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Building a Climate of Respect in African Communities
Benjamin Nieuwsma will receive a degree in business production and operations management from the University of Idaho this month, but the best skill he garnered for his future came from Africa while trying to teach a small tribe to be more entrepreneurial.
During two academic breaks, he headed to Africa; during his second trip, he set up an audio recording studio, where he taught a seminar on business feasibility and analysis to help the local people learn the business process.
"I wanted to help the people learn things that were not natural to their culture, such as basic accounting of money and scheduling time," said Nieuwsma. "In many instances, they have local products that they view as worthless, which they actually can trade to the local or even international market and become successful."
His work with the Bakwé tribe in Ivory Coast had a profound impact on the way Nieuwsma forever will do business. During casual interactions with the tribe, he found that his response, or lack thereof, to a person generated a large amount of excitement.
"One time, a woman came by the studio with some freshly baked goods. Because they aren't as sanitary as we are, and because my immune system was not adapted, I declined her gift," said Nieuwsma. "The people who were with me got really excited, and I didn't understand the language enough to realize what was going on."
Eventually, someone managed to convey that he hadn't properly recognized the woman, and had committed a social gaffe. "In that culture, it is essential that you recognize someone as a person, first and foremost, before doing any business," he said.
“It is important to treat people as people, and appreciate them for who they are,” he said. "In that culture, when you walk down the street and encounter someone, you must ask how they are doing, how their family is doing, how their pets are doing and how their neighbors are doing. It is essential that you recognize someone as a person first and foremost before doing any business.”
Essentially, Nieuwsma realized that business really boils down to whom you know and how you treat them. "If you bend over backwards for them, they appreciate it and tell others, and your business grows. It's all about relationships," he said.
With the technical and analytical skills he's learned during his four years at Idaho, and armed with the cultural know-how of African business operations, Nieuwsma plans to return to Ivory Coast and help the locals recognize and leverage the value in the natural products of the area.
"If we do it right, we could slowly revolutionize industry in the country," he said. "With the tools that the University has given me – the excellent teaching from my professors on operations, accounting, finance, sales-forecasting and taxes – I have a huge amount of confidence going ahead with my business endeavors."