A Capstone Experience: Land Development in Ethiopia

Hi everyone. I realize that now—the decision waiting period—is a stressful time. To lighten the mood, I thought you might enjoy reading about some of the exciting things our PAs have been up to. So I wanted to take the time to share with you a story from our newest PA, Tinsley Corbett, MPA ’15, in which she shares her Fall Capstone experience, which just wrapped up last week.

SIPA workshops, or capstones, apply SIPA students’ practical skills and analytical knowledge to a real-world issue. Small student consulting teams, under faculty supervision, are assigned a substantive, policy-oriented project with an external client. Each team produces an actionable report and an oral briefing. Workshops give students a chance to refine their skills and knowledge, make a positive contribution, and build a network. Traditionally, most SIPA Capstone Projects are completed during the final spring semester, but a lucky and ambitious few may opt to complete it during the fall, like Tinsley did. Here’s her experience with with investment group Ethiopia SouthWest Holdings.

Finding the project
After spending my summer interning in Kigali, Rwanda I returned to New York and came across a class offered at Columbia Business School called “Private Equity and Entrepreneurship in Africa” that fulfilled the Capstone requirement at SIPA.  The class, co-taught for years by Paul Tierney and Murray Low, offers brilliant lectures and enriching guest speakers along with a selection of consulting projects to be conducted in groups throughout the semester. The course also requires travel to Africa to complete your client’s project over Winter Break.

Four of my classmates (including one other SIPA student) and I immediately began working with Ethiopia’s SouthWest Holdings on a real estate development project for the company’s recent acquisition of 8,000-square meters in the heart of Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa. The Holding Company’s CEO, Tewodros Ashenafi, is a Columbia College graduate and personal friend of the professors’. After working on the project for about a month, Mr. Ashenafi came to speak to the class and was just as charismatic and inspiring as we’d heard, which made us very excited to work on his company’s project. As one of Ethiopia’s most successful entrepreneurs, his holdings company includes everything from hotels to bottled water to oil and gas exploration.

The challenges
Throughout the semester, our group met weekly outside of class for Skype calls with the client and to prepare for meetings with our professors. The time difference between New York City and Addis Ababa was the biggest difficulty, along with adapting to the different style of business done in Ethiopia. We were off to a slow start trying to get to the bottom of our client’s vision for the land, but were finally able to make an exciting proposal into which they wanted us to dive deeper. After months of doing research and preparing financial models from New York, it was time to get our hands dirty on the ground in Ethiopia so that we could better understand what type of development would actually be feasible for this land. This is when the real fun began!

Guest House

SouthWest Holdings Guest House where our team stayed during our 9 days in Addis Ababa.

Going abroad
Upon arrival in Addis, our team was taken to the company guest house where we would lay our heads for the next eight nights. Work days flew by as we went back and forth between the SouthWest Holdings Headquarters and surveying different sites in and around the city. One day we were lucky enough to steal two hours of Mr. Ashenafi’s time over lunch at his favorite Italian restaurant, which was definitely a highlight of the trip. Nights were filled with fun and entertaining outings to places like the famous Yod Abyssinia Cultural Restaurant, Castellis (a “Brangelina” favorite), and our favorite local bar, The Black Rose, located in the buzzing Boston Commerce Building.  During the weekend days, we toured Addis Ababa’s cultural sites, like the National Museum of Ethiopia where we saw our 3.2 million-year-old ancestor, Lucy, and did some shopping in the Merkato, which is Africa’s largest open air market.

A commendable act of a young man carrying 25 mattresses through the Merkato

A commendable act of a young man carrying 25 mattresses through the Merkato.

The end result
After fine-tuning our takeaways from the trip, our team presented the final proposal to the client and to our class a few weeks ago on February 17. SouthWest Holding’s gracious reaction to our presentation made all of the hard work worthwhile. Hopefully we will all be able to return in a few years to see the final product!

I was grateful to be part of such a dynamic and creative team and to work with a client who was both appreciative and excited about our deliverable. The most rewarding part of the Capstone experience for me was twofold. First, I established fantastic friendships with my team members, both at SIPA and the Business School, which helped bridge the gap between two of Columbia’s graduate schools. Second, the project exposed the vast opportunity for business in Africa and revealed the chance for both large investment and entrepreneurship throughout the country. The strong network I built from the Capstone Project and the class have already proved to be a valuable asset in my job search. Of all of the different things in which I have engaged at SIPA, this Capstone experience has been the most rewarding and has prepared me best for what to expect in the professional world.

The team: Yoshi Shiraishi, Kelsey Buchbinder, Tinsley Corbett, and Alfie Garcia standing in front of a major landmark near the Ethiopian National Theater

The team: Yoshi Shiraishi, Kelsey Buchbinder, Tinsley Corbett, and Alfie Garcia standing in front of a major landmark near the Ethiopian National Theater.