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Middlesex MBA students advise South African entrepreneurs in cutting edge field project

The project was intended to enhance consultancy and entrepreneurship, core themes which are emphasised in the MBA programme.

24 MBA students from Middlesex University have just returned from an intensive field trip to Capetown, South Africa, where they worked with owner-managers of small businesses, guiding them to develop and expand their enterprises.  The project was intended to enhance consultancy and entrepreneurship, core themes which are emphasised in the MBA programme. This specialisation has been introduced in response to recent trends and management styles which are increasingly called for in today's business world.

Field trips have been an integral part of the Middlesex MBA for many years, with case studies including trips to Paris and Milan to look at how the fashion and luxury goods sector operates. This year's trip was a field trip with a difference – "A hands-on, live project, which unites theory and previous experience", was how programme leader Dr Anjali Bakhru described it. The project aimed to give students the experience of a real-life enterprise, working with their South African clients to develop innovative, practical and sustainable solutions to their business issues.

Many corporates are developing a presence in South Africa, and the Middlesex team had originally considered working with a corporate sector partner. However, the challenge of working with SMEs presents students with an opportunity to integrate their understanding and practice of different disciplines, from marketing and operations to finance and strategy. The links were set up through contacts which Marion McGowan, Corporate Engagement Manager for Middlesex's Business School, had with Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, Eastern Cape, with the British Council in South Africa and with other funding bodies in South Africa.        

Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Kenyan and Sri Lankan nationals were amongst the Middlesex MBA group as well as European and UK students, in an age range from mid 20s to late 40s.  Five project teams were formed, based on creating a mix of skills rather than focusing on students' previous sector experience and each team was assigned to a particular business. The challenges each team faced - marketing, logistics, developing a greater scale of operation, building trust - were the same across the different sectors they worked with.

Most businesses were in manufacturing - goods, textiles, furniture, rather than service sector, which is typical of an emerging economy where resources are limited. The teams faced local operational issues – power supplies were not always reliable, many entrepreneurs were working with old equipment, there was little cash to reinvest in purchasing new machinery and transport was a major issue - the townships are badly served by public transport so most SMEs rely on taxis to deliver goods, which can be very costly.

The project was intensive, working to a very tight timetable. Each day the teams were bussed to the townships, where they worked with the enterprise owners.  Evening lectures by business advisers, academics and local NGOs provided the students with more background on the cultural conventions of enterprise in South Africa – for example one panel session focused on different ways to finance the low income segment.  At the end of the week, each team gave a presentation on their findings and recommendations for their client, which they will follow up with a formal report intended to form the basis of their client's business development strategy. The teams will also do a follow-up three months after the completion of the project, and it is anticipated that long-term relationships will develop between them and the South African entrepreneurs.

Dr Bakhru said: "This project has been really new ground-breaking territory, both for us and for our students.  They have been exposed to working in a different culture, where English was neither the first language of the clients nor of some of the students. The tight timeframe meant that the teams needed to develop empathy with their clients very quickly. The clients had high expectations, and the students needed to be realistic in their promises".

She added: "It was an opportunity for the entrepreneurs to take advantage of our students' business experience. Our MBA students were able to provide guidance on the overall strategy and vision, give advice on the bigger picture and suggest the next steps for small enterprises which have outgrown their potential and need help to develop into the next stage of their business development. It opened new vistas for the clients". She mentioned one client, a furniture maker, who was now planning to diversify into making coffins as a result of the MBA project. "It's unlikely he would have considered this before the team worked with him – now he has a whole new potential income stream".

Marion McGowan, Corporate Engagement Manager for Middlesex's Business School, commented that the students had adapted well to clients' styles: "It was visible the way the students grew into the challenge – each day they were increasingly stimulated...they were aware they had to deliver", she said.

On return from the trip, Dr Bakhru noticed that many students had developed their personal style in areas such as presentation skills and facilitating. She commented: "As well as the sharp learning curve which the trip entailed, we found that it really raised confidence and expectations of students' abilities".  Some students are now considering a career working in NGOs as an alternative to the corporate sector, whilst others are considering working on joint business initiatives with other students following completion of their MBAs.

Dr Bakhru concluded: "This initiative is new and challenging for us – we're very pleased to have the backing of the Business School in supporting the venture. We believe this kind of field trip, working on real-life projects, gives our students the best training you could possibly get for consultancy – miles away from anywhere, working to very strict cost and time constraints. The MBA builds on practice and experiences of this kind open all sorts of possibilities...which is what the MBA is all about!"

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