edited, and the report was reviewed multiple times. In addition, the actionable implementation steps for the client were completed and added to the report. With 30 minutes left until the presentation, all activity was stopped and the presentation was sent to the clients in the US for the 2PM conference call.
For the final conference call, the team assembled around the client’s dining room table with the client present and phoned the two primary American investors in RD Tech on a conference call. While the line was clear and everyone was viewing the same slide deck, the environment did not lend itself to conversation. Although the final recommendation meeting had been billed as a discussion, the result was more of a presentation with some intermittent questions and light conversation. However, this was not due to lack of trying. The call lasted all of one hour and the key recommendations and findings were clearly understood by both the clients in Rwanda and the US. The call ended with expressed gratitude, congratulations, and the team’s verbal commitment to clarify any aspect of the report for the client in the future.
The remainder of Thursday was used to decompress and the team took Friday and the weekend off to enjoy themselves and head back to the US to begin preparation for the final on campus presentation.
Coming off the excitement of the gorillas and beginning our fourth week, I was concerned that the euphoric aura leftover from the trip would bleed into the first day of our last full week on the project. The gorilla trekking was a unique emotional experience, but the team could not afford to loose a half-day reminiscing. To people who have never been to visit the gorillas I realize this may sound strange, but fresh memories of communing with quasi-human beings provide you with a fresh hit of adrenaline each time you remember the experience. By no means did I want to destroy this pleasure, but we did need to control it. The answer to this dilemma was simple, I would stick to the originally decided upon rules and exemplify the behavior I wanted from the group.
On Monday morning, I woke up early and was the first to the breakfast table, at around 7:15PM. No question, I was still enjoying the gorilla high and moving as if I was on vacation, but I made sure to be the first one there and, later, the first one ready to go. By the time 8AM rolled around, the entire team had gotten the drift and was in the car ready to head to work. Some team members were a little frazzled after having rushed to their car seats, cutting their breakfasts short. But when asked why we were leaving on time, I simply stated that we had all previous agreed to leave at 8AM and going into our last full week it was important that we stick to our guns. To my teammates’ credit, my logic was received with action on their part. As we reached the RD Tech driveway, the hatchback door of the RAV4 flung open, the team grabbed their computers, and we marched into the office ready to work.
Tying Loose Ends
The week began with some leftover pricing from the prior week. During the Monday morning hours, we began tying off those loose ends. Chadd and Rob were missing real estate pricing for land rental and leasing in Mombasa, and I was still trying to cajole the good folks at Maersk, UPS, and Africa Worldwide to provide freight prices for 20ft containers. Caroline had scored big the preceding Friday with her work on e-waste disposal and began the week fresh by outlining our final report format and organizing all our research into folders for the client. After a quick lunch, the group held a snap meeting to call out its remaining unknown prices. I, in turn, created a “wanted” list on a flipchart that was hung on the wall. “These are our targets. Let’s try not to leave today without having found all of them.” By COB, 90% of our missing prices had been crossed off the list and the other 10% were sure enough bets that I could turn off the office lights in good conscience.
The Home Stretch: Analysis Begins
On Tuesday, I was relieved to know that we could finally use the rest of the week for data crunching and analysis. After more than a week and a half of pricing and other research, we were mentally drained. We needed good intellectual fodder to re-energize the group and it came at the perfect moment. Looking back, I would say that Tuesday morning was the point that the group turned the final corner and began the exciting, but arduous, work of heading down the home stretch.
The first critical point of the analysis was to remind ourselves of the specific outcomes we needed from the data. While you might expect this to have been a straightforward conversation based on the clearly outlined project deliverables, it wasn’t. In fact, what was interesting was seeing how animated people became when trying to convince others of their preferred unit of comparison. My goal was to keep the discussion on point and intense without leaving the team divided. With the fervor of an energizing political discussion, we debated the value of comparing operating costs to COGS per computer to breakeven analyses.
Consequently, these conversations spawned recognition of the different, yet complementary, interests of our clients. When considering the needs of RD Tech’s US investors, who could potentially front the capital for internally integrating refurbishment in East Africa, the team tended to lean towards measuring operating costs and years-to-breakeven. However, the team favored a comparison of COGS per computer when viewing the project from the perspective of Jules, the founder and principle manager of RD Tech. Makes sense; the investors would want to know when they can expect a return and the manager wants to calculate profit margins.
As the team brought the various pieces of our research together, we were presented with another critical, yet potentially arbitrary, decision – if we assume that RD Tech internally integrates refurbishment, how do we weight the following five metrics to determine the optimal location for the refurbishment center?
