Mercer University students and faculty got down to business in Rwanda this summer, but they also put a lot of heart behind their work.
Dr. Etienne Musonera and Dr. Carol Cagle from the Eugene W. Stetson School of Business and Economics in Atlanta led 20 graduate and five undergraduate students on the fourth Mercer On Mission (MOM) trip to Rwanda.
For two weeks, the group worked with members of the AVEGA organization, which assists widows and orphans of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Many of these women and now-grown children have no means of income, and the not-for-profit group helps them develop ways to support themselves, Dr. Cagle said.
The days were long but productive for the Mercer students and faculty, as they got up at 7 a.m. every morning, drove an hour-and-a-half to the training site and returned to their lodging at 6:30 p.m.
They taught 22 Rwandans, most of whom were Tutsi widows, about business management and entrepreneurship skills through lectures and hands-on projects. The MOM participants followed up with several people with whom they worked last year and established relationships with new clients.
Mercer students were paired with the entrepreneurs to analyze their business ventures, which included a new restaurant as well as clothing, shoe, jewelry, vegetable and poultry businesses.
The students helped the Rwandans improve and evolve their business plans, get their finances in order and become more established so they could have a sustainable income, said Derrick Dale, who is finishing his Master of Business Administration degree at Mercer.
“We brought our business skills to them and aided them in being able to forecast years in advance and manage incomes,” Dale said. “It gave them a new perspective.”
Lydia Elsey, an accounting major and rising junior, said she worked with two women who were leaders in their communities and planned to share what they learned with others. One sold vegetables and took away some new business practices to implement. The second woman was able to adapt her fashion business to prepare for Rwanda’s upcoming ban on selling secondhand clothing.
“These women haven’t had any formal training, and that was one of their first tastes of what Western education is like,” Elsey said. “It was great to see how excited they were. I felt like we did leave them in good hands.”
Dr. Cagle said a diverse group of Mercer students went on this year’s trip, including about a third of them who were originally from other African countries. The students were amazed at the differences between Rwanda and their home countries, and they were struck by the poverty they saw in the countryside.
“Everybody that goes comes back changed,” Dr. Cagle said. “All of them came home with a new appreciation for where they’d been and what they had. It was a life-changing experience.”
Elsey said she was surprised by the sheer kindness of the Rwandan people and how enthusiastic they were to receive business advice. The trip was a good reminder that business is at the center of people’s livelihood and culture everywhere.
The Mercer group receives regular updates on the AVEGA members and their businesses and communicates with them through the WhatsApp messenger program.
“They just become part of the family, and we stay in touch with them quite often,” Dr. Cagle said.