Ilerioluwa Akinkugbe
Ilerioluwa Akinkugbe in the gardens at Lagos Business School © Baingor Joiner for the FT

When Ilerioluwa Akinkugbe decided early in his career he wanted to specialise in marketing communications, he researched MBA courses in Africa and Europe as the most rapid way to advance. “I was based in Lagos and looking for an MBA closely tied to the industry there,” he says, explaining his decision to study at Lagos Business School. “I looked at Insead and Iese, but I was drawn to training in the market I wanted to play in: Nigeria and Africa.”

If relevant expertise and local networks were important reasons for his final choice, funding was another: tuition fees at home in Nigeria, let alone living and other costs, were a fraction of those he would have incurred by going abroad.

Akinkugbe’s experience is typical of a rising demand for business education from Africans, but also of constraints such as the cost and structure of courses at a growing number of local and international institutions.

There is little doubt about the appetite for MBAs. Alongside established business schools in South Africa, the Maghreb, Nigeria and Kenya, there are newer providers such as the African Leadership University in Rwanda.

Leading business schools from outside Africa have been keen to capitalise on the interest. Duke Fuqua School of Business in the US has forged events, partnerships and executive education programmes, for instance. France’s HEC has established a regional office in Ivory Coast.

China Europe International Business School (Ceibs) has been recruiting Africans to its programmes in Shanghai but has also set up an operation in Ghana. “The middle class is growing and is interested in international exposure,” says Mathew Tsamenyi, Ceibs’ executive director for Africa.

Rose Wanjiku Muturi
Rose Wanjiku Muturi studies while working in Nairobi

Richard Higgs, a South African now working at German engineering group Siemens, attended Ceibs in Shanghai. Previously, he had studied accounting at the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa, and was inspired to develop expertise on China after being impressed with the country while backpacking on a career break. He also observed its companies expanding their presence in Africa.

“There is so much Chinese influence in Johannesburg, so my goal in going to Ceibs was to build connections,” he says. “I’m still figuring out my longer-term career, but there’s definitely going to be some sort of links between China and Africa.” Higgs was able to cover his costs with a mixture of savings, Ceibs scholarships and low-interest loans. For many others on the continent, costs remain prohibitively high.

“There are two strata in Africa,” says Alejandro Lago, head of The Africa Initiative at Spanish business school Iese, which has supported the development of Lagos Business School, Strathmore Business School in Nairobi and MDE Business School in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. “The elite can afford education abroad and has done so since independence, but that is a small group,” he says. “Now we are seeing an uptake by the middle class who would like to go abroad but often lack the funds to do so.”

Rose Wanjiku Muturi, a Kenyan, preferred to remain in her own country and study part-time at Strathmore both because it would be more affordable and she wished to continue working and earning while learning. She looked for an institution that offered efficient, high-quality training with motivated colleagues. “I wasn’t interested in a public university,” she says. “They get disrupted when the students or lecturers go on strike.”

George Njenga, the founding dean of Strathmore, says: “Most of our students come from poor families. They have to juggle money, and find it hard to work, go abroad and leave their families behind unless they have scholarships to bring them along.”

He argues that his school also offers training that is more relevant to the region than overseas rivals. “You can learn a lot in the US and Europe, then you suddenly come back and find yourself in a developing economy which is a far cry from the developed world,” he says. “You realise your knowledge is far too impractical to apply.”

Like Njenga, Enase Okonedo, dean of Lagos Business School, has ambitions to expand her school’s capacity and reputation as a regional hub for students from African countries. But both deans stress the need to use more Africa-focused case studies in teaching, to build deeper research expertise and to attract experienced, well-qualified faculty. “We can’t pay the salaries of advanced economies and we have no funding from government,” says Njenga.

They also point to the different entrance standards of African students, who perform worse on average than their peers on the GMAT scores widely used by business schools. That might reflect the nature of the wider education system and the limited infrastructure locally to help prepare for the tests. In 2017, fewer than 5,000 African citizens took the exams. A little more than half went on to study at US business schools.

Some schools have offered their own alternative tests, while Ali Elquammah, chairman of the Association of African Business Schools, says he is developing an accreditation system more targeted to the capacities of the institutions on the continent.

Many business schools in Africa are also focusing on executive education for more experienced students as an easier way to build support from local companies for business training. Offering MBAs, by contrast, means entering a crowded, competitive international market.

Prof Elquammah, who teaches at HEM Business School in Morocco, argues that the greatest demand is for high-quality undergraduate business courses. “A lot of western schools come with the vision of training future leaders,” he says. “That’s fine, but the real need in Africa is to train managers who will execute plans, not just those in the ivory towers. Regardless of the MBA hotshots developing the strategy, someone will have to implement it.”

Current trends suggest growing demand and supply in Africa across the full range of business education, despite the considerable constraints and local twists.

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