- Business climate analysis of potential refurbishment locations, including: ease of starting a business, construction permit accessibility, employment & labor regulations, property registration procedures, credit accessibility, investor protections, taxes and operating licenses, legal environment, and ease of business closure
- Country risk analysis for each of three potential refurbishment locations
- Freight routing and pricing for all inland freight shipments from the three potential refurbishment sites to the five most attractive markets as determined by a market demand forecast
- Operational costs of running the refurbishment facility in each location
- Total estimated tax rate including all income tax, labor contributions, property taxes, etc.
For example, while Tanzania is considered a much less attractive choice for operating a business than Rwanda, it’s a more economical location from which to export freight throughout East Africa. If we apply heavier weighting to shipping costs, Tanzania wins. If we apply a heavier weight to the business climate, Rwanda wins. But instead of two countries and two variables, we had four possible refurbishment scenarios (rent, purchase, etc), three countries, and five variables that required different weighting. After coming to a general team consensus, we also engaged the client on the decision and came to a joint client-team agreement. The weighted order would be as follows.
1a) Operating Costs
1b) Freight routing & pricing
2) Business climate
3) Country risk
The team then determined the relative distance between the weighted variables based on an average of each team member’s ranking from 1 to 100.
Reflection and Redirection
Lastly, on Friday, as we calculated our initial results, we took out some time for reflection placing ourselves into the client’s shoes.
Despite all our hard work, if I were the client, would this current result answer my most basic question – Is it a financially savvy decision to internally integrate refurbishment in East Africa?
The answer was a hesitant “yes.” Unfortunately, we couldn’t defend a hesitant “yes.” We needed complete confidence in our answer and, therefore, were determined to identify and remedy those areas that weren’t bulletproof.
Late into Friday night and throughout Saturday morning, the team went through various cycles of group meetings and individual analysis in order to identify and suggest methods for reinforcing our findings. The result came in the decision to recalculate about 50% of the entire analysis and to reengage the client on specific values from the company’s past financials that lacked coherence.
At its core, the fundamental flaw in our analysis was the assumption that we would calculate our results based on 36 containers of computers a year for 3 years. This assumption had been agreed on with the client’s input, but we couldn’t shy away from the fact that in RD Tech’s current state of operations this was an unrealistic and potentially irresponsible assumption. Today, RD Tech sells some 2,500 computers a year, only 15% of the amount upon which we were basing our calculations.
Hence, we decided to turn it up a notch. We would not make one recommendation, but two – (1) a current scenario recommendation and (2) a future scenario recommendation. The first recommendation would be a simple differential cost comparison of the status quo versus integrating refurbishment based on current retail outlet distribution and sales levels. The second would be a recommendation comparing the purchase of refurbished computers from the US versus internalized refurbishment in East Africa assuming a future expansion scenario with five new retail outlets in East Africa and sales of 36 containers a year for three years.
The results of these analyses will be revealed to our client this coming Thursday afternoon. In order to meet the basic project requirements, we need to complete the following before the meeting:
o Finalize the analysis of both our recommendations
o Draft and edit the written results report
o Organize our research onto one DVD for the client
o Develop a short slide deck to guide our final conversation between our clients in the US and Rwanda
o Create a list of actionable steps that the client can use to implement either of our recommendations immediately
Having completed this list, I hope that we’ll still have enough fuel left in our tanks to go above and beyond and create some additional unexpected value.
Last week, our house was flooded in the middle of the night. Each of us had a very different perspective on the event, so we thought it would be interesting to share them all. Without further adieu…
I still don’t know why I woke up. Perhaps it was because the rotary fan blowing in my room was failing to prevent my sweat from penetrating my pajamas. Or maybe it was because the sound of the rain falling on the corrugated plastic skylight in my bathroom was so loud I thought it might shatter. It also could have been the flashes of light that periodically filled my room only to leave the darkness even darker…
I awoke to a tentative tap on my door. Two thoughts slowly wandered across my groggy mind: “I probably just imagined that.” “If I didn’t imagine that, whoever it is will go away.” Again came the mouse-like tapping. I thought it was probably Jules – some evenings he comes to talk and make sure everything is going well. Upon hearing my hoarse invitation to come in, my mystery visitor – Carrie, it turned out – slowly opened my door and edged her way in my room…
I had laid down to bed at 11PM and still found my self stirring an hour later. The rain was so loud and violent that I could feel it in my chest, creating a vicious cerebral cycle…
Lights flipping on immediately accompanied my intruder’s rude entry.
Hunched over a short squeegee, eyes wide, Rob informed me the house was flooding. I looked at the floor. Well I’ll be a son-of-a-er-gun – flooding indeed…
Nobody likes being sick. Besides all the uncomfortable – sometimes painful – symptoms that plague your body while your immune system wages war against the invading germs, being sick takes you out of the game. It forces you to move at a slower pace while your body recuperates. Being sick makes you feel like you’re missing out on life.
