Weighing Risk vs. Reward

I’ve been thinking about this communication for some time now, and while some of you are already aware of our decision, it is good to finally “go public” with the news. From the moment our friends, the Crocketts and Jukanoviches, announced their intention to launch Karisimbi Partners and move to Rwanda, it became difficult NOT to think of what such a move could mean for our family.

From my first trip to Africa several years ago, my heart was captured by the need and difference between our lives and those of that part of the world. And, like many others, I found that once I was aware, it was no longer an option to ‘do nothing’. Furthermore, the restlessness and discomfort with the safe and comfortable life we’ve had in a Seattle suburb has continued to weigh on our hearts. After much thought and prayer, Kristen and I made the exciting (and also scary) decision to join these two families.

Joining Karisimbi Partners was a major decision for my family and I. It involves leaving an established career at a Fortune 100 company with a clear path to ongoing “conventional” success. I have worked for over 14 years with Microsoft, including leadership roles working across the U.S., Europe and Africa. Yet while this is a major decision, it was not actually a difficult one…not when you have that pulling from deep within to do something bold…something focused outside yourself…something that requires faith just to attempt. I love Africa.I love the idea of doing all I can everyday to work towards a mission I fully believe in. I love the idea that we can make a difference – however large or small. I love the people I will be in partnership with and the chance to live in community together. And I love this scenario where a control freak like me steps out into the unknown.

The dictionary describes “Risk Taking” as the willingness to incur injury, damage or loss. Risk is dangerous chance. Hazard. Jeopardy.It is to go out of one’s depth. Reading that definition sounds a bit daunting, but all great accomplishment is also invariably associated with taking risk. To quote Helen Keller, “Life is either a daring adventure or it is nothing at all…life shrinks or expands according to one’s courage.” For me, I take comfort in responding to this meaningful opportunity to move out of the comfort zone I’ve lived in for many years now. If anything, I believe there is greater danger in risking nothing, than in attempting to live a life less ordinary. As my new partner, Carter, has blogged in earlier posts, what Karisimbi Partners is working to accomplish is pioneering. The outcome is anything but certain. We are striving to push the boundaries and forge into the unknown. For me, I feel our venture in Rwanda is an opportunity to fulfill our purpose…. to step out, to take a calculated risk using our skills, experience, and passion so that we can serve and develop promising Rwandan businesses. With a reward like that, who wouldn’t accept some risk?

“Two roads diverged in a wood….”

Greg Urquhart

Unlike Microfinance: Depth vs. Breadth

It is never easy to describe a new business model…. particularly to folks that have little reference for the context in which it is being launched. When we begin explaining what Karisimbi Partners is doing, somebody will inevitably respond…. “Oh, you’re doing microfinance?”

Indeed, we founded Karisimbi Partners to help alleviate poverty and expand sustainable market opportunities. Like many microfinance pioneers, we are motivated by the social impact of our venture (not merely financial returns). We share a belief that the dreams and relationships of poor individuals are the source of tremendous wealth and dignity (which banks have traditionally ignored). But our similarities may end there….

Our focus is on depth, not breadth. Microfinance institutions often make small loans to hundreds or thousands of new ventures. Karisimbi Partners primarily invests relationally (not financially) with just a few high-growth ventures at a time, each of which may someday employ hundreds or even thousands. Microfinance often deals with small business operators that may never grow or create stable jobs for others. Karisimbi Partners identifies and supports true entrepreneurs with proven ideas and great ambitions. Many microfinance institutions begin by lending capital, and then provide related social services. Karisimbi Partners begins by building social capital and management capacity to ensure each venture is ready for financing and future growth. By focusing on a few promising ventures, Karisimbi Partners’ can offer the hands-on assistance to help client companies employ many, export often, contribute taxes, build industry sectors and establish role models which the new generation of business leaders can follow.

Indeed, microfinance is an impressive and crucial model for creating broad market opportunities in developing countries… and will remain a critical factor in the war against poverty. I am proud to be an advisory board member of the best microfinance organization I know, HOPE International, and very much agree with their leader’s recent assertion (on this blog) that Rwanda is ripe for an integrated approach to economic development. Yet our model is certainly different… Karisimbi Partners attempts to pick up where microfinance leaves off, walking alongside select entrepreneurs to significantly impact a few ventures that can make a great difference.

In Rwanda today, it seems calls to build the “missing middle” in this emerging economy also call for a model that has not yet been established…so we’ll have to keep explaining why we are not a microfinance organization.

