By Michael Blanding
Published May 27, 2014
How one of the most complex projects in Tuck Global Consultancy history pushed the boundaries of experiential learning and delivered hard-earned insights for the client.
Jeff Nitz T’14 saw his first rocket propelled grenade launcher on the streets of Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, last winter. “It was just a group of guys in the back of an F-150 pickup truck, driving down the road,” he says. By this time he’d gotten used to seeing soldiers at checkpoints carrying AK-47s, barely giving them a glance. For decades, Côte d’Ivoire had been known as the “Paris of West Africa.” A collapse of its economy in the 1980s was followed by ethnic strife, a military coup, and a civil war that ended only a few years ago in an uneasy peace.
As part of a team of Tuck students who had come to Abidjan to study approaches to alleviating child malnutrition, Nitz and his team were admittedly nervous about working in Cote d’Ivoire. But at the same time, he was excited about the chance to contribute in a recovering country. “It’s something I had been interested in from the time I was applying to Tuck,” says Nitz, who had formerly worked as a consultant at the Monitor Group. “I thought it would be a great opportunity to take some of my consulting skills and apply them in an international context.”
He found that opportunity through the Tuck Global Consultancy (TGC), a second-year elective course that provides students with valuable international exposure through real-world consulting work for a host of worldwide clients. Since 1997, Tuck Global Consultancy teams have completed more than 180 projects in 55 countries and have worked with some of the world’s biggest brands, including Citibank, Home Depot, Microsoft, and Unilever.
From the beginning, this project was different. “It was the most complex engagement we’ve ever tried,” says TGC director Kerry Laufer. “The scale and geographic footprint were unprecedented.” Rather than working with a corporate client, Tuck would be engaging with Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), a Geneva-based international development nonprofit. And instead of working in a single country, student teams would be working at five sites in four different countries—Côte D’Ivoire, South Africa, Kenya, and India—in an effort to evaluate GAIN’s nutrition programs.
GAIN has pioneered a new brand of international development, partnering with private businesses to manufacture nutritional supplements to distribute to malnourished infants. Its projects employed a variety of models—subsidizing current businesses, partnering with government. The organization turned to the Tuck students to analyze the models from a business perspective and identify some of the lessons learned.
In Côte d’Ivoire, GAIN partnered with a for-profit business that created sachets of fortified cereal. Nitz and his classmates spent their days waking up at 7 a.m. and driving around Abidjan to talk to grocery store and pharmacy owners and their customers in an effort to learn who was buying the products and why. “The malnutrition problems there aren’t caused by a shortage of food; they’re caused by foods with low nutritional value,” he explains. Part of the challenge was to educate mothers about the importance of nutritional supplements in nourishing their children.
On one memorable day, the group went into a low-income neighborhood of dirt roads and one-story concrete houses. A group of young children swarmed around the distribution motorcycle they had brought with them. “The level of poverty was an eye-opening experience relative to anything I’d ever seen before,” says Nitz.
As they analyzed the business, the students recognized the challenges they were dealing with. So far, it had succeeded in making its products affordable through subsidies from GAIN. If it was going to be truly sustainable, however, they determined it would have to raise prices or lower quality. “GAIN and its in-country partners were adamant about the misperception in the nutrition world that you can fortify a food and it’s basically free,” says Nitz. “But if you put in an additive you may need to increase milk or sugar content to make it palatable. With any increase in cost, you are going to have challenges in one of two ways—either with the sustainability of the business or the affordability of the product.”
Adding to the challenges are additional difficulties most businesses don’t have to deal with. Shortly after launching its nutritional packets in 2011, civil unrest shut down the city for five months, hampering production and driving up prices on raw materials. Despite these challenges, Nitz’s team worked closely with GAIN’s in-country partners to tell their story of successfully launching an industry-changing product in a very challenging political and economic climate. They also worked closely together to determine how GAIN’s partners could balance product quality, consumer affordability, and business sustainability in the long-term.
GAIN approached Tuck through the Global Business School Network (GBSN), a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that works with business schools to help develop management talent in the developing world. Originally, GAIN was looking for a professional consultant to perform the work, but GBSN encouraged its client to use students instead. “It’s about the same cost to send one individual consultant as to send four very qualified and experienced and passionate students,” says GBSN membership officer Lisa Leander. “Typically that is going to have more impact than one person working in the field.”
Adding to the value is the fact that Tuck students already have real-world business experience and are on their way back to that world in short order. “Thirty-five percent of Tuck’s graduating class is going into consulting—20 percent to McKinsey, Bain, or Boston Consulting Group,” says Laufer. “We say, ‘In six months, they’ll be professional consultants, whereas now you’re getting them at cost.’” (TGC clients pay a nominal program fee and students’ travel expenses.)
