The IE University Challenge is a hands-on experience where students in the Bachelor in Business Administration program get the chance to solve real problems for real companies. For its first edition, the theme of the challenge was “COVID-19 resilience in Africa.” Students participated in consulting projects for five different companies: Fulani Kitchen, Tripesa (formerly Tripxio), Wave, W Tech and SwitchPay.

The IE University Challenge is a hands-on experience that takes students on a quest to tackle the most pressing challenges in the world of business. They get the chance to solve real problems for real companies, with only limited time for research and development at their disposal. 

Our mission is to train disruptive future leaders who can use their skill set to drive transformation; this challenge goes a long way in giving them the tools they need to accomplish this goal. Its objective is to help students gain a deeper understanding of research methodology while learning how to address client problems within specific geopolitical and cultural areas. By the end, participants will sharpen their creativity and hone their skills in critical thinking and communication.

In 2022, the flagship edition of the IE University Challenge was launched, with the theme of “COVID-19 resilience in Africa”. Working in five different groups, participants from the Bachelor in Business Administration had only eight weeks to crack a specific problem for a social impact organization based in Africa. This time, five startups from various African countries were selected to take part in the challenge.

Getting ready for the challenge

Lucía Egea is the professor in charge of this initiative. With the support of the IE Africa Center, she chose startups from Ghana, Nigeria, Uganda and South Africa to participate in the first edition of the challenge. These companies included: Fulani Kitchen, Tripesa (formerly Tripxio), Wave, W Tech and SwitchPay.   

For this challenge, she worked closely with Fatmata Binta—owner and award-winning head chef at Fulani Kitchen. Born and raised in Sierra Leone, Fatmata can trace her ancestry back to the Fulani tribe of Guinea. She combines her “nomadic Fulani roots, classical training and love for rural life and nature” to create modern but authentic dishes. 

Fatmata also runs its charity arm, the Fulani Kitchen Foundation. The organization partners with thousands of Fulani women in West Africa to cultivate, process, package and distribute milk and grain products to both local and international markets. One group of student consultants collaborated with Fatmata to provide solutions for both the restaurant and the foundation. They will also help to implement the strategies recommended. 

A sneak peek into the project

As a general rule of thumb, each project underwent three distinct phases: problem exploration, solution development, and execution. Over the course of two months, students were required to present specific deliverables at the end of each phase. For Anna Ramsay—set to graduate in July—the challenge has been one of the most interesting experiences during her time at IE University.

Anna’s team was assigned to Tripesa, a SaaS efficiency suite for tourism operators. Their objective was to support the company’s post-pandemic recovery and turn it into a major player in the sub-Saharan tourism market. They worked directly with its managing director, David Gonahasa.

Alisher Akhmadjonov was part of this team too. Originally from Uzbekistan, she focused her studies on finance and strategy—skills that came in handy throughout the challenge. Alisher explains that their objective was to conduct an in-depth analysis of the company, market and industry to identify both current and potential future obstacles to growth. Then, the team used this analysis as a basis to develop solutions that would either mitigate any adverse impacts or help to avoid these obstacles altogether.

Once the preliminaries were complete, it immediately became apparent that Tripesa’s main hurdle is the lack of technical capacity. As Anna says, “there was a technical knowledge gap that prevented clients from understanding how to run their own website,” as well as “a lack of available local talent for Tripesa to recruit.” 

Finding new solutions

One way to solve this problem was by Tripesa organizing workshops to teach secondary and post-secondary school students new technologies. Not only will this enhance the general interest in—and understanding of—digital technologies, but it will also help the company spot new talent easily. Anna explains that this was just one of many solutions that the team pitched to David and representatives of the IE Africa Center board. 

Fatmata was also blown away by the students’ dedication and expertise. For her, the students’ proposals were so insightful that they now serve “as one of the major inspirations in helping shape our vision for the foundation.” Lucía’s reaction? “The results speak for themselves!” She noted that some founders have started implementing the students’ proposals. What’s more, students were able to grow their professional networks; some are already exploring “further opportunities, such as internships” within these firms.

Dissecting the challenge

Anna’s perspective is that, while complex, the IE University Challenge was an enriching experience. Working with a foreign company in the middle of a global pandemic presented its own share of difficulties. And, with most of the team studying remotely, they were only able to collaborate virtually with the client and each other. But, she admits that while most had limited prior knowledge about the African travel market, this opportunity has “opened many doors for learning.”

According to Alisher, three factors made this experience a great one for her. First was the cohesive team itself, where every member brought their unique skill sets to the table. Second, working within Africa proved to be an invaluable experience. Not only did they learn about the companies, but they also became more familiar with the dynamic markets and cultures they operate in. Lastly, the chance to put their “knowledge to practice and contribute something meaningful and impactful” has been incredibly rewarding for Alisher.

Eyes on the future

The IE University Challenge has quickly become a melting pot of talent, innovation and inspiration. Apart from developing a more competitive skill set, the participants have also gained new, firsthand insights into how businesses operate in developing economies. Anna explains that, in working with a real firm, she has been “motivated by the real and tangible impact” that has come about in response to their interventions. 

Alisher’s standout takeaway is that it’s important to ground your analyses in reality. After all, your recommendations could make or break an existing enterprise, so “the more realistic and actionable your recommendation is, the more likely it’s going to help the company.” 

For any student who wants to participate in the challenge, Fatmata’s advice is to do your research. Lucia echoes this sentiment, saying that it’s important for you to leave your comfort zone and tackle the status quo in order to “act in an innovative way.” 

Whether you will pursue consulting in the future or not, the IE University Challenge is the perfect opportunity to expand your professional network as well as to connect, collaborate and co-create with your peers.