Hult MBA Alumni ‘It’s a cultural bath’

Chris Morton counts nearly 20 years of international experience in Industry (aero, auto, renewable, mechanical and growing in bio-mechs) providing and developing B2B products and services in Engineering, IT and engineering consultancy with a focus on new tech adoption and deployment. After completing his MBA at Hult Business School he joined Grow Movement to share skills with a Ugandan micro entrepreneur.

June 2015, I can’t wait. I am about to be assigned my first African entrepreneur…
“My name is Alfonse Okaka. I started my business “Ocok Construction” in 2007. We do all sorts of things: construction work, maintenance and repairs. Most of our work comes from private contracts and also from public bids. We are doing ok. However, we are finding it difficult to grow. There is a lot of competition out there and it is not easy to differentiate ourselves from others. Some competitors are very big firms. This is where we want to be… Also, it is difficult to find good workers. Last but not least, clients pay late or sometimes do not even pay.”

This was it… And then it hit me. I know nothing about Uganda and I only know cowboy builder stories… Actually, this is not true, I have a lot of friends in the building trade. But, still, I am not really familiar with the industry. Breathe… one step at a time, I have to prepare my first call. The first impression always counts…

I go on Google. Amazing, the facts about the building trade in Uganda are complex. I decide to take a step back. First, let me see what I can find about Uganda.

Now, I am at my desk, I have my brainstorm paper, A2 sheets, I cannot work on A4. At the centre, one word: Construction. I start to lay out all the things that can impact the trade. I list activities, clients, supply chain, workers, finance, regulations, etc. Climate… political environment. Good. I think I have it all. Oops, I had forgotten competitors…

My first call with Alfonse; bonding is important. Pamela is also there. She is my client manager in Uganda. We have already spoken. I am glad she is here.

The call goes well, we touch on everything, the business, family, life. All good. Alfonse volunteers to prepare an email with some pictures of his workshop, to introduce two of his trusted colleagues to me, and to send me some information about the company and the projects it undertakes.

I wait… Nothing happens. I, then, receive a message from Pamela explaining Alfonse had not received my email. She forwarded it again. Eventually, I receive a very short email from Alfonse. Well, it is a start. I had been warned no to ask too much in one go…

I call Alfonse, and decide to focus. Let’s talk projects, in particular the successful ones…
Little by little I get a picture of what works and what doesn’t. What he enjoys and what causes despair: taxation, as usual, is one of them… 🙂

Clearly cashflow management and payment terms are a problem, and they are substantial. To win a project you need money in the Bank, says Alfonse. But inflation on construction material is linked to the exchange rate between the shilling and the dollar. In the past 6 months, it has depreciated 29%. Wow, this is something Alfonse is very sensitive to.

There is my trigger, my hook!

We start to talk about the business, how the money is managed and where it goes: project management, accounts payable, accounts receivable, credit lines, etc. Yes, now we can focus…

I will be back for round 2.

For me, volunteering for Grow is a fantastic experience from every angle. To have the opportunity to share the experience I have acquired in business with driven entrepreneurs is amazing. To do so whilst discovering a new country, new people is extraordinary.
I feel I am receiving as much as I am giving if not more. It is a cultural bath. But not only, even from a business perspective, it sharpens my reflexes. Simply, because I am facing issues that are out of the ordinary in a developed economy, “things” we take so much for granted…

Last but not least, the Grow team is a wonderful family, from our boss, Claire Jenkins, to the people on the ground, to each and every volunteer. It is an immense pleasure to be a part of it.

Friday, 2 October 2015

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