I’ve been fortunate to never really be sick while traveling. I had a cold once, while I was in Prague, but a visit to the local doctor and some antibiotics cleared that up and I was back to my old self in no time. I’ve been dehydrated to the point that I got a headache, but that’s nothing a few cold glasses of water and a handful of ibuprofen couldn’t cure. You could say I’ve been lucky not to have a vacation ruined or a business trip cancelled due to illness. I guess I was due.
Prior to leaving for Africa, the travel doctor pumped me full of eight different vaccinations. It seemed like she had a shot for every possible malady, whether transmitted via mosquito, personal contact, air, or sick animal. But, the shots were just a start. Prescriptions for an oral typhoid vaccine, daily malaria prophylaxis, and two different antibiotics followed. Strict warnings were given against drinking water from the tap, using ice, eating anything that didn’t come piping hot, drinking milk, and even eating vegetables. Instructions were handed down on how to treat traveler’s diarrhea, which I was projected to have at least once over the course of a five week stay, and how to spot signs of more serious diseases. The doctor even offered directions on the type of mosquito repellent and sun block I should use. Perhaps I felt she had gone a little overboard with the warnings and precautions, but nevertheless, I felt more than prepared to handle whatever might assail me in Rwanda.
Three and a half weeks into the project and it had been pretty much smooth sailing. We’d eaten almost everything that had been prepared for us (our hosts are gracious enough to provide three home-cooked meals a day), visited restaurants in Kigali, Kibuye, and Musanze, taken bucket showers, hiked through the jungle and dipped our toes in a freshwater lake. I was starting to feel that I just might win this round against the travel gods – skate through the five weeks unscathed. However, the thing about getting sick is that you can try your best to prevent it, but you can never predict when it might strike.
I’ve been sick for three days. I’ll spare you the graphic details, but if you’ve experienced traveler’s diarrhea you may know some of what I’ve been going through: a slight fever, chills, cramping, vomiting, and of course, the diarrhea. I haven’t eaten since Tuesday (it’s now Friday). I’ve tried, but my body rejects any form of food. Three days without sustenance, save one half piece of bread and some apple juice, and you might think I wouldn’t be hungry anymore. Not true. It’s weird feeling both nauseous and hungry at the same time. Your stomach grumbles for nourishment, while your head is disgusted at the thought of food or the slightest smell. I don’t envy anyone who chooses cleansing routines, hunger strikes, or is afflicted with anorexia – completely denying the body of food is an incredibly difficult path to take to detox, make a point, or lose weight.
I’m taking the antibiotic I packed in the event of such an illness, and so I’m starting to feel a bit better. However, I’m physically exhausted, mentally drained, and forced to take a seat on the bench as my teammates run with the ball towards the goal-line of our project. That’s the hardest part of being sick for me – feeling forced to take a personal time out. I hate feeling like I’ve let down my team or like I’m the weak link. Maybe it’s because I’m the only girl and I feel I have something to prove, but I see myself as a trooper, someone who can push through the pain and succeed. Sometimes though, we have no choice. Life makes us take pause.
It’s humbling to realize that no matter the precautions you may take, warnings you may heed, or great shape you’re in, we are all susceptible to getting sick – none of us is invincible. Africa humbles you in many ways; knocking you down with a bout of traveler’s diarrhea is just one of the ways in which it reminds us of our own fragility. This experience has helped me to realize that getting sick isn’t about missing out on life, but rather it’s a staunch reminder that I’m really living it.
At a school such as Thunderbird, where each student is more traveled than the next, Lee Abbamonte enjoys the unique status of being the most traveled of us all. Lee does not keep his ambition secret – he plans on becoming the youngest person in history to set foot in every single country in the world. During his travels, which have included treks to places as inaccessible as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, he keeps a prolific journal in an attempt to record his adventures.
Before leaving for Rwanda, I had a brief conversation with Lee over a beer at the pub. I asked him to tell me about the most memorable experience from his previous year’s travels. Without missing a beat, he said “trekking with gorillas in Rwanda.” He had no idea our team would be heading there within days. Imagine: someone as travel-jaded as Lee – someone who has raced camels in Morocco and hang-glided in Brazil – says that gorilla trekking is one of his best recent travel adventures. I honestly can’t think of a more solid endorsement.
In the weeks that followed, each time we told people that we were planning on seeing the gorillas they continued to build up the hype that Lee established: “You are going to have the most amazing time!” “Gorilla trekking! I’ve gone ten times and it’s changed my life each time.” It was hard to imagine that something could live up to the expectations that we were trying to avoid setting.