Onward & Upward,
-Carter

 

Back-of-the-Motobike Calculations

Some Westerners have a policy when visiting Rwanda: Never get on the back of a motobike taxi. True, motobikes zip around faster and are more susceptible to falling over than taxi cars. Some people would never choose to drive a motorcycle in Kigali city traffic, and the thought of perching on the back of one someone else is driving is hardly more appealing. Still, if you don’t have a vehicle of your own, motobikes tend to get you from point A to point B in the capital city of Kigali faster and cheaper (about $1.50) than any other available option. If you can make your way to any significant road in the city and raise your arm, you’ll likely summon the nearest motobike to swoop in front of you. Using a combination of place names, maps and gestures, your destination can usually be conveyed to the driver. The driver quotes a price easily twice what the locals pay if you’re a “Muzungu” (white foreigner), but will back off 30% with a little negotiation. At that point, you’re handed a battered motorcycle helmet with a cracked visor, throw your leg over the back of the bike, and get a good grip onto something. My first motobike driver, the one I learned such protocol with in Rwanda, is pictured below.

 

Over the course of two weeks in Kigali, I caught over 35 motobike rides. Typically, I was wearing business attire and had a laptop bag swung over my shoulder and back. Three times my driver gave up en route…admitting he didn’t know the place I had asked him to take me. Twice, my driver deviated from the paved roads to take a “shortcut” over ruts most 4X4 trucks would avoid. Once (when I suggested we go faster because I was late for a meeting), my driver let me handle the throttle so I could determine the speed… and together we yelled the destination into the night air to the amusement of curious onlookers. On all these rides, we never crashed, and I grew to enjoy the cool wind blowing past us and the fluid, unpredictable dances we did with oncoming and parallel traffic… and that is when I remembered a story…

 

Randy Komisar (a Silicon Valley start-up guru) wrote a simple yet profound book for entrepreneurs called “The Monk & the Riddle”. In it, he talks about finding passion in business venturing, and he describes a vacation where he drove a hitchhiking monk in Burma for hours on the back of a motorcycle. When they arrived at a monastery, the monk got off and Komisar was given a riddle: ”Imagine I have an egg and I want to drop this egg three feet without breaking it. How do I do that?” As Komisar got back on his bike and continued his journey into a beautiful sunset in a foreign land, his answer came to him: don’t focus so much on the objective that you fail to live fully today. In other words, learn to enjoy the journey as much as reaching your destination… if you can, you may even find yourself reaching a better destination.

 

Perhaps such wisdom is easier to grasp when closing your eyes and flying between traffic on the back of a Kigali motobike. Regardless, this is a perspective I highly recommend.

 

Onward & Upward,
-Carter

 

 


Rwanda: Model for Integrated Economic Development

Microfinance isn’t the panacea for ending world poverty. And as much as I believe in Karisimbi Partners, it isn’t the silver bullet either. I hope these statements are not surprising- no one approach to poverty alleviation will singlehandedly address the complex issues of development. However, the integration of economic development approaches can have a collective impact that is unparalleled in changing a nation. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Rwanda. Rwanda is a microcosm of the larger context in sub-Saharan Africa – a laboratory for development done correctly.

Rwanda has experienced significant economic growth, but organizations have emphasized the one tool in their toolbox to the exclusion of other necessary approaches. Simple savings programs, microfinance institutions and small and medium enterprise initiatives all offer a way to create a thriving middle class and provide opportunities for all to work their way out of poverty. Quick definitions of the various tools and approaches currently employed in Rwanda:

Savings and Credit Associations (SCAs)—SCAs can reach the 80% of Rwandans living on less than $2 a day. SCAs mobilize a community’s savings and helps start microenterprises, even in rural areas unreached by typical economic development. SCAs require no outside donors as SCAs are governed by local members who each bring an agreed amount weekly. From the joint fund, the members offer each other loans; thus the process is led by savings and the loans follow. When the loans are paid back with interest, the money is given to the other members. HOPE International’s work with the Anglican Church in Rwanda has seen incredible success mobilizing even rural communities to save and invest.

Microfinance Institutions (MFIs)—Because commercial banking is limited in Rwanda, MFIs—or institutions providing small business loans starting at $50—are a practical approach for people wanting to expand their businesses. By 2006, over 93% of the credit unions in Rwanda offered microfinance, signaling the incredible opportunity that exists to offer financial services to people previously thought “un-bankable.” Although MFIs do not typically reach the poorest people, they can help build the emerging middle class and help stabilize an economy. Urwego Opportunity Bank is showing that a profitable bank can meet the financial needs of the poor while keeping a focus on their Christian identity.

Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs)—SMEs are small- to medium-sized businesses that have already become established. At this economic level, entrepreneurs have amassed the savings to provide a safety net for themselves, but commercial banks are not yet willing to offer loans to them. Therefore, there is a great need for SMEs in Rwanda. SME development is essential for a healthy middle class in developing countries. This is an area with huge potential in Rwanda and Karisimbi Partners is coming at an ideal time in Rwanda’s development to significantly expand management capacity and job opportunities available through SMEs.

Karisimbi Partners, particularly when creatively linked with like-minded MFIs and SCAs, has the potential to help transform a country. I, and many others, are waiting on the edge of my seat as this experiment unfolds.

Sincerely,
Peter Greer
President, HOPE International (and former managing director of Urwego Bank in Rwanda)

Employee Empowerment… Rwanda Style

Gerard Sina is one of the most celebrated of Rwanda‘s high-growth entrepreneurs.I first read about him in Steven Kinzer’s book A Thousand Hills. His formal education does not extend to Junior High, but he is a born dreamer… and he has a penchant for “adding value” to every business he touches. The hills and valleys of the Rulindo District where he was raised, like many other rural Rwandan communities, have been cultivated for generations by farmers who sought to grow what they could eat or sell locally.Sina believes this is no longer good enough…Rwandans should develop a competitive advantage by adding value to everything they sell.Since 1993, his solution has been to process raw fruit and sell or export fruit products instead.Today, Sina‘s company, Urwibutso, employs over 200 people and supports more than 3000 farmers, helping each to support their families and communities in ways previously deemed out of reach. Along the way, Sina has not only transformed the Rulindo District, he has become one of East Africa‘s leading producers of juice, jam, preserves, chili sauce, banana beer and banana wine (which I shared with Sina over goat kabobs last Saturday).

From left to right: Alex of Urwibutso, Carter of Karisimbi Partners, SINA Gerard, and Dano of Karisimbi Partners

It is tempting to think that Sina has a lot to gain from Western business practices.On my most recent visit to his office, however, I came away convinced he has already outpaced many Western companies as relates to caring for and empowering his employees. Sina has built roads and two schools in the area, and paid for each child’s tuition to ensure opportunities beyond those he had as a child. He has built fine new dormitories for employees from distant villages. Urwibutso has a number of nice gathering areas so employees can have lunch in a garden or overlooking a peaceful river. Sina is a proponent of new ideas and perspectives, so he has placed a televisions in places like the bakery and set each one to international channels so his employees who have not traveled can still see into other cultures. Behind his operations you can see a soccer field where his employees and the Urwibutso company-sponsored team play (and I’ve been assured I can play there on my next visit).

To say such practices are unique in rural African regions is a huge understatement.His employees seem to know this, and respond with loyalty. We must hope more employers choose to “add value” as Sina has to the products and people at Urwibutso.

Onward & upward,
-Carter

Thank You, Mr. President!

U.S. President Barack Obama gave Karisimbi Partners a significant boost this week. It seems rare indeed that a small start-up like ours can count on the support of one of the world’s most powerful leaders and orators, but such is our good fortune.

Amid high expectations, America’s first African-American President visited Ghana on July 11th, the day before I arrived in Rwanda. He came to personally deliver a message of partnership with America and hope for Africa’s future. On this stage and at this poignant moment, President Obama put words to a development philosophy largely consistent with what we have begun to implement at Karisimbi Partners:

“… Africa’s future is up to Africans” 

“… the true sign of success is not whether we are a source of aid that helps people scrape by — it is whether we are partners in building the capacity for transformational change.”

“…history shows that countries thrive when they invest in their people and infrastructure; when they promote multiple export industries, develop a skilled work force and create space for small and medium-sized businesses that create jobs.”

“…we can broaden prosperity through public-private partnerships that invest in better roads and electricity; capacity-building that trains people to grow a business”

It is encouraging to know President Obama calling for solutions like that we are determined to provide. Perhaps it really is an issue of being in the ‘right place, at the right time’. There is a clarion call seeking to build the capacity of African people and businesses in order to ensure their dignity and self-sufficiency. We are thrilled to be among those that have heard this call and responded… even before President Obama pointed the way.

