Why A Goat On Top Of A Van In Liberia Spells Innovation

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Yesterday, a group of twelve MBA and Nursing doctorate students landed in Monrovia, Liberia to work on a project with the John F. Kennedy Medical Center, where my team’s goal is to create a short- and long-term strategic plan for the hospital that allows them to deliver more health care services to more Liberians. Through innovation, we hope to help guide the hospital’s leadership through developing a plan to move them past some operational challenges and back into the forefront as a provider of a full range of specialized and basic care for all Liberians that they were prior to the two-decades-long civil conflict. It is an exciting opportunity, and one we have been looking forward to for over five months. While the Kelley Evening MBA Emerging Markets program normally travels to countries such as Russia, Brazil, and South Africa, this is the first trip to what is truly a Third World country. Thus landing at an international airport that can only handle one big plane at a time was no surprise.

What did come as a surprise and as inspiration for this post was seen on our hour-long drive from the airport to downtown Monrovia, Liberia’s bustling capital. Take a look at the somewhat fuzzy photograph here – a live goat loosely tied by the neck (along with a myriad of other cargo) to the top of a van filled with probably twenty people cruising down the highway at 50+ mph. This is their public transportation system, consisting of free-enterprising car and van (and even moped) owners. At first glace, you might think, “That place is backwards. How can they treat that animal like that and risk their safety by hanging out the windows?” In fact, that might have been the first thought in my head.

But I ruminated on that for a bit and kept looking at the people and the scenery flashing by – every ¼ of a mile or so was “Kathy’s Enterprise Center” or “James Business Center.” These people are doers; they take risks as a matter of survival. As I recently was reminded on my trip to the Dominican Republic with the Kelley MBA DIVE program, the Third World is full of innovators. Give a villager in the DR a hollowed out log, and he will turn that log and the bees he discovered in the forest into a thriving honey business. Here in Liberia, loan someone a little seed money, and they turn it into their village’s hub of community and culture. Attached to many of these stores were displays of art and furniture and traditional medicine for sale. One spark of risk and ingenuity begat many others.

So how did the overfilled van with the goat on top remind me of innovation? It’s pretty simple: without so many rules and regulations, people in emerging economies can do whatever they need to do to get their jobs done. Need to transport a goat for trade? Hop on the next van that comes down the road, and you’ll be in the capital to do your business shortly. Need to feed your family? Buy the van that transports all those people and make a living wage. We might frown upon the potential safety hazards as Westerners, but we overlook the fact that these folk are untethered with the restrictions we place on ourselves. We tell ourselves all the time what we can’t do, and in doing so, we lose out on a lot of what life has to offer.

I noticed in the DR how happy the people were despite their abject poverty, and I saw a similar attitude yesterday on that drive. I haven’t been here long enough to confirm that observation, but I suspect it is true here as well.

Does that mean life without regulations and rules is good in all respects? Absolutely not. We’re here to help with the problems their health care system faces – high infant mortality, high maternal mortality, issues related to recurring tropical illnesses (e.g. malaria, typhoid, etc.), a troubling supply chain, and many others. There were also the dozens of trash fires we witnessed from the plane coming in and on the drive into Monrovia (see the second picture), that would be illegal in the developed world due to the pollution (and health issues) they cause. They could use some lessons on sustainability and what these failures do to their health and the planet we all share.

Nonetheless, the risk-taking we’ve witnessed so far leads me to believe we will encounter keen thinkers ready to tackle the problems they face. We hope to take advantage of that can-do attitude at the JFK Medical Center, and it’s encouraging to see it in the villages and towns here. Innovation is universal, but you have to remove the roadblocks in order to make it blossom.