Businesses tap students to gain toehold in Africa
Prince George's, Bowie State launch Ethiopian mission
Several Maryland businesses are taking advantage of a unique way to gain access to African trade and markets: student representatives.
Ten Bowie State University students, each representing a Prince George's company, are to leave today for Ethiopia in a 20-day cultural mission, during which they will pitch their respective companies to interested Ethiopian businesses.
The mission is the result of a two-year $85,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education and a partnership between the university and the county's Africa Trade Office in Largo. The trade office worked with the university to secure the grant.
This partnership and grant also provide for a seven-week course in conducting trade with Africa called Export One Africa, which will be jointly offered through the university and trade office this spring. Although the trade office hosted its own similar course several years ago, this year's offering will focus on training companies for their own Ethiopian trade mission in May, using what students have learned from their trip to educate the company executives.
"This gives us a long-range approach for international trade," said Patricia Hayes-Parker, director of the trade office. "It's not just about working with the students already engaged but developing, through the student population, business acumen for the future."
TransGlobal Business Systems, a six-employee Largo company that uses its information technology systems to aid public safety organizations, is excited about the opportunity. TransGlobal has supported the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, D.C., on many major events, including security during the 2009 inauguration of President Barack Obama.
"For a small company, it's an expensive proposition to go overseas. Having the ability to leverage the county resources like this allows us to gain expertise in knowing how to deal with the culture," said Frayne Young, vice president of operations for TransGlobal. "That's where it really adds value."
Young said he also is glad to take part in preparing a student for the business world and plans to stay in contact with the student through e-mail and conference calls.
Ansylla Ramsey, manager and CEO of My Hairitage in Clinton, said she hopes her student representative can convey to Ethiopians her desire to forge connections with education centers regarding her company's hair care education and focus on environmentally friendly products. Ramsey hosts workshops around the country and Europe and wants to enter the African market.
"Even though I don't have products, I have a skill set," she said.
Bernice Cannings, owner of BC Tours in Largo, also wants to connect with Ethiopian organizations about travel and tourist opportunities. Cannings often sends missionaries and businesspeople to Africa but has yet to dip into its tourism market.
Ethiopia is strategically located for this mission because Africa represents one of the fastest-growing international economies and several university faculty members come from Ethiopia, said Granville Sawyer, a university finance professor and co-director of the federal grant.
"This is what business education is about: preparing you to become effective business persons in whatever business community is out there. It gives students a real perspective," he said.
The partnership with the university is among the trade office's several success stories since it opened in March 2008. The trade office also has supported Hardie Industries of Fort Washington in connecting with the Millennium Challenge Corp. to gain a $122 million contract to rehabilitate airport runways throughout Ghana, Parker said. Millennium links businesses with foreign aid organizations through multibillion-dollar contracts to fight global poverty. The Banneker Group, a Laurel construction company, also worked with the trade office while arranging Banneker's Ghana location, Parker said. This location will bring 10 new jobs to Prince George's and eight to Ghana.
"I think it shows the focus of the international program has more to do with creating jobs and opportunity than anything else," said Kwasi G. Holman, executive director of the county's economic development corporation.