During last week’s set of 9-to-5’s, we could barely contain our growing enthusiasm. As verdant and tranquil a city as Kigali has been, we were itching to get out to the countryside and see some damn primates. Saturday morning was spent packing and we hit the road in the early afternoon, heading for Musanze (nee Ruhengeri), the heavily-touristed city from which the majority of gorilla treks depart. The three-hour drive blasted by with us singing along to an 80s music compilation. Not a bad way to start the trip. Along the drive, we were treated to some stunning scenery, especially as we neared our destination. After checking into the Kinigi Guest House, we snapped some pictures of a vibrant sunset over still-active volcanoes as we waited (for more than an hour) for our food.
We slept early so we could wake early – 6am, to be precise. The showers at Kinigi were unreal – the best I’ve ever had in Africa. I didn’t want to get out. But gorillas wait for no man, so I made sure I was at the car at the appointed hour (6:30am) and we headed off towards the gorilla trekking headquarters.
I should mention now that we were not really part of the whole “tourist circuit.” Generally, people fly into Kigali and arrange a tour with a guide service. This service then drives them in big, durable vehicles from Kigali to Musanze and arranges such things as accommodations and food and water and porters and so on. You know, the minutiae. Instead of following that route, we borrowed a car and drove ourselves, making our own bookings (nice job, Mike) and buying our own snacks.
So, as we arrived at the gorilla “base camp,” it became obvious that we would be the most under-prepared trekkers on the mountain. All of us were rocking blue jeans (true American style) and I was wearing a pair of old, busted running shoes. Every single other person at the headquarters was outfitted with sturdy boots, zip-away microfiber hiking pants, and those floppy safari hats that look so lame. I don’t know about the others, but I felt kind of embarrassed.
Nonetheless, when we presented our tickets to the head honcho of the camp, he did not judge us based on our outfits. Instead, he gave us a huge welcoming smile and said “I know why you are here, yes!” Before we had a chance to respond, he emphatically said “Susa Group!” Apparently, the gorillas have been demarcated into different groups, which we tourists visit in clusters each day. Susa Group just happens to be the group reserved for the sturdiest, healthiest hikers. Mike, Carrie, and I must have been flexing or something, to get the go-ahead on Susa. I now know that it is considered to be the apex of the treks – other tourists often start with a lesser trek and then work up to Susa. Oh no no no my friend, we are T-birds – in it to win it.
We convened with the other Susa Group trekkers (two other Americans, a French woman, and an unforgettable Austrian man [with one of the largest faces we’d ever seen] named Klaus and his wife; more to come on Klaus) and listened to our guide’s welcoming speech. Our guide, who’d been bestowed with the unique name “Placid,” gave us a run-down of the Susa Group of gorillas – 28 in number, with three silverbacks. Lucky for us, they’re the biggest group in all of Volcanoes National Park.
After the overview, we headed to our respective vehicles to drive to the jumping-off point of the trek. While waiting for his driver, Klaus came up to me and gave me a discerning once-over, lingering on my shoes. “Are you sure to go in those?” he said disdainfully, cocking his enormous eyebrow. He lifted a foot to show me his boots. “Yes, I bought these just for this trip.” Good for you, Klaus. Before I had a chance to respond, Mike walked up (wearing legitimate hiking boots) and was also given the “Klaus Stare.” Upon seeing Mike’s boots, the massive-faced Austrian curtly nodded in approval and walked away. Awesome.
We learned that the jump-off point for the Susa Group trail was an hour’s drive from our present location, so we tried hitching rides with the Americans and Klaus. There wasn’t enough room, and as soon as he realized it, Klaus came run-walking towards our humble RAV-4 and woke up a dozing Chadd by exclaiming “There are not enough seats and you will have to drive, guide!” Apparently, he thought Chadd was the guide we were paying to arrange the whole trip. Chadd, you’re a great guy, but you aren’t worth $500 for a weekend. Simple truth.
So Chadd ended up playing the role of guide and drove us the hour to the trailhead. We expected the roads to be decent, give the number of tourists who visit Susa Group every day. Instead, they were a nightmare of stones and mud. The big, durable vehicles that all the other tourists were riding in looked somewhat appealing at this point, compared to our little ride. After a few close calls and some expert maneuvers by our driver, we made it to the trailhead (congratulations to Chadd are in order).
Carrie, Mike, and I set off up the trail, following Placid’s lead. At the vanguard was a Rwandan with a large automatic rifle (not filled with tranquilizers, and not necessarily to protect us from the gorillas). The trail was fairly steep, but the challenge of hiking was exacerbated by the fact that we were nearly 2,500 meters above sea level (for those of you uncomfortable with the metric system [Yanks, Brits] this means roughly 8,200 feet). For nearly an hour, we soldiered upward past the farms of the Rwandese who had claimed the flanks of these volcanoes as their home. As we huffed and puffed, we were embarrassed to see children laden with big yellow jugs of water streaming past us up the mountain – a testament to the hardiness of these volcano-dwellers.
