SARASOTA, Fla. (Nov. 28, 2017) – USF Sarasota-Manatee’s Dr. Jean Kabongo often advises small businesses in Sarasota as well as his native Democratic Republic of Congo, but now the professor’s support is reaching new heights: He’s overseeing a World Bank program in Africa while also conducting research there.
Twice this past summer, Dr. Kabongo visited the Democratic Republic of Congo to meet business and government officials and work with a group of government-appointed research assistants. It’s all part of a consulting job supported by the World Bank to study the nation’s agricultural sector.
But the project – which he’s conducting on his own time – has also presented an opportunity of academic interest. The experience will offer the perfect opportunity to produce a research paper about emerging economies and the challenges and effects of certain agricultural reforms.
“I enjoy doing this work, first of all, because I have a special connection here. It’s my home country and it’s a really nice coincidence that I’m working here,” he said. “But I also enjoy this because the work features areas of my profession, the research and data analysis parts, plus also the service component, teaching.”
A professor of management and entrepreneurship at USFSM’s College of Business, Dr. Kabongo started consulting in June after months of talks between the government and World Bank, which routinely provides loans and other assistance to struggling nations.
That his efforts might someday lift the standard of living for thousands of people amazes the 54-year-old professor, who as an undergraduate attended college in capital city Kinshasa and still has family in the area.
“If this succeeds, it will be expanded across the nation. It’s a great honor,” he says.
Over the next year, Dr. Kabongo and his assistants – his eyes and ears on the ground – will work with farmers, collectives and other groups to encourage them to “think entrepreneurially” and “professionalize their services.”
His aim is to find ways to improve productivity and quality in order to expand profits and create jobs. As his involvement in the project deepens, he’ll also gather material for research and future classroom discussions. It’s a great honor for USF Sarasota-Manatee to participate in this, he says.
The first step, he said, is to study the current agricultural system. Most agricultural products here are grown on family farms and sold to transport companies, processors and other wholesalers who in turn sell these items to large commercial food packagers and retailers.
However, this multi-step process, called the value chain, is routinely vexed by issues involving infrastructure, transportation and production, which can lead to delays and cost increases. Dr. Kabongo is hoping to encourage cooperation along the chain to smooth out these wrinkles and lower costs.
For years, he’s preached similar messages of cooperation and entrepreneurship to students at USFSM and in business workshops in Sarasota and Africa.
He started working for the World Bank after attending a conference in San Diego a year ago where he met a representative who suggested he undertake similar work for the financial institution, but with a focus on agriculture. The professor agreed, although official approval took another year.
To start, he’s focusing on three commodities: cassava, a potato-like root vegetable; palm oil, which is commonly used in cooking and cosmetic products like soaps; and rice. His 20-member team, based in Kinshasa, is concentrating on a province southwest of the capital city called Bas-Congo.
His first trip in June allowed him to assess current conditions and meet with representatives from business and agricultural organizations. During his most recent trip in August, he gathered his team members and instructed them about surveying the people and businesses along the value chain. Dr. Kabongo is poring over that data now, analyzing the “links” between farmers and consumers to identify problems.
“We’re looking at the whole chain, from farmer to processor to wholesaler to retailer to consumer,” he said.
Dr. Kabongo’s work isn’t easy. In many ways, the Democratic Republic of Congo is still developing. Infrastructure is spotty and delays in transportation are routine. Average GDP per capita is $800 per year, and most farms remain independent family operations that lack machinery, storage, irrigation and refrigeration.
Also, many farmers adhere to traditional methods of planting, harvesting and transporting goods, which can hinder profit potential. Dr. Kabongo sees part of his job as erasing some of these practices in favor of modern business methods to maximize profits and increase jobs.
“I want these farmers to develop an entrepreneurial mindset,” he said. “You cannot work in the modern era, hoping to increase your production, increase your quality or exports, if you’re still operating under traditional beliefs.”
With the data analysis underway, Dr. Kabongo hopes to complete a government report in December outlining a strategy for streamlining the value chain to increase earnings. After that, he’ll work toward implementing the recommendations. If successful, they might be rolled out to other areas of the country.
He expects to make three more trips to the nation between semesters and once the academic year ends. Afterward, he plans to write an article about his experiences and engage his students in conversations about his findings and advice.
“I’m not expecting that all of these problems will right away be solved, but that we’ll be on the right track and that a few of them will be successful and that, from there, others will follow,” he said. “It’s interesting and challenging, but also it’s a really nice project to be involved in from an academic perspective.”