At the same time, says Leander, the job taps into students’ burgeoning interest in social entrepreneurship. “We have seen across the board a huge desire by students to both do good and do good business, and this is firsthand experience in that,” she says. When it put the job out to bid, GBSN originally envisioned teams from different business schools handling the different sites. After seeing the strength of Tuck’s application, says Leander, it decided to tap Tuck for all four—and added a fifth. Of the 20 students invited to participate through TGC, every single one said yes.
Initially, GAIN instructed the teams to evaluate the five projects and extract common takeaways that could be used in future work. The model it was using—combining private enterprise, nonprofits, and government to tackle something as complicated as child malnutrition—was new, and it wanted to find out how it was working. The Tuck teams struggled to come up with a common methodology it would apply to such diverse models.
The two teams in India, for example, were dealing with businesses on opposite ends of the spectrum. In Hyderabad, the team led by Sara Malcolm T’14 worked with a unique government-owned business called Andhra Pradesh (AP) Foods, which pursued a centralized production model to produce its fortified foods. In Rajasthan, meanwhile, the team helmed by Stephanie O’Brien T’14, studied the work of so-called “self-help groups,” small crews of women who learned job skills while creating food to feed their communities.
The students found that both models had their benefits and drawbacks. “You can’t compete with the scalability of the centralized model,” says Malcolm. At the same time, locals were skeptical of nutritional supplements produced by a large institution it wrongly perceived as a private corporation. “It can work really, really well but a lot of things have to be in place,” concludes Malcolm, who previously worked in wealth management for Goldman Sachs and retail business management for Amazon.com. “The government has to be there to fully support it, and there has to be a lot of communication so people understand it’s not a private enterprise.”
On the other hand, the self-help groups O’Brien observed in Rajasthan required extra coordination costs to cover a significant area. But in speaking with the women, it was clear that they had been empowered by the experience to take on more leadership roles in their community—a novelty for the traditional culture of the rural area.
In observing the process by which the women roasted and ground grains to produce nutritional powder, O’Brien’s teammate, Bryan Cory T’14, was able to recognize bottlenecks that slowed down the process, and recommended changes in timing to make the self-help group more efficient. The most powerful moments for O’Brien, however, were the more casual ones she spent talking with the women and sharing their life stories. “Working outside the house and making money had clearly given them self-confidence and authority in their homes,” says O’Brien, who had previously worked in child health and wellness in New Orleans. “It was fascinating to be at a rural facility making powder for malnourished children and hear these women talk about their own children and their dreams for them to become doctors. That was pretty striking.”
Communicating with the women on such an intimate level wasn’t easy for the group—located in a rural village most of the women didn’t even speak Hindi, let alone English. Luckily, one of the team members, Shreyas Mehta T’14, spoke Gujarati, which was close enough to the local dialect for him to understand and ask questions. Jeff Nitz’s group in Côte d’Ivoire faced similar language difficulties, relying on the team’s two French speakers, T’14s Ariel Shaanan and Jessica Seymour, to ask and record answers to questions, and then relay them to Nitz and Summer Bailey T’14 to invite follow-up questions. The team became adept at the system, continuing it even in situations where interviewees understood English in order to set them at ease.
Language difficulties were just the beginning of the challenges the students faced in conducting their research. O’Brien and another member of her team faced visa problems upon arrival in India that stranded them for several days. (A testament to the strength of the Tuck network, when one of them posted about this on Facebook, a first-year student from India stepped in and helped them navigate the process to acquire new visas.)
Once on the ground, all of the groups had to contend with pollution, safety concerns, and traffic in order to stay on schedule with their interviews. By far their greatest challenge began halfway through the third week—with only four days left in the field. After seeing initial reports, GAIN’s leadership came back with requests for a more detailed financial analysis of its programs.
The request sent the teams scrambling against the clock to reach their goals, returning to post a new set of questions to some of the key players they’d previously interviewed. The teams’ earlier diligence in establishing positive relationships now paid off, as some had to overcome wariness on the part of local partners in divulging financial data. “I truly believe, having witnessed it, that if the team hadn’t built up the relationship and the rapport with the client partner in the first two weeks, they would not have been as successful in the final days when this change in direction came,” says Laufer, who accompanied the Côte d’Ivoire team.
After returning from the field, the students put together their findings in case studies for each of the five projects, which are now forming the basis of a master report that will provide guidance for GAIN’s public-private partnerships going forward—hopefully helping to streamline their models and bring better nutrition to thousands of children around the world. In India, for example, the students recommended that GAIN explore ways to overcome the skepticism to centralized food distribution, but at the same time incorporate the trickle-down benefits of the self-help group model.
“Overall we were quite satisfied with the final products,” says GAIN’s childhood nutrition director Marti van Liere. “The detailed analyses of the business models presented in PowerPoint are very helpful for our country teams, but we are also considering adapting them for external audiences.”
For the students who participated, the project taught them valuable lessons, whether they go into international development or not. “There’s so much more happening in the world than what we are aware of,” says Malcolm. “This experience taught me how to work better with people from other cultures, to be patient and adaptable, and gave me the chance to learn from people different than myself.”