This is a story about dreaming big, the optimism of youth, and the certainty that entrepreneurial thinking can turn hope into action.
Nine faces. Frozen on the monitor.
Obed, Ashish, Priya, Fadilatou (Fadila), Rodrigue, Suzanne, Marcia, Aissata, and Lothar.
Was this the sixth time the call froze? No. The seventh!
This is just a planning meeting, thought Priya Wenzel, Vice President, Global Head Partner Ecosystem Success, Digital Supply Chain at SAP. What will we do when the internship starts in full?
Burkina Faso, a landlocked country in West Africa, surrounded by Ivory Coast, Mali, Niger, and Ghana, was a French protectorate until its independence in 1960, followed by decades of miliary coups. It was largely out of the headlines until 2022, when it saw not one but two military upheavals, the second of which made a soldier chief of state.
“I was in Munich waiting for our dean to arrive from Africa,” said Suzanne Pertl, founder and president of the Burkina Institute of Technology (BIT). “He was on the way to the airport from Koudougou, which is where our university is located, when he heard about the putsch.”
The capital, where the coup occurred, is 90 minutes from the university.
“I met Suzanne at a conference or think tank in Germany a number of years ago,” said Luka Mucic, former chief financial officer at SAP. “She told me about this wonderful institute she was building and asked my advice.”
Mucic liked what he saw and urged SAP to invest, specifically in the institute’s IT Tower, which became the centerpiece of a campus designed by Diébédo Francis Kéré, a Burkinabé-German architect and the first African to win the Pritzker Architecture Prize, considered the architecture world’s most prestigious honor.
“I wanted to bring students from Africa to Silicon Valley,” said SAP’s Wenzel. As a native South African of modest background, she knew about the scarcity of opportunity. “I was fortunate to have a father who said, ‘You can do anything.’ I dreamt big and came to the U.S. with $100, and a scholarship to attend university. I want to help interns dream big, too.”
Looking for opportunities to “pay it forward” and support students in Africa, Wenzel contacted the SAP Afrika Kommt program, which connected her with Pertl, who was looking for internship opportunities for BIT students.
COVID-19 had other ideas. With restrictions on travel, Wenzel and Pertl pivoted from an in-person internship to a virtual one, ever conscious of the challenges they’d face building a virtual program with BIT’s students in Burkina Faso, where basic infrastructure – consistent power, reliable internet – was not assured.
Ashish Pujari, former SAP Vice President Strategic Customer Initiatives & Ecosystems Industry 4.0 who volunteered with the program, said, “I knew a little about Burkina Faso and how it is still a developing nation, so my expectation was that I’d be talking to a student who knew little about innovation and Industry 4.0 – my areas of expertise. It turned out very differently. Obed was brilliant.”
Obed Gueswende, excited to be accepted into the program, was apprehensive, too. “It was, let’s say, a little bit scary, because SAP is so big,” said Gueswende. “And the telecommunication infrastructure is not advanced in my country. We had connection issues and sometimes meetings were cut short or cancelled.”
Gueswende had a deep understanding of the West Africa region, their appetite for innovation, and the key industries.
“Despite cultural differences, Obed embraced the SAP environment and learned through design thinking workshops and real-work training,” said Pujari. “He is a keen observer and a proactive learner.”
The program Wenzel envisioned focused on the lofty goal of entrepreneurship. But first they had to keep the connection live.
“Connectivity and hardware issues were a surprise,” she said. “We take for granted how easy it is to work daily with people in so many different countries. Despite facing connectivity, issues that are common to West Africa, the drive and determination of these student interns inspired us.”
Fadilatou Koumbo Diallo, another BIT student in the program, delivered exceptional results.
“A typical day started at 8am with a 30-minute call with my supervisor,” said Fadila. “We would review the work I did the previous day and discuss the new schedule. I participated in two other daily calls where I contributed to discussions and provided updates. My workday usually ended at 6pm.”
After Wenzel reviewed Fadila’s work, the two discussed potential applications in Burkina Faso. Fadila created a partner ecosystem “heat” map of Africa to illustrate the locations of SAP partners and customers to identify untapped areas of opportunity, including in Burkina Faso.
Meanwhile, the political upheaval in Burkina Faso, after the initial shock, settled into a distant but ongoing murmur, far from the BIT campus.
“I am eager to continue learning about Industry 4.0. I believe it holds tremendous potential for Africa. Using knowledge gained during my internship, I hope to assist companies in my country and beyond to adopt ERP systems, drive digital transformation, and achieve resilience even in challenging times.”
– Obed Gueswende
“It was an amazing experience to delve into the complexities and understand how it all functions. And having women in leadership roles as my managers gave me the courage to keep pushing forward and achieving my goals. Their support and guidance were invaluable.”
– Fadila Koumbo Diallo
“The challenges we faced were significant, but we persevered and provided students with experiences and skills to be more marketable. But it’s not just about technical expertise. We wanted to inspire them. We’re shaping the next generation of change-makers in Africa and the world.”
– Priya Wenzel
Fast Facts: SAP Digital Internship Program with BIT
- Launched September 2022
- 6 students in initial cohort
- Sample projects:
- Partner ecosystem coverage in Africa
- Industry 4.0
- Supply chain risk management
This blog first appeared here: SAP Shapes Burkina Faso Interns to be Change Makers | SAP Blogs