Teaching grant funds sustainability study on HR and leadership in Africa

One of the workshops at the RSM Sustainability Forum at Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) on 31 March 2017 was funded by the ‘Stimulating Sustainability Teaching Fund from Sustainable RSM. The session gave participants the opportunity to work on a challenging case that discusses the human resource and leadership challenges of operating in a culturally different context, to ultimately help local villages in Africa understand how to take advantage of solar power.

The session was funded by the ‘Stimulating Sustainability’ Teaching Fund from Sustainable RSM. It was hosted by Bert Bernolet, founder and director of social enterprise Solar Without Borders and Dr Hannes Leroy, assistant professor human resource management at RSM. After investigating human resource and leadership challenges, the interactive session concluded with a discussion, and the teams shared their HR-plan ideas.

Building sustainability into teaching

Sustainable RSM’s teaching fund encourages RSM instructors and programme managers to incorporate elements of sustainable business education into their curricula. Boosting sustainability-related business education could be done by inviting sustainability experts into the classroom to provide students with an additional experience, or to offer workshop elements that sensitize students with sustainable business practices that ensure reflective and critical thinking.

The fund fits in well with RSM’s mission to be a force for positive change. The school aims to embed sustainability into all academic programmes beyond the MSc Global Business & Sustainability to benefit society, the economy and the environment. The Stimulating Sustainability Teaching Fund supports teaching and co-curricular activities on sustainable management practices for which regular funding is not available.

Beyond the RSM Sustainability Forum, Dr Leroy will introduce the Solar Without Borders case as an essential case in various bachelor and MBA programmes. The grant will also allow the assistant professor to digitalise the case to offer students a simulation game. The final plan is to use the grant for programme building to send students and visit sites in Africa to live the case. “Sustainability is top of mind for many students,” says Dr Hannes Leroy. “By developing or using a sustainability case in your class you get the best of both worlds: a case relevant to the content of your class and something that will draw in the students’ interest.”

Sustainable solar energy systems

“Many villages in Africa still lack a basic and reliable supply of energy important for access to basic human rights and needs,” Bert Bernolet said in the break-out session at the Forum. Solar Without Borders installs solar energy systems, enabling local communities and villages without electricity to take advantage of one of their greatest free resources: the sun.

The smart kiosk, a type of closed box with a solar system on the roof, is managed by one villager and provides the village with electricity. People are able to charge their mobile phone and lamps or can even get a direct connection to their house. Through SMS the kiosk keeper and neighbors pay for the amount used. This model contributes to the development of the village, involves less handling costs and was all in all a sustainable profitable model.

Solar management challenge

“While the idea is there and technology works, the model hinges on the motivation and willingness of the people on site,” explains Dr Leroy. The villagers on site were not motivated enough on a daily basis to overcame barriers. Thus, the question is how to manage the kiosks and how to build leadership.

To tackle this issue, the students imagined spending two weeks in Togo to get the solar kiosk up and running. They were given 30 minutes to develop an HR plan of actions in teams of two or three participants. Solutions included:

  • The kiosk-holders need to know how to manage the following key responsibilities: facility management, financial management, and marketing and communications to ensure the smooth running of the kiosks.
  • The kiosk-holders should possess the following personal characteristics: long-term orientation, being able to take responsibility in case something goes wrong, analytical, conscientiousness, passionate, have leadership and be authoritative.
  • Keep evaluating and keeping track of the performance of the kiosk-holders. This can be based on financial performance or the number of villagers being served.
  • Weekly entrepreneurial trainings, integrity trainings and financial trainings should be offered to tackle problems with performance deficiencies.
  • Financial, individual and communal benefits could be employed to motivate the kiosk-holders.

“The case we worked on was especially interesting as it is a problem that any organisation operating in developing countries will recognise. Going about activating leadership and ownership in these countries seems to be a global problem and many steps can still be taken in solving this issue, so it was very interesting and rewarding to be part of the solution,” said Nienke van der Veldt, an RSM BSc International Business Administration student.

More information

Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) is one of Europe’s top 10 research-based business schools. RSM provides ground-breaking research and education furthering excellence in all aspects of management and is based in the international port city of Rotterdam – a vital nexus of business, logistics and trade. RSM’s primary focus is on developing business leaders with international careers who carry their innovative mindset into a sustainable future thanks to a first-class range of bachelor, master, MBA, PhD and executive programmes. Study information and activities for future students, executives and alumni are also organised from the RSM office in Chengdu, China.

For more information about RSM or this release, please contact Marianne Schouten, Media & Public Relations Manager for RSM, on +31 10 408 2877 or by email at

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