Restarting Rwanda's Economy

Author: Bill Nichols

Accountancy Professor Bill Nichols writes about his experience with Notre Dame’s Business on the Frontlines course.

This was the last place on earth I ever expected to find myself. It was March 2014, and I was traveling with a group of 10 people just outside a remote village in Rwanda, when we came upon a series of ponds covered with a contraption fashioned from boards, sticks and wire.


My companions were Notre Dame MBA students and Catholic Relief Services (CRS) in-country staff. The scene in front of us represented a fairly sophisticated entrepreneurial venture.

Here’s how it worked: The villagers used the ponds to raise tilapia, a product they sell in the marketplace as well as eat. On the board-stick-and-wire platforms, they raised rabbits. The rabbit dung fell into the pond, where the tilapia ate it. Then the villagers harvested the rabbits for fur and meat. From ponds and fish, to rabbits and dung, here was a sustainable, entrepreneurial venture. Perhaps more than that, it was a determined effort to break dependence on philanthropy and truly put the power of the marketplace to work.

I don’t normally travel with students to Africa. I ended up in Rwanda because, after more than 35 years as an accountancy professor at the Mendoza College of Business, I decided to enroll in the MBA Business on the Frontlines course. It’s an intense experience that includes two weeks in a post-conflict country.

Student teams learn about and work to strengthen the economy by partnering with non-governmental organizations and businesses. They study the organizations in depth and then provide research and recommendations to move the organization to the next level. In past years teams have visited the Philippines, Egypt, Guatemala, Bosnia, Lebanon, Ethiopia, Uganda and Kenya to work on problems ranging from agriculture to micro-finance.

During our time in Rwanda, we not only witnessed businesses such as the tilapia/rabbit venture, but my team also worked on a nutrition project for children under 5. Specifically, we reviewed how effectively messages about nutrition were delivered.

Malnutrition is a huge issue in Rwanda. Poor families fill up on root vegetables—especially cassava, which isn’t high in nutrients. Stunted growth in children has to be addressed in the child’s first thousand days—meaning from conception to two years—or it’s too late. Children won’t reach normal height and weight. Organs won’t fully develop. It can compromise their immune systems, affect their intelligence and shorten their lives.

My group shadowed a CRS community health worker who weighed and measured children in her house. She took each child’s height and weight, measured the wrist, the length of the arm from the shoulders to the elbow and waist. She could tell from those metrics if the child was malnourished. If so, she sent the mother to the hospital to obtain a special formula.

Our job was to evaluate this process to see what improvements could be made. What could be done to improve the lives of these children? It was humbling to be involved with something so important.

Many students call Business on the Frontlines their best MBA experience. They say it changes their lives, transforms the way they think about business and instills a deep-seated commitment to social justice. I used to have an idea of what they mean, but now I feel it myself — it has changed me just as it changed them.

If you’re in the process of comparing MBA programs or deciding whether to take the plunge and enter a program at all, I encourage you to examine your values, your worldview, your concept of what a business leader should be. If you find yourself drawn to the ideals of business for the greater good, peace through commerce, service on the Frontlines, I urge you to consider the Notre Dame MBA. It will change you, and you will change the world.

For more information about Business on the Frontlines, please visit the course website, blog or Forbes article calling it one of the 10 Most Innovative Business School Classes.