By Tom Allen, Country Director
My turbulent adolescence occurred in the late 60s, with my figurative (and very briefly, actual) residence being the Haight / Ashbury District, the epicenter of the hippie culture. Then and there we insisted that all “businessmen” (not yet “business people” nor “entrepreneurs”) were bloodsucking ticks and leeches upon what might otherwise be our perfect society,… the villains who ate other people’s babies. But with time and experiences have come new insights and conclusions.
One of our many expressions at Bridge2Rwanda is: “All entrepreneurship is social.” I can already hear “Stop! Do you really contend that heroin smuggling, human trafficking, trading in blood diamonds, and child sweatshops are social entrepreneurship?”… which only establishes the obvious fact that within every instructive maxim, there are always extreme, fringe exceptions which some find so distracting that they risk missing the central point.
During these past five years residing in Rwanda (considerably beyond Haight / Ashbury), it has been my privilege to hang with great entrepreneurs, fascinating business titans who have amassed great wealth (sometimes counted in hundreds of millions of dollars). I have been fascinated to discover common characteristics among these entrepreneurs, most notably that great financial reward is not, and never was, their objective (except as was/is necessary to sustain and grow their enterprises). To my great surprise, these entrepreneurs have all been extraordinarily “artistic” in a sense, certainly very, very creative “problem solvers.” Some seem a bit geeky, others a bit egotistical, but each is holding (or has held) a Rubiks cube with an obsession to solve the puzzle,… to get it right,… better than anyone else. In doing so, they created great social value and many jobs. Society and the marketplace compensated them generously for what they created and delivered by their innovation and diligence.
And what are these entrepreneurs doing in Rwanda? They are looking for opportunities to give of their great wealth and talent the way they know best: To solve social problems and needs by entrepreneurial solutions that ultimately create sustainables business and jobs. Will they be rewarded for their efforts? Hopefully. If not, then they will not have solved the sustainability puzzle and the enterprise and its jobs will ultimately vaporize along with the entrepreneur. If they are successful and rewarded, they intend to simply “do it again” from the fruits of their success. The entrepreneurs with whom I have been privileged to work measure their success by solving extraordinarily complicated and difficult puzzles. Shallow critics who have accomplished nothing by comparison focus on the financial rewards awarded to the entrepreneur, rather than the value received fromthe entrepreneur.
Although I must not attempt to develop the vast topic here, a study of History, Economics, Business, Political Science, and related subjects establishes that the greatest lasting social progress has been delivered by entrepreneurs. True, only government could have brought us the Manhattan Project (not so constructive) or put a man on the moon (not so sustainable). Entrepreneurs brought us the steam engine, the electric light bulb, the automobile, antibiotics, and this MacBook Pro by which I dictate these words by voice recognition software. Facebook and Google, too, the platforms upon which the human race apparently now rests. Almost by definition, the problem-solving enterprises of entrepreneurs are much more effective, efficient, economical, and sustainable than similar efforts by government. Moreover, entrepreneurship and reasonably free markets are more democratic than even great democracies. Entrepreneurs must take their cues from “the people”: What do you most care about? What are your greatest needs? To which of the possible solutions would you most readily respond? Entrepreneurs continually offer their solutions in the marketplace, and the people vote daily in their local currency. The process is extremely dynamic, robust, and efficient. The same cannot be said of government.
Tom Phillips is a mechanical engineer and a great entrepreneur (and a great friend). He and his wife, Beth (the CEO of the team), founded Diversified Conveyors International (DCI), a US company that builds extraordinarily sophisticated multimillion dollar conveyor systems for FedEx, international airports, etc. Tom fell in love with Rwanda during a visit – the usual consequence of visiting Rwanda – and he wanted to do something significant here. Tom observed a critical protein deficiency at the base of the pyramid, particularly among young children. Research revealed an easily preserved and distributable protein that came pre-packaged by nature in convenient single servings: the egg. Tom and Beth might have decided to give away millions of eggs to the children of Rwanda. That would have been easy, and for most people, “felt really good.” But Tom and Beth were not looking for “easy,” nor were they looking to “feel good.” They were determined to make a lasting difference and that required the hard work of building a sustainable social enterprise that would produce and deliver eggs to children long beyond the Phillips’ personal participation. Not knowing the difference between a chicken and a pig, they wisely sought the technical expertise of Tyson Foods, and proceeded to build Ikiraro Poultry Farm, a 10,000 hen egg farm near Musanze, with plans for expansion.