An hour of shallow breathing later, we’d reached the edge of the forest. It was a shocking non-sequitur – the villagers’ farms reached all the way to the narrow rock wall which barely held back encroaching jungle. Mike later wondered about the remaining habitat of the gorillas – are the farmers driving them ever-deeper into a diminishing environment? We crossed the threshold into the forest, and the hiking changed immediately. Gone were the dark, rich volcanic soils upon which we’d been climbing, replaced by an unbelievably thick jungle kudzu. Our guides would occasionally warn us of gaping holes hidden underneath the carpet of vines. Broken legs were one slip away. We came to a small clearing and Placid told us to strip away all of our possessions save our cameras. Apparently, the gorillas can react in different ways to human objects and it is better to be safe than to have a 500-pound primate pop you one.
We continued bushwhacking through the jungle, although a reverent hush had overtaken our group as we drew nearer the gorillas; even the incorrigible Klaus was silent. The smells were overpowering – eucalyptus, nettle, and other jungle flora creating a dizzyingly heady scent. As we turned a corner, we heard the echo of a whisper passing its way down our line of hikers: “Gorillas..!” Sure enough, partially hidden in the undergrowth of the forest some ten yards distant was a lump of furry blackness – our first gorilla.
The next hour was a whirlwind, one of those hours during which you wish that you could pause reality and continue living the present ad infinitum. Shortly after seeing the first gorilla, we realized that we were in the midst of the entire Susa Group. The silverback came past, crushing his way through the forest with unparalleled strength. Adolescents scampered around, wrestling with each other and laughing. Female gorillas, tenderly carrying babies on their backs, followed in silverback’s trail.
I don’t want to use any hyperbole to describe the experience of being there with the gorillas in their natural habitat. Just imagine the following: you are five feet from an animal twice your size and made of pure muscle. It sits down peacefully and begins to grab nearby branches, ripping them from their roots with surprising ease. As it contentedly munches handfuls of leaves, it casts a detached – perhaps curious – glance towards you. You realize that this animal doesn’t need you, that it and its brethren have survived without human intervention for untold years. And yet, there is sympathy in its eyes as it looks at you, some form of animal intelligence which seems to border on profound wisdom. You feel the deepest connection you’ve ever felt with nature, and its right in front of you, untamed and beautiful. Something powerful is shared between human and primate. I’m not making this up; it was visceral. During our hour with the gorillas, we snapped countless photos (Klaus alone took more than 200; true to form, he would interject himself right between the other photographers and the gorillas to set up shop with his massive camera [which he had made sure to compare to everyone else’s cameras – “Yes that one is okay but mine is much larger”]). We’ll post some of our shots on this site, but they can’t do justice to the feelings I just described.
Perhaps you are wondering how we felt safe being so near such powerful animals. It wasn’t easy, at first, especially considering the guides’ warnings – “If they charge you while beating their chests, just stand still.” However, the guides were not standing idle; they’d learned to mimic the communicative grunts of the gorillas. When we would approach a new gorilla, Placid would make a deep guttural purring sound, indicating our amiability. If they ran towards us or got too near, he would issue a barking cough which expressed displeasure. These guides’ ability to control the gorilla tribe with such calls was uncanny and led us photo-snapping tourists to feel a sense of calm and comfort. But beyond that, the gorillas simply exuded tranquility as they bebopped around the forest. Well, they exuded more than just tranquility – the silverback would let loose with earth-shaking farts every ten minutes, causing our whole group to crack up.
Our hour came to a close, and we reluctantly took our leave of the Susa Group. As we walked out of the forest a reflective silence overtook us, each person internalizing their unique experience. Carrie looked at me, wide-eyed, and mouthed, “I am about to cry. They were so beautiful.” The moment we stepped out of the jungle and back into the farmland, all the emotions and thoughts we’d been bottling up exploded into chatter which persisted for the duration of our hike back to the car. We took a short break to rest, talk, and eat our snacks. Mike had brought a small sausage, and he and I were passing it back and forth. Overcome by his Austrian heritage, Klaus reached out and snatched the sausage from us, taking a big bite and saying, “I sweat so much energy. Give me the sausage.”
Along the return trek, Placid and I had an interesting conversation about the effects the gorilla tourism industry has had on the local populations. In addition to being a guide, he also has a degree in economics and rural development. He works with the Rwanda Development Board and village elders to determine development projects needed by the communities near the park and to then fund them. Thus far, they’ve built schools, water basins, and small hospitals. It’s comforting to know that our tourism is leading to growth instead of exploitation (and who knows, perhaps it is helping to preserve the gorillas’ habitat).
As we neared the cars, Klaus asked more about our guide (the patiently-waiting Chadd). We tried telling him that Chadd was just an American guy – our friend – who happened to be driving us today. His response: “Ah, so he lives in Rwanda then? It is surprising to see an American guide.” The man could not wrap his mind around the possibility that some trekkers might have set up the excursion independently. Apparently, “guideless” does not translate.
