MOLINE — Many of the “students” posed for pictures amid the colorful green and yellow farm equipment as they toured the John Deere Pavilion in downtown Moline. In many ways, it was an appropriate stop for the Mandela Washington Fellows who are part of a six-week program at the University of Iowa.
About 25 actual entrepreneurs from 19 different sub-Saharan countries had just got done touring the Deere Harvester Plant in East Moline before coming to downtown Moline.
“Today was really exciting,” said Kelly Bedeian, assistant director for international business at the University of Iowa. Most of the students have seen Deere tractors in their own countries, she said. “So they are like, ‘oh my gosh, I am where they make them.’”
The U.S. State Department program, started during the Obama presidency, brings more than 700 entrepreneurs to the U.S. to various colleges and universities for an intense six-week program that includes community service. More than 35,000 people apply, Bedeian said.
Site visits, as happened Thursday, are also part of the program that includes a three-week Venture School where the entrepreneur-students learn about startups and expansion of businesses.
To many the entire trip is about exposure. Seeing is believing.
“Exposure is critical,” said Prechard Mhako, 33, an entrepreneur and financial consultant in manufacturing from Zimbabwe. ”I’ve gotten quite a lot. My biggest takeaway has been the exposure, seeing how some of the best practices from the USA. As a manufacturer myself, I’ve had the opportunity to see the large-scale factories, how they run, how automated they are, how smooth they run.
“I am going to take some of those ideas myself and use them when I go back home.”
One such concept was customer discovery, seeing things through the eyes of the customer, regardless of what was the prevailing thought of the manufacturer was before hearing from them.
“That has been a very key eye-opener for me,” Mhako said.
For Tendaye Mushonga, 35, an account manager with technology company in Zimbabwe, seeing the value of using technology first-hand was critical.
“The rest of the world has advanced because of technology,” he said. “Africa has not been blessed enough to embrace technology at the pace the rest of the world has.”
The painting process at Deere Harvester caught his eye, learning that a combine might take six hours to paint a few years ago, and now it is done in about 40 minutes.
“That’s the power of technology,” he said. “...Robotics working with less stuff.”
Things are much different in Zimbabwe, he noted. There, in an Uber-like system, farmers might sign up and share one tractor for a day, the same with implements.
“We underestimate what the U.S. has done,” he said. “If only we could bring it back and just replicate it.”
He said he believes Deere and his country have signed a recent deal that will result in more implements coming to Zimbabwe.
Mhiret Redi, 24, of Ethiopia, may be in a much different field as the founder of a medical device company, but she said she enjoyed Thursday and the entire experience at Iowa.
“It’s wonderful,” Redi said. “I wish I could connect the farmers back in Ethiopia to this company..”
She called the entire Mandela-Washington program “life-changing.”
“I found myself in someplace very, very different from what I have known before,” she said. “I learned a lot of things. Now I am ready to apply knowledge that I have learned here. I can’t wait to go back.”