DR SIBONGILE Kubheka doesn’t like not knowing. She’s got no patience for wrestling with the abstract; when something puzzles her, she goes out of her way to find out why. The latest thing that she discovered is why people won’t use cannabis products, despite their proven medicinal worth – and she did it as part of her MBA thesis, winning a distinction in the process.
A proud sister of Soweto, literally a child of Chris Hani Baragwanath, this Wits medical school graduate spent time in Britain after completing community service and working as a medical officer in anaesthetics. When she got back to South Africa at the height of the HIV/Aids pandemic, she wanted to know more about this disease. She was horrified by the mixed messaging that were undoing the clinical advances. So, she enrolled once more this time at the Colleges of Medicines of South Africa for a post graduate diploma in HIV management to be able to better treat and educate people about HIV/Aids.
At the time of completing her post graduate diploma in HIV management, she honoured to be working with Professor Helen Rees’s HIV research unit – and then, in her own words, “corporate swallowed me.”
In 2008, she joined the pharma sector, today she’s the regional medical director for Middle East and Africa of ViiV Health Care, a company that is majority owned by the giant GlaxoSmithKlinePharmaceutical Company, that is 100% dedicated to addressing the HIV/Aids pandemic.
“I’ve grown throughout my journey in the medical field, but we don’t work in silos,” she says. “I work with sales, and marketing, with finance; all the different sectors, in my role as medical director. Once again, I found out I was developing lots of little bits of knowledge, which I needed to incorporate into one sphere.”
Her research showed that studying for an MBA would give her that, but she was hesitant about starting such an intense programme. At the time she was travelling a lot, under immense work pressure and she had a son in high school. Henley Africa’s MBA director Lyneth Zungu put her mind at rest.
“You’ve done a master’s already. You’ll enjoy this,” Zungu told Dr. Kubheka, referring to the master’s degree in medical pharmacology that she’d obtained from the University of Pretoria.
One of Dr. Kubheka’s friends was even more unequivocal: “she said if you don’t register, I’ll drag you there myself,” Dr.Kubheka remembers. She’s very grateful, she completed her MBA. “If there’s one thing about Henley Africa, it’s not about the degree, but about the holistic experience, developing your life, which the MBA actually complements.”
Something that stands out for her was the three-day finance module. At the end of the workshop, Dr. Kubheka wasn’t confident that she had learnt as much as she should have and that the subject matter was still foreign.
“It was a space where I needed help,” she remembers. Her other classmates felt the same way.
“Henley didn’t question us, but just rescheduled a second workshop, they even flew the lecturers out again from the UK. I really appreciated their understanding and their passion to ensure we were comfortable. Teaching us wasn’t a box-ticking exercise for them. It was an incredible source of comfort.”
She found the same comfort when it came to drafting her thesis proposal and then doing it. She was fascinated at the time by the incredible disjuncture between the pro-and the anti- lobbies regarding the use of cannabis products in medical treatments.
“I understood the science behind the cannabis products and the medicinal value but in engaging with people, I realised that it was a lack of knowledge and a misunderstanding of the concept of what (cannabis) was known for. It was something I really wanted to dig deeply into to properly understand and so I started drafting my proposal on the market attractiveness of cannabis products.”
It was a highly sensitive topic, that had to pass through Henley’s global ethics committee before Dr. Kubheka could get the go-ahead to do her research. It was a hurdle that it cleared with ease. The next hurdle was her insistence on using mixed-methodology research; a blend of highly personal one-on-one interviews with practising doctors and an online survey.
“People warned me against this, but I just really had to get the answers. I must thank the doctors for letting me interview them and letting me know exactly what their thoughts were. Some of their responses were surprising, others interesting. But it really made me realise there isn’t a one size fits all response to the issue.”
Her online survey was also a revelation, showing just how much stigma can blind people to positive outcomes because of their underlying prejudice against a particular product.
“It was an amazing learning journey, showing me how science and innovation can intertwine with social norms and mindsets and how medicine is not just about potential benefit but also about perception.”
From a business point of view, the key lesson was about learning first-hand about value propositions and what is needed to successfully bring something to market. “It allowed me to contribute far more in discussions with colleagues from other departments when it came to exactly that,” she says.
From a medical point of view, Dr.Kubheka has not been deterred by the experience. “I’m still fascinated by the medical benefits of cannabis and I hope that one day I’ll be prescribing to a patient (in my role) as a doctor.”
The biggest lesson though has been the Henley Africa experience: “Henley is not somewhere that you walk away from a student or a graduate, you leave as a member of a family. It’s been wonderful.”
For Henley Africa dean and director Jon Foster-Pedley, Dr.Kubheka is precisely the kind of person that Henley wants to attract to the MBA programme.
“At Henley Africa, we pride ourselves on innovation and creativity, actively thinking out of the box. Sibongile’s research is precisely in this tradition while looking at a business case based on one of South Africa’s most popular, though until recently, least spoken about exports.
“But it’s more than that, it’s about Henley as a community; a network of people with similar experiences who care for one another, the fact that Sibongile experienced that with us, is – as she says – as important as the world-class MBA she was capped with at the end of her academic journey.”
• Henley Business School Africa is a leading global business school with campuses in Europe, Asia and Africa. It holds elite triple international accreditation; has the number 1 business school alumni network in the world for the potential to network (Economist 2017); and is the number 1 African-accredited and -campused business school in the world for executive education (FT 2018, 2020), as well as the number 1 MBA business school in South Africa as rated by corporate SA (PMR 2018, 2019, 2020 and 2021).