On the way home, we decided to visit a resort hotel Mike had read about in his guidebook – Virunga Safari Lodge. It was billed as having “the best view in Rwanda,” and considering that every inch of this country is gorgeous, we had to check it out. The hotel was perched on the crest of a steep hill some 15 kilometers from the park. As we reached the top, we were treated with a spectacular panorama: on one side, we had an eagle-eye view of the green plateau of farmland leading up to the forested slopes of five imposing volcanoes; on the other side, the rolling hills encircled the blue waters of a broad mountain lake. Nice job again, Mike.
By the time we got on the road, the sun was setting. The next several hours consisted of us discovering the challenges of driving on a single-lane highway at night in a developing country. Can anyone tell me why each car we passed chose to blast us with their brights? What a pain in the ass. In any case, we made it home none the worse for wear, just deeply exhausted. Within half an hour of our arrival, we’d all passed out.
So, I guess all that I’m trying to say is that if you ever get a chance to come to Rwanda and trek with the gorillas – take it. Was it life-changing? I think it depends on the person – you’ll have to ask Mike and Carrie. But Lee was right; it will be one of the most memorable overseas experiences of my life.
I’ll leave you with some great video of the trip, edited by Mike Byrne:
Photo Credits: Mike Byrne, Caroline Martin, Chadd Nyerges
This past Wednesday our team hit the mid-point of the project. The following is an update of where we have been and a quick glimpse of where we are headed.
As a reminder, RD Tech (the client) has contracted us to:
- Research and cost alternative supply chain operations, focusing on shifting the refurbishment of RD Tech’s imports from an external supplier in the US to a vertically-integrated model with refurbishment performed by the client in one of three East African locations: Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania; Kigali, Rwanda; Mombasa, Kenya. This strategy should include post-user product disposal.
- Conduct a cost-benefit analysis of our recommended best alternative strategy, including actionable recommendations for implementation.
The first week was spent primarily adapting to our environment, defining the scope of the project with collaboration from the client, strategizing how to break the project into manageable pieces, and assigning roles within the team. This included meeting with the client and its US investors, tours of the client’s facilities and warehouses, and individual meetings with the client to gather information on its current logistics and supply chain. In addition, the team spent considerable time dissecting the project. Coming out of week 1, the team identified the following targets to inform the final recommendation:
- Business climate analysis of potential refurbishment locations, including: ease of starting a business, construction permit accessibility, employment & labor regulations, property registration procedures, credit accessibility, investor protections, taxes and operating licenses, legal environment, and ease of business closure
- Country risk analysis for each of 3 potential refurbishment locations
- Market demand forecasting for 11 countries in east and central Africa to determine the most attractive markets for current and future used computer distribution
- Freight routing and pricing for all inland freight shipments from the 3 potential refurbishment sites to the 5 most attractive markets as determined by the market demand forecast
- New refurbishment center costing for all three potential refurbishment locations. Costing will include pricing: construction/leasing, PPE, labor cost, utility costs, taxation and licensing, inland freight, duties & applicable taxes, among others
- Export Processing Zone (EPZ) research and determination of eligibility, benefits, and feasibility
- E-waste disposal plan and financial analysis
As the team moved into week 2, it focused on breaking down RD Tech’s current supply chain, forecasting used computer market demand, and completing the country risk analysis. The strategy was to gain an understanding of the current market and business environments before pricing the costs associated with vertically integrating refurbishment in East Africa.
While the week was research intensive, much of the information was found in deep dive database searches. Nearing the end of the week, it became clear that the team would need the price of a used computer in each of the 11 potential markets in order to have a unified variable for projecting the future market demand in each country. This required the team to begin primary research and gave a glimpse into the complexities of pricing that would come to dominate the project throughout week 3 and into week 4. What initially began as simply identifying used computer retailers throughout East Africa on the internet and contacting them for pricing, became a nearly impossible task that required attention from the entire time and a Tanzanian research assistant in the US. Unfortunately, the team was unable to obtain pricing for each targeted market and, thus, comparable data was eventually substituted. Both the current supply chain and the country risk analysis were completed successfully.
