Students Study Tomato Agribusiness in Senegal
Moonlight was the only thing that lit the cratered dirt road as three American University students whipped around a corner in a cramped car headed to the northern region of Senegal. The Kogod School of Business students were about to visit local tomato farmers and embark on a project that would go far beyond the typical course work of an MBA program.
Krissa Lum, Joe Sidari, and Fadel Kane aren’t your average MBA candidates. The trio represents a new breed of business student, interested in the intersection between business and development. And what better way to explore that topic than to take a 10-day trip to Senegal to analyze the needs of tomato growers in the West African nation?
During their time in Senegal in August 2008, the team met with farmers across the country, spoke with representatives from SOCAS – the tomato company with a stranglehold on the product in Senegal – and worked with local aid organizations to understand what could be done to improve the livelihood of the Senegalese tomato grower. But their work for this project began long before that scary car ride.
One year ago, the three dual degree students – each working toward an MBA and a master’s degree from the School of International Service – sat down to plan a project that would combine their knowledge of business and interest in helping people in developing nations. After a year toiling over countless case studies, they were desperate for some real-world experience. Kane, a Senegal native, proposed they travel to his homeland to study the tomato farmers who make up a large percentage of the developing nation’s agribusiness.
“We really wanted to tackle a current problem and apply what we were learning in business school,” said Lum. “School is great because it’s a controlled environment, but to do something in the real world and apply the skills we’ve learned was very attractive.”
Over the next year, the group researched the tomato industry, spoke with representatives from USAID, the Senegal Embassy, the World Bank, and others, set up interviews, and outlined the goals and objectives for the project. Then came the difficult part – getting the funding and support.
They turned to Kogod professor of international business Jennifer Oetzel.
“As a student in my class, I was very impressed with Krissa and after meeting Joe and Fadel I knew that this group could do a great job with the project,” said Oetzel. “All three were extremely motivated and genuinely interested in applying business knowledge to promote economic development.”
With Oetzel’s guidance, financial support from Kogod, and months of background work, the students finally found themselves rushing across Senegal for 10 days analyzing the tomato industry and its players. There was SOCAS, the company buying the farmers’ product cheap and producing 90 percent of the nation’s tomato paste; the foreign companies providing competition with cheaper tomato products; and finally CGER, the government organization created to give aid to the tomato growers. The students realized that the tomato growers of Senegal are isolated, lack the resources and communication to improve their standing, and have few advocates interested in improving their situation.
On April 8, Lum, Kane, and Sidari stood in front of 20 or so AU students and faculty to present their findings and recommendations. Their solution to the plight of the Senegalese tomato grower was to use CGER, the aid group, to create a line of communication for the farmers to share best practices and work together to demand more money from SOCAS for their product.
But more importantly, the students shared their experience. They outlined the unforeseen costs, the hard work, and ultimately, the reward of getting out of the classroom and using their business knowledge to improve someone else’s situation. And they urged the students in the room to consider creating a project of their own.
“Taking what we’re learning and applying it to real-world experience, that for me has been the greatest thing in my Kogod experience,” said Sidari. “In 10 or 15 years, we may remember a few people or a few professors, but this project is something we will always remember. It is a great memory we have created.”