MBA students tour Ethiopia, deliver export
recommendations to government officials

A project led by an Ohio State team of students and experts may help Ethiopia with the daunting challenges it faces in the global crop export market.

More importantly, the project, which began last September and ended with a week-long trip to the country in March, could open a window to future collaboration between the university and the Ethiopian government, team leaders said.

During the trip, MBA students along with experts from Technology, Licensing and Commercialization completed an analysis and gave recommendations to Ethiopian government officials on how they could improve the African country’s economic development in global markets.

Specifically, the project focused on how Ethiopia could increase income flow from the global export of three key crops — flowers, sesame and coffee.

The MBA students started the project autumn quarter as part of their Business Solutions Teams course, which provides students experience in diagnosing and solving real-world business problems, said Michael Leiblein, associate professor of management and a team member who visited the country.

Jean Schelhorn, associate vice president of TLC, suggested the project to Leiblein after meeting with Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Agriculture Adissu Legesse of Ethiopia and his delegation during their visit to Columbus last summer.

Legesse said his country was seeking business expertise in economic development.

“Basically they told us they had good soil and climate to grow their crops, but they were seeking the steps or business practices to give them a competitive advantage in the global market,” Schelhorn said.

Schelhorn and Leiblein formed a team comprised of Erin Bender from the TLC office, seven second-year MBA students enrolled in Leiblein’s Business Solution Teams course — Drew Carmichael, Ashish Chaturvedi, Piyush Dubey, Dimitar Karaivanov, Todd Muller, Ameya Tamhaney, and Anurag Trivedi — and Kahassai Tafese, a Columbus businessman who is familiar with the Ethiopian agricultural market.

Prior to its visit to Ethiopia, the team conducted research on Ethiopia’s market position, competition and competitive advantages. In addition, the students were introduced to agriculture production and retailing facilities in Ohio to educate them on the processes they would see in Ethiopia.

When the team landed in Ethiopia, it found a country with abundant natural resources, but limited financial, transportation and technological infrastructure. Exporters are often required to pay upward of 75 percent of their investment up-front, burros are still used to bring some crops from farms to roads and electricity and water supplies are limited. As a result, the society remains somewhat stratified with a small middle class and some workers earning wages as low as $1.50 a day.

Meeting with processors, exporters, logistic specialists and government officials, the team was provided with large amounts of information to conduct its research and give recommendations.

“They basically opened all their doors for us and allowed us to take a look at anything we wanted so that we could give them accurate and well-educated solutions,” Schelhorn said.

Members of the team were treated like celebrities by the Ethiopian press. Interviews with the team were broadcast on national TV at least four evenings and twice articles were published on the front page of the national newspaper.

“One thing we all felt good about was how we were able to open up areas for the press there that they had never seen before our visit,” Schelhorn said.

The press gained access for the first time to a number of sites, including the National Coffee Auction, coffee tasting and storage facilities and the national cold-storage exporting station at the airport.

The team interacted with policymakers at the highest level of the Ethiopian government, including the Ethiopian ambassador to the United States, the Ethiopian deputy prime minister and his ministry, the U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia, as well as 40 of the leading investors in the country.

On the last day of the trip, the students shared their recommendations to Legesse and his ministry. Some of the options included improving the distribution of flowers, increasing the investment in agricultural education and enhancing marketing of distinct types of high-quality Ethiopian coffee.

Leiblein said he believed the project accomplished two objectives: It gave students the opportunity to work on critical economic development strategies and opened further collaboration between Ethiopia and Ohio State.

“It was a wonderful cultural and learning experience for the students, but more importantly, I think this project demonstrated our students' ability to understand and contribute to discussions regarding a business or country’s competitive strategy and the value of bringing together teams of interdisciplinary experts from across campus,” Leiblein said.