Having completed the market study in week 2 and identified the three potential locations for a refurbishment facility, the team began the week with a strong push to price the costs of building and operating the refurbishment centers and supplying retail stores. This included the following primary and secondary research:
- Collaborate with client to determine estimated volume, enabling completion of three possible refurbishment facility layout diagrams
- Determine necessary dimensions, staffing, and equipment for each layout
- Continue research and data collection for taxes, utilities, spare parts, and wages
- Contact numerous real estate and bonded warehouse sources to determine rental and purchase prices for land and warehouses
- Investigate eligibility rules and benefits of operating in Export Processing Zones (tax free zones)
- Contact ministries and investment boards regarding business operating laws and procedures (specifically labor, repatriation of profits, and trade laws)
- Meet with four logistics companies to price inland and ocean freight routes to market and determine applicable port fees, duties, and other expenses
Pricing and researching the aforementioned is extremely complicated and often bewildering in East Africa. In addition to struggling with poor infrastructure and cultural considerations, information and pricing were often difficult to find. Assuming information could be obtained from a reliable source, it would often be contradicted at a later point in time and have to be reconfirmed through additional time-consuming research. Furthermore, the team struggled with differentiating between official rules and legalities and the realities on the ground. Often rules and laws are not enforced and/or regularly broken, thereby creating a challenge in determining what exactly is applicable to the project and should be priced.
Week 4 and beyond
As the project heads into its final two weeks in-country, the team has three stages left to complete. First, the team will conclude the pricing phase of the project. Tuesday, Feb. 23, has been set as the final day for all pricing data. From Wednesday through Friday of the same week, the team plans on delving into the second stage – analysis. The team will analyze the numerous variables, including pricing, to determine which of the three potential refurbishment facility locations is best suited for RD Tech’s future growth. Preparing for the client recommendation and composing the accompanying report will comprise the third and final step in completing the in-country portion of the project. Despite efforts to prevent missteps, the team is anticipating gaps in its research during the analysis phase and has, therefore, built in substantial buffer time to account for any additional research. This additional time includes both Saturday and Sunday of this coming weekend.
The final conversation with the client to present the team’s recommendations is scheduled for Thursday, March 4th.
Tick-tock goes the croc! This is how I have increasingly found myself explaining the TEM Lab project over the past couple of weeks. In the famous story of Peter Pan, the villain, Captain Hook, is stalked by a crocodile that having once tasted the captain’s delicious flesh is on a continuous hunt for more. Luckily for Captain Hook, the croc swallowed a clock and can be heard approaching, but despite exerting ruthless control of his crew and their captives, the incessant tick-tock of the clock holds the captain at its mercy.
On a daily basis, I can hear the tick-tock of the croc clock in my head as the time passes and the project nears its end.
If there is anything that TEM Lab is, it’s short and intense. A misguided observer may look at the projects’ warm weather locations, perhaps the beachside setup in Vietnam, or even the photos of a weekend excursion and believe that we have gone on a 6-week cultural trip disguised as a consulting project. They would be dead wrong. The reality on the ground in Rwanda is something completely different.
You generally wake up with the sun, bright and early, often to take a luke warm or even cold shower, scarf down some breakfast, and then hop in a van that weaves its way up and down the lush hills of Kigali towards work as you inhale plumes of exhaust for the full 30-minute trip. Having made it once again safely through the city, you find yourself at the office. The office is a brightly colored, steamy room occupied by two large fans that hum throughout the entire day struggling to keep the beads of sweat from appearing on your forehead and the internal fan of your computer from remaining on constant overdrive. It is here in this sunshine-filled room that you will labor away for most of the day around an L-shaped table until 5 or 6P. And just when you think the day has come to a close, you remember that you still need to return home. The 1 to 2 hour smoggy evening rush hour awaits!
Admittedly, I have omitted some of the perqs of working in Rwanda at RD Tech: home cooked lunch brought to you every day in the office, a client and host that is often more concerned about your well-being than his own, and company staff that can’t help but smile every time you try out a new word in Kinyarwanda. However, trying to finish a large consulting project with limited time in a developing African country is no walk in the park.
The following is a short rundown of the types of challenges that we face on a daily basis.
The Sound of Generators – The power goes out daily in Kigali and it always seems to happen at just the moment that you have found that one piece of essential information on the web that you have been hunting for all day. When will it come back? Who knows…sometimes it takes 15 minutes, other times hours.
“Can you hear me?” – The hard line phones in and around East African are notoriously expensive and often poor quality. The result has been a burst of telecommunications creativity with everyone jury-rigging multiple technologies to avoid the high rates. Unfortunately, the more types of technology you intertwine to make a simple call, the poorer the quality. It is often the case that we cannot hear the person on the other end of the phone. After being transferred multiple times within a company (the current record is 6 transfers) and finally reaching the person you need, it knocks the wind out of you to have them hang up simply because they can’t hear you.
“T as in Thomas…no, no Thomas…no, T as in Thomas…ok T AS IN TANZANIA! Yes, Tanzania.” – Ever tried to spell your Thunderbird email address over the phone to someone? Painful. How about a non-native English speaker who doesn’t recognize the words “thunder” and “bird.” How about to a barely proficient English speaker, on a phone line filled with white noise, in a sweltering hot room, with two large fans running in the background…I think you get the point. And now, you really expect the person on the other end of the phone to send you the pricing information you so desperately need after you just got done yelling out your name followed by @ and 19 letters? Sure, there is always the @global.t-bird.edu address. Good luck explaining the hyphen.