Onward & Upward,
-Carter

How Far We’ve Come (& How Far We’ve Yet to Go!)

I write this aboard the plane that represents the first leg of our move to Kigali, Rwanda. Somehow, this seems an appropriate time and place to take stock of how far we have come since we first considered living and working in Rwanda.

  • December 17th-19th The Dream Summit- Santa Ynez, California
  • February 5th-7th Introduction to Bridge2Rwanda– Little Rock, Arkansas
  • March 23rd- April 7thPreparatory Trip- Kigali, Rwanda
  • April Partners, advisory board and potential clients identified
  • May Houses sold- Santa Barbara & Seattle
  • May-June Send-off Gatherings & Events- Seattle, Orange County, Santa Barbara
  • July Karisimbi Business Partners formally established

My mind is racing with things to accomplish once I land in Rwanda. Karisimbi Partners needs to be established as a Rwandan entity with back account, address, and requisite Visas. I must secure at least one house, at least one car, and enroll many children in schools. Non-stop meetings will ensue as we continue to try to learn from and work with trusted advisors. And, importantly (as they are the justification for all this other work) we must begin the most promising client engagements we can find.

As I look out the window, I realize our plane has not even left the ground at the Los Angeles airport! This seems an apt illustration…. for while it seems we’ve come so far, it’s clear we have a long, long way to go.

Onward & Upward,
-Carter


The Ranger & the Professor

It seems everyone responds differently when you show them your resume or describe your background… particularly when you’ve moved overseas. However, if you ever want to see which elements of your story resonate most, just wait until they introduce you to others…

When Dano and I visited a microfinance organization in Rwanda’s capital city of Kigali, the president of the organization introduced us to a large gathering of employees. Sure, Dano and I have held many roles over the previous two decades (as indicated in our bio’s), but somehow the salient point highlighted from Dano’s background was the fact that he had been a U.S. Army Ranger. Of my prior experience, it was my role as Business Professor our host found most worth mentioning. This despite the fact we have come to Rwanda to do something very different from that anticipated by our training in academia or the army. Further, we hope to earn a reputation in Rwanda that departs from that typically associated with such credentials.

Our introduction underscored the difficulty we face in ‘redefining ourselves’ in ways we feel will be most beneficial to the clients we serve. It also illustrated what a unique pairing Dano and I are! As I returned to my seat, I scribbled a note in my journal and passed it to Dano: “The title of the book that tells our story: The Ranger and the Professor” … and we tried to stifle our amusement while our host continued to address the crowd.

Onward & Upward,
-Carter

Catching a Vision Others Can’t See

When I was about 9 years old, we would frequently visit my grandparents’ house in Lake Isabella, near inland California’s desert. One day, instead of throwing rocks or shooting sling-shots with my brothers, I wanted to help the hummingbirds. It seemed the tiny, ruby-colored birds had to work really hard just to get a drink from the hummingbird feeder in their front yard. I decided to stand beneath the feeder and offer my arm as a ‘perch’ for them to land on. My parents chuckled and told me I was wasting my time. I decided to try anyway…

After ten minutes, I realized a problem with my plan: I couldn’t hold my arm up any longer! I found a stick and cut it to the right height and returned to my post. An hour passed. An hour and 45 minutes passed. Then, I heard the rapid buzz of humming wings behind my head. I tried not to move (or breathe) as the bird came closer to inspect this curious perch. Ten seconds later, he zipped around to face me, landed on my arm and started drinking from the feeder, eventually stopping his wings altogether. Just inches from my nose was the most colorful and radiant bird I had ever seen! From then on, hummingbirds took turns landing and drinking from my perch whenever I visited Grandma and Grandpa. My parents took a picture (below- with hummingbird in front of white well) amused at the determination of their son. This was the first time I can recall deciding to do something others thought impossible or impractical… it has since become something of a habit and perhaps one reason we have caught a vision for helping Rwandan entrepreneurs.

Some friends and family have told us we are wasting our time and abilities in Rwanda. Others have told us we don’t know what we’re getting into. Yet it is clear Rwandan entrepreneurs are needed today, and we are well suited to helping them make the most of the energy they’re expending. It may take time to understand and help the clients we serve, but we believe if we can do it well, we may have the rare privilege of seeing a few Rwandan entrepreneurs take flight.

Those that catch a vision others don’t, and have the determination to see it through, often get to glimpse pure beauty… at least in my experience.

Onward & Upward,
-Carter