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Harvard Business Review

The New Agents of Market Penetrations

Posted on Harvard Business Review: July 15, 2011 10:56 AM

by Ndubuisi Ekekwe

Three MIT students pitched an idea: travel to India and help local students apply technical knowledge to local problems. Technology companies signed up and supported them. A few weeks ago, they won three awards in the MIT Global Challenge competition. They will be visiting selected Indian campuses teaching students the latest skills they mastered at MIT.

Recently, I traveled to Kenya as part of an African Union-funded research. I had wanted to know why some of the best mobile apps in Africa are coming from that nation. Kenya dominates the mobility ecosystem in the region. Kenyan groups understand frugal engineering suitable for the local market and are carefully adapting mobile technologies with African flavors. Today, most mobile payment firms operating in Africa have Kenyan origins.

After a week in Kenya, I understood what helps this nation to do well in this area. U.S. students visiting Africa for different international programs or internships prefer Kenya, overwhelmingly, than other sub-Sahara African countries. The government has made it even easier, issuing visas at the point of entry, thereby eliminating all the hassles associated with embassies. Through this policy, the nation perfected and positioned itself as the destination of European and American students looking into Africa.

In the hotel where I stayed, I met some U.S. students. They explained to me some of the projects they were working on with their local counterparts. It turned out that they were also learning from the local students. Adapting technologies to solve local problems was fun, but understanding that a product could not be painted with gold-like color because of concerns of attracting hooligans to users was priceless. That African perspective could be valuable to the visiting students in this age of globalization.

Around the world, students are moving around like never before and collaborations across campuses have reached a new level. MBA programs like the Carey Business School of the Johns Hopkins University require an international internship before graduation. This student mobility is an opportunity to accelerate technology diffusion to the developing world. Also, it is a cost-efficient path to enter new markets, especially for embedded systems and educational computer aided design firms.

Using students to create new markets is not new. Most U.S. technology companies equip labs for universities hoping that exposing them to their tools will facilitate adoption when they graduate to the industry. But they have limited plans for developing world because trainers are scarce in these regions. This is where these mobile students become important.

Yet, it is not only companies that can benefit from this intercontinental cross-fertilization of ideas. Governments and international development organizations must not overlook students. A well-planned program anchored around them could provide a better cost model than the present one, in which people are recruited and stationed permanently overseas. As the students learn new things from their schools in U.S. and Europe, they can share the ideas overseas when they travel.

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