For Lisa Jones Christensen, Africa is a vibrant learning laboratory for researchers, students, businesses, and business schools interested in pioneering sustainable approaches to economic development.
Christensen, UNC Kenan-Flagler assistant professor of strategy and entrepreneurship, is faculty advisor to the school’s Center for Sustainable Enterprise and advisor to the dean on African issues.
The Kenan Institute speaks one-on-one with Christensen about Africa, its challenges, and the opportunities it offers to those who invest in its growth.
Kenan Institute: How did you become interested in Africa?
Christensen: When I was in an MBA program, I was given the opportunity to go to Africa, to Mali, and it was a life-changing experience. My project was to help local community members run their own nonprofit instead of having it be run from the United States. Since that time, I have thought about how we can give MBAs that kind of experience. That is something the institute is behind and something that we’re doing at Kenan-Flagler. So, it started as something that happened with me, and now I hope we can help it happen for a lot more students.
Kenan Institute: From a business perspective, what makes Africa so intriguing?
Christensen: What really makes Africa interesting is that it is not a monolith. It is a continent with multiple countries. There is so much opportunity, so much entrepreneurship, so much that has been ignored for a long time. Africa has been seen as a place that only needs aid. It’s time to look at that and realize how much growth is happening in the country and how much we can learn from people who have continually innovated when they’re resource-constrained.
Only recently have we in the first world struggled with severe resource constraints, but that’s not a strange set of circumstances for a lot of people in Africa. People on the continent have been innovating, have been becoming entrepreneurs and have been creating jobs and changing livelihoods for a long time. So there is a lot to learn.
Kenan Institute: What is UNC Kenan Flagler’s strategy in Africa?
Christensen: There are at least three prongs to our focus in Africa. The first is immersive experiences for our MBAs. We try to make sure that when we go to different countries, we aren’t just tourists, we aren’t just visiting, but are involved in co-creating projects, co-creating investments, co-investing in companies, in locations, or in business models, and that we are really helping students both make a difference and also be changed by the experience. It’s really a learning laboratory that’s joint. We don’t just take from our trips, we also try to make sure that we are providing value to the people and companies that take their time to welcome us.
Recruitment is another focus. We want to be considered over time as one of the top destinations of choice for the best scholars in Africa who are looking to leave the continent, learn and benefit from what we teach here in the United States, and go back and invest in their own communities. We want to be a destination of choice. We think that we can do that by starting to tell our story of what is so great about UNC Kenan-Flagler.
Last, we really want to invest. There are two aspects of that investment. There are, certainly, physical investments, literal debt and equity investments, which we make. We also invest in the people. There is a moral imperative as well as a financial opportunity in Africa. I think most of the people involved in the program really feel that sense of investment in the project, and so it’s pretty exciting.
Kenan Institute: Why should we focus on the developing world?
Christensen: I think it is so critical that we focus on the base of the pyramid. By that I mean the 3 billion to 4 billion people who are living on an average income of less than $4 per day. When you think of that as an average, it means sometimes they have plenty and sometimes they have nothing. This group of people has been ignored by businesses and by business schools for a long time, but that is changing. They provide a business opportunity as they improve their livelihoods and the opportunity for social responsibility. As we’re more global and more connected, the base of the pyramid can no longer be ignored as a market force and as a place where we can co-create and improve conditions and livelihoods.
Kenan Institute: What is the end goal of these immersive experiences in Africa?
Christensen: We will create better leaders here and on the continent by applying business principles to improve livelihoods. Market forces have been proven to be forces for good. The faster and more accurately students learn that, the more citizens on the continent will understand that is our approach and our focus—to improve livelihoods and improve the competitiveness of ourselves and the people we work with. That’s where the opportunity lies in Africa. That’s the focus of our Africa projects and our Africa strategy. That’s what’s exciting—the fact that we can improve livelihoods here and abroad.