“It’s up again…no, no sorry it just died.” – Our client has done everything possible to keep us well connected, including shelling out hundreds of dollars for average speed internet that can just barely handle a Skype call. Yet, despite his efforts the internet is always on the fritz. We have all been on frustrating Skype calls that were dropped more than 10 times in 30 minutes, and we are constantly rationing bandwidth amongst ourselves to download documents or do very basic research online.
The Digital Divide – By far the most daunting obstacle facing us is lack of information. Most of the information that we need to complete our project cannot be found on the internet or through deep dives into research databases. It is only available from the horse’s mouth, i.e. by calling government officials, real estate agents, and others. Sounds easy right? No problem, just call the investment board and they should have the answer you need. In reality, many folks you talk to don’t understand what you are asking for and if they do, they generally don’t have an idea who knows the answer. Assuming you find someone who does have an answer, the question then becomes, how do you validate their answer? On more than one occasion, we have fielded information from phone conversations with bureaucrats only to find that the information wasn’t accurate. And when you do finally have someone on the phone you trust with good information, the phone line is often so full of static that you can’t hear them.
I am not complaining in the least. In fact, I love it all. But as you enjoy the bright photos, the reflective experiential blogs, and the fun sound bites that we will continue to post, don’t be lulled into believing that it’s all fun and games.
We pulled up to the small dock to find three of our host’s men animatedly discussing some matter in Kinyarwanda, the local language. As we disembarked our little motorboat, the only bit of English we picked up from the conversation was, “It’s good. It doesn’t spit.”
“What doesn’t spit?”
Oh, that would be the two-meter snake the lads sent to Hades shortly before our arrival at the beautiful eco-resort and spa under construction on Lake Kivu.
“Two meters. Wow. But you said, ‘It’s good.’ So it’s not poisonous?”
Immediately and in unison came vigorous head shaking from the three dockhands, the owner of the resort and Jules. “Oh no, it’s poisonous.” It’s just one of those “good” two-meter poisonous snakes…y’know, ’cause it doesn’t spit its poison at you.
That’s awesome! I, for one, was reassured and stoked to run up into the carved-out-of-nature resort, where rocks form your bathtub, trees shroud you from neighboring cabins and two-meter poisonous snakes bring you your room service in the morning. At least you don’t have to worry about them spitting in your food if you get a rep as a bad tipper.
You gotta love a place where the snake you’re wrestling “ain’t so tough” because he’s only a black mamba and not a spitting cobra. I think this says a lot about Rwanda and the difference in mentality we citified Westerners have when traveling to lands – not to mention eco-resorts under construction – more connected to nature.
This weekend, the gang is going to see the gorillas in the north. This is very significant in that we are currently in the only place on the planet where these creatures can be observed in their natural habitat. And the Rwandan government has taken great pains to ensure that the habitat is preserved and treated with respect. One of the mechanisms implemented to achieve this preservation and reduce foot traffic is the $500 fee foreigners are charged to take the trek.
I feel this excursion may be a turning point in my life. Until now, whenever faced with a physical challenge, I have risen to the occasion and gotten the job done. This time, however, I am hanging back, sending the team into the bush without me. A number of ailments have influenced my decision: general fatigue, poverty, but most prominently the fact that I am dreadfully out of shape. My knee buckling under me over the last two weeks has been the icing on the maybe-I-shouldn’t-go cake. Four knee operations over the years and a significant amount of unneeded weight have done a bit of a number on me. All this combined with the fact that the trek is at altitude (about 9,000 feet) have influenced me to err on the side of caution this time and wimp out.
I made it up the mountains north of the Terai in Nepal in 105-degree heat and intense humidity while saddled with dysentery (I thought they were actually going to have to helicopter me out); I made it up the deathly initial slope at Wadi Mujib at the Dead Sea in 100-degree dry desert heat just last year; but man, these days I crap out walking up a hill in Kigali. Factor in altitude…perhaps discretion is the better part of valor.
I have, however, decided to view my absence from this once-in-a-lifetime return to nature in a positive light. I’ve come so close I can taste it. This just means I must come back some day, return to this beautiful land of green banana trees, rich red soil and gorillas found nowhere else on the planet. Maybe I’ll do a whole adventure trip – Safari, Kilimanjaro and the gorillas in the mist. Or maybe I’ll be working here again and fortunate enough that my weekend adventures all happen to be once-in-a-lifetime experiences. Either way, it will be yet another opportunity for this city boy to reconnect with the natural environment with which all of our souls organically crave communion. I can’t wait. Who knows, maybe I’ll even get to see a snake that spits…