Feb. 14, 2006

Cornell students take winter break and provide 'thousands of dollars' of advice and help to Tanzanian seed companies

To make their winter break count for something more than rest and relaxation, a group of Cornell students took a 10-day work trip to east Africa, where they provided Tanzanian seed companies with technical and analytical assistance.

The six-member team visited two seed companies, both in Arusha, a fast-growing hub for commerce and trade in northern Tanzania. "The Cornell team has done for my company in 10 days what would otherwise take months and thousands of dollars to do through local service providers," said Rajinder Mand, managing director of one of the companies, Zanobia Seeds.

Serving as consultants, the students met with company representatives, visited facilities and learned about business operations, organizational structure and key concerns. The Cornell team then put their expertise to work: They built Web sites, designed promotional brochures and packaged the companies' profiles into a PowerPoint presentation for marketing purposes. They also evaluated current business strategies and made recommendations for short- to long-term marketing plans. They will provide free follow-up consultations for both companies until the end of this semester.

"These kinds of essential services, which the students provided, are often unavailable to Africa's small and medium enterprises due to limited technological, human capacity and financial resources," said Edward Mabaya, research associate in the Department of Applied Economics and Management (AEM) in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, who led the team.

"Yet a viable, private sector-led seed industry is an important foundation to agriculture-based development in Africa," Mabaya added. About 70 percent of the population in sub-Saharan Africa lives in rural areas where the main source of livelihood is agriculture.

Five students were selected for the trip based on their specialized skills in Web site design and strategic business planning -- skills needed by the budding Tanzanian firms. The trip was part of a field study course (AEM 497/700) offered for the second year under the Emerging Markets Program in AEM. This semester, the students will continue writing up a case study and individual papers related to projects they completed in Tanzania to earn three credits.

"The course was fantastic!" said Megan Gutleber, a senior AEM major in the course. "I learned more in this 10-day trip than I have ever learned in a full semester of in-class work."

Mabaya was not surprised by Gutleber's comments. "Field study courses are a unique way to integrate Cornell's core activities -- research, teaching and outreach," he said. "First, field study courses provide students with an innovative off-campus hands-on learning and service experience in business and economic development. They also provide students with a greater understanding of development processes and applications in an emerging market context and setting. Last and most importantly, field study courses provide much-needed technical assistance and analytical support to underserved businesses and rural communities."

Next year, the field study course will take another group of students to an African country, possibly Kenya or Zimbabwe, for another innovative off-campus experience in business and economic development.

Jihun Sohn is a second-year Cornell Institute for Public Affairs graduate student, working toward a Master's of Public Administration with a concentration in international development.

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