Business on the Frontlines challenges long-time professor

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By Bill Nichols | Fall 2014

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This was probably one of the last places on earth I ever expected to find myself.

It was March, and I was traveling with a group of about 10 people just outside a remote village in Rwanda, when we came upon a series of ponds covered with a homemade-looking contraption fashioned from boards, sticks and wire.

My companions were a mix of Notre Dame graduate students and Catholic Relief Services in-country staff. And the scene in front of us, as odd as it was, represented a fairly sophisticated entrepreneurial venture that offered economic hope for a village on a continent in dire need of new answers.

Here’s how it worked: The villagers used the ponds to raise tilapia, a product they can 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 their 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 Mendoza, I decided to enroll in the MBA Business on the Frontlines (BOTFL) course. It’s an intense course that includes travel to post-conflict countries and regions to study an urgent problem that’s been defined by a non-governmental organization partner.

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