Ilhame Ouansafi, an MBA graduate of HEC Montréal, is one of three MBAs Without Borders Advisors currently serving in Malawi as part of the USAID-funded Strengthening Health Outcomes through the Private Sector project led by Abt Associates. Her work is focused on developing new revenue streams for St. Luke’s Mission Hospital in Malosa, Malawi. We recently sat down with Ilhame to get her perspective on life and business in Malawi. Here, she shares her perspective on the realities of life as an MBA Without Borders Advisor.
“Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I may remember. Involve me and I learn.”
Tell us about your MWB assignment and what you have been doing in Malosa so far.
St Luke’s Mission Hospital in Malosa, Malawi has traditionally operated as a charity institution that relies heavily on international donors to provide health care at a minimal cost. With the decrease of international funds given to the hospital, St Luke’s finds itself in a very difficult financial situation, accumulating debt and struggling to operate at full capacity. As an MWB Advisor focusing on Enterprise Development, I am responsible for researching and identifying possible income generating activities that could help the hospital become more sustainable and less dependent on international donors.
The first phase of my project was to look at both the processes and opportunities in developing an enterprise, with the objective of leveraging existing assets and infrastructure to generate new sources of revenue. I conducted several interviews to gather information on the hospital’s operations needs in order to have a better idea for potential businesses that could be developed in Malosa.
What is your favorite aspect of your host community?
Malosa is a rural area where agriculture represents the main source of income. The people in Malosa are very conservative; women wear the traditional “chitinje” and families usually have five or six kids and most don’t speak any English. I love this about Malosa—it makes me feel like I live in what I like to call the “real” Malawi. There is a sense of community here that I have yet to experience anywhere else; people always have open doors and open hearts.
What has been your most challenging experience so far?
My most challenging experience has been the realization that while I am responsible for finding new income generating opportunities that can help the hospital become more sustainable and less dependent on international funds, I cannot ignore the reality that the hospital still needs donors to survive. Because of its heavy debts, St Luke’s cannot obtain loans from banks so it’s important the hospital has clear and transparent financial information to maintain trust with donors.
Have you met any especially interesting people? Tell us about them.
I particularly enjoyed meeting Mr. Jali, the night guard in the house where I used to live, and learning more about his life and large family. He told me about one of his daughters who died of AIDS; he looked deeply affected while talking about her, explaining that she was a genuine, good person but died because of the unfaithfulness of her husband and the illness he brought home. He told me about the mistakes he made as a young man, when he didn’t care about school and was an alcoholic. He was on the verge of destroying his life when his late father, whom he strongly admired, begged him to lead a better life. Today, Mr. Jali is a wise man, reflecting on his past experiences and giving advice to a younger generation, while always being grateful for having become the person he is today.
Have you learned anything new about yourself?
I have traveled and worked in various places around the world, including several emerging markets. I am myself “African” (I come from Morocco), but this is the first time that I have traveled to Sub-Saharan Africa. During my first few days in Malawi, I was a bit frustrated because schedules were frequently changing and I often found myself waiting for others to arrive for meetings. In Malawi, time is more fluid and punctuality is not necessarily viewed as a priority. As a very punctual person, I initially had trouble adjusting to this approach. I have since learned to slow down and adapt to the Malawian way of being. I now realize that I am capable of being more patient and adaptable than I had previously thought.
What is your favorite thing about Malawi culture?
Malawi is known as the “Warm Heart of Africa.” Across the country, I find people to be very friendly, constantly smiling, and always ready to lend a hand. Although Malawi is one of the world’s poorest countries, Malawians seem to be happy and thankful for what they have. I am also moved by the importance of family here, probably because it’s similar to my home country, Morocco. People are there for each other, helping and sharing with those in need.
What is the most interesting food you have eaten?
I recently went to Liwonde National Park for a weekend trip. One evening the owner of the lodge where we were staying prepared a very special dish for us: Hippo Stew. I never thought that one could eat hippopotamus! The stew was prepared with brandy and Coke, a surprising mix which gave the meat a sweet and delicious flavor.
Have you learned any of the local language?
The national language of Malawi is Chichewa. Although English is widely spoken in Malawi and is considered the business language, it is not spoken by many people in poorer, more rural areas. Upon arriving here, I set out to learn Chichewa so I would be able to better communicate with the patients, their families, and the community, but it was much easier to learn foreign languages when I was in my twenties than it is now! Although I still cannot have a full conversation in Chichewa, I noticed that Malawians are very happy that I can at least share a few sentences in their local language.
What are you most excited for in the next stage of your project?
In the coming months, I will be training the management staff at St Luke’s Hospital on processes for identifying potential enterprises and performing feasibility studies. I am really excited to prepare and conduct these trainings, and hope to make it as interactive as possible. I am a strong believer in Benjamin Franklin’s famous saying, “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I may remember. Involve me and I learn.”
Tell us about something surprising that you learned.
Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world, where over half of the population still lives below the poverty line, earning less than $1 per day. As such, I expected that the cost of living would be quite inexpensive. To my surprise, I found Malawi to be rather expensive—the lack of local production means the country relies heavily on imports. Fuel is extremely expensive and so the majority of Malawians who can’t afford to pay for buses must walk daily for long distances carrying buckets of water, food, clothes and their children. It also has an indirect effect, as all transported goods are accordingly more expensive.
Jailan Adly is the Director of MBAs Without Borders where she is responsible for the overall design and implementation of the MBAs Without Borders program. In addition, she manages various International Corporate Volunteer programs for clients such as IBM, FedEx, John Deere, Medtronic, and Novartis in Morocco, Tanzania, South Africa, Tunisia, and India.