Using Partnerships to Create Innovative, Sustainable Solutions – INCAE

Screen Shot 2013-10-25 at 21.27.05There are many case competitions for MBA students around the world, but not enough of them provide students with the opportunity to make a real impact and potentially see their proposals put into action. INCAE in Costa Rica partnered with Nespresso to create an innovative international case challenge that provides MBA students from around the world with the opportunity to make a real impact on the company’s supply chain and sustainability efforts. I recently had the chance to speak with Lawrence Pratt, academic director for the 2013 Nespresso AAA Sustainable Quality MBA Challenge at INCAE, about this innovative partnership.

1.     What is INCAE’s approach to sustainability?

INCAE’s mission is to promote the development of the region. It was explicit in INCAE’s founding (1964) that the goal of the school is to train leaders to advance development in the countries it serves, to pull people out of poverty and improve quality of life in the region. Environmental issues were discussed in the founding principles, and INCAE has been incorporating environmental issues with social and development issues since the 1970s. Today, more than half of our MBA students graduate with a concentration in sustainable development. In addition, nearly 100% of INCAE’s institutional research is focused on sustainability issues (the intersection of economic, social, environmental and institutional variables).

2.     How did your partnership with Nespresso begin?

Nespresso approached INCAE and its spin-off research centre Sustainable Markets Intelligence Center (CIMS – Centro de Inteligencia sobre Mercados Sostenibles), and asked for help understanding the economic, social, and environmental situation facing the smallholder coffee farmers that supply nearly all their coffee. CIMS led comprehensive research, with INCAE academic and faculty support, looking at more than 1000 farms – in person, with the farmers – to understand their on-farm economics, commercial, and personal situations. This work led to an array of new programmes at Nespresso to improve the viability of smallholder farmers through different approaches to supporting them (productivity, quality, consolidation of organisations, etc.). These programmes are bringing hundreds of millions of dollars of training, technical support, and other programmes to improve the businesses of smallholder farmers.

3.     Briefly describe the 2013 Nespresso AAA Sustainable Quality MBA Challenge.

Some of the issues facing smallholder coffee farmers require “out of the box” thinking. We proposed to Nespresso that they engage the global MBA community. As an MBA professor, I know that groups of bright young people often come up with novel and exciting solutions to business challenges. They thought it made sense, so we coordinated the Challenge to address a very complex problem — how to ensure successful intergenerational change on coffee farms.

The Nespresso MBA Challenge tasks students from all over the globe to come up with new, creative, and fresh ideas for Nespresso’s Creating Share Value Strategy. Thirty-five different MBA schools took part in the first challenge last year, which focused on coffee farmers in Colombia. The winning team was from the Rollins College Crummer Graduate School of Business in the US. Their proposal, “Grow Forward,” is a multi-tiered strategy to attract and retain the next generation of Colombians as coffee farmers by ensuring that coffee farming is a profitable and sustainable economic activity today and in the future. The other finalist teams included the Erasmus University Rotterdam School of Management from the Netherlands and the University of Victoria’s Gustavson School of Business from Canada.

The goal of the challenge is to come up with strategies that are focused on a 20 year time horizon. The winners will be in Colombia next month to discuss and ground-proof their recommendations with local actors. If they are viable, we are confident that they will be incorporated. Nespresso is serious about this project.

4.     How has it been partnering with a brand such as Nespresso?

We have enjoyed the experience. Like all new relationships, it has its challenges. It becomes evident quickly that the way academics see business challenges and the way businesses see their own challenges is very different. Academics are free to consider all options, while companies are much more bound by internal considerations and stakeholders. So, we come up with “great stuff,” share it, and they say, “great stuff, BUT, here are the constraints.” We have learned a lot, and hope that Nespresso has too, not just from the research, but about the value of this type of collaboration.

5.     What advice would you have for other schools thinking of putting something similar into place?

There are a lot of business school case challenges out there. Positioning a new one is not easy. Make sure you have a very clear idea of what you want to achieve with the competition (the “mission”). My experience working with students on similar challenges is that they are more interested and motivated when they identify with the issue, care about it, and most importantly, believe that their proposed solutions will be taken seriously by the organisation being addressed.

For more information about the Nespresso MBA Challenge, including details on the 2014 edition of the challenge visit


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