Business Around the World: It…. varies

Following on from my work in Sudan last year, yesterday I was given the opportunity to hold a workshop for the three winners of the Mashrouy programme; Houida, Abrar and Maha.

The three were over as part of the 2-week long trip that winners of the Mashrouy programme receive, which as well as a tour of the UK, includes workshops on business practice.

Mashrouy Winners: Houida, Abrar and Maha, after my workshop on tracking business progress and utilising mentors
Mashrouy Winners: Houida, Abrar and Maha, after my workshop on tracking business progress and utilising mentors

Once again I was struck by the innovativeness of the businesses and how different they were to those in England. The businesses are, from left to right: production of an organic tick-repellant to reduce illness in cattle from local natural resources; software for analysing mammograms with lower cost and higher accuracy; and a substance for tanning leather extracted naturally from tree bark, reducing use of imported chrome and the environmental impact of chrome.

Speaking about any aspect of business when the markets are so different is tough. I was asked to speak about tracking business progress using KPIs and OKRs (a topic we went into great detail on during Techstars) and then on how to utilise mentors and QA automation services. All candidates in Mashrouy work with mentors, but getting the most out of a mentor is a process that requires some planning. We discussed how to write short, punctual emails with clear and concise points and ‘asks’, and the best way to ask for an introduction to somebody that your mentor knows (with the help of a post by Russell Buckley).

Computer Science

A Quick Trip to The Sudan

A couple of months ago I saw a post for Kairos Fellows about an all-expenses-paid trip to the Sudan to mentor on a Sudanese TV programme that’s a cross between The Apprentice and Dragons Den.

Free trip, I heard? Count me in! I wasn’t entirely sure it was genuine, that it wasn’t an elaborate plan to lure some British idiots out to Sudan, but a quick phone call to the British Council confirmed it was indeed sponsored by them, so I decided to drop the organiser an email who, after some back and forth, offered me place.

Getting the Visa was incredibly straightforward: a couple of weeks before leaving, we were told to go to the Sudanese Embassy and tell them we were part of The Mashrouy Programme, which certainly speeded things along. We met the ambassador, and 24 hours later our visas were ready!

Six weeks later, having just finished the TechStars demo day that morning, I jumped on an almost entirely empty flight to Khartoum, changing in Jordan. Because of the demo day, I was arriving a couple of days after the start.

My first moments in Sudan were really eye-opening. I’d been told to meet the British Council’s driver, Mr. Khalifa, who would take me to the hotel when I arrived at 2am. The journey, although only a few minutes long, was incredible as Sudanese roads are very different to those in the UK: there’s large rocks on the motorways, and it’s not considered abnormal to do a u-turn on them. I even learnt some Arabic!

The next morning (Wednesday) I met the rest of the team who had come out on the project a couple of days before: Peter McFarlane, Sophie Dundovic and Anthony Catt, who filled me in on the different sessions and the presentations and talks we would be giving. The first event was with the Mashrouy top 100, who were presenting their projects (Mashrouy means ‘My Project’) to the mentors (local mentors and us) at large round tables in the Hotel.

It was there that I had my first experience of working through a translator – an experience I will never forget! Obviously communicating is much slower and more effort, but as a result you think through your words and the points you wish to make much more carefully and I found it led to a more directed and concentrated conversation.

The Mashrouy 100
The Mashrouy 100

In the following days we spoke to classes from the 100 about our story, our companies and lessons we have learnt from our experience. On the Thursday I spoke to two classes about how I got involved in Entrepreneurship, my startup and what business was like in Europe at a local business school. After each session I was swamped with questions, and then when I left entrepreneurs wanting to tell me about their companies – it was really surreal!

On the Friday we had the Mashrouy Conference and Panel, a public event for a few hundred local business leaders, the Mashrouy 100, and other young people to come and hear us lecture on a topic of our choice and then ask us questions in a panel discussion. This was another translator affair, but a wonderful experience: whilst what you are saying is being translated you have some time to think about the next couple of minutes of your talk until the next translation. There’s also an amusement aspect as well: there were times when a block would change in length (3 minutes to 30 seconds or 2 minutes to 5 minutes), or the audience laughed when I was sure I didn’t say anything funny! One topic of particular interest was what business was like in the UK and Europe vs Sudan/Africa, which turned into a number of really interesting conversations.

On the Saturday we took a day off to go and see some of Sudan, including the Pyramids of Meroë, the old Royal City and a rural village on the Nile. The pyramids were incredible: untouched and unspoilt (there was absolutely no tourist industry), and we were able to explore them on camels. The village on the Nile was very thought-provoking as well: the poverty was heartbreaking – it doesn’t come any worse. But the people were so happy and welcoming: we were welcomed into the village and the central buildings, everybody wanted to be in our photos, and they even took us out on a local fishing boat on some Nile rapids.

On Sunday the British Council held Khartoum’s First Entrepreneurship and Responsible Business Conference. Hundreds of business leaders from across Sudan came to the event to hear lectures varying from insights and deep-dives into existing large responsible companies, different ways in which business can be conducted responsibly, the idea of Social Impact business and more. I spoke about the Intersection of Social Impact Business and Technology.

Me Speaking at the Khartoum Responsible Business Conference
Me Speaking at the Khartoum Responsible Business Conference

There were a couple more events that I’ve skimmed over but I’ve tried to cover a range of different events vs covering all of the events. All in all, my time in Sudan was fantastic, enlightening, and even a little bit life changing. I met new people as different to myself as possible, was able to both share my experience and help others trying to start or run a business, and had the most amazing time visiting a wonderful and totally different country!