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In South Africa talk of “African solutions to African problems” is fashionable, as are hopes for an “African renaissance” in governance and business. Now, deans from business schools around the continent are putting the concept into practice by convening their first pan-continental grouping.

The Association of African Business Schools held its first formal meeting at the Johannesburg-based Gordon Institute of Business Science (Gibs) in the spring. The AABS’s board vetted applications from 17 schools and chose 14 from six sub-Saharan African countries as full, provisional or associate members.

Unlike Europe, the US and the world’s other main regions, Africa has never had a local forum for setting standards and sharing experiences. While India has roughly 1,000 business schools and the US about 1,200, Africa – with a population of some 800m – has no more than 50.

“In terms of schools of substance, we’ve captured about 60 per cent of what’s out there,” says Nick Binedell, dean of Gibs and the association’s new chairman. Business schools in Africa now need to “take the ball” and contribute to their countries’ economic development and competitiveness, as they have in the countries of the rich north, he says. “We think business schools can make an impact on the private sector, government and civil society.”

African business school deans first discussed the idea of forming an association last year at a meeting in Accra organised under the auspices of the Global Business Schools Network. Supported by the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation, the network has joined business schools in the developing world, primarily in Africa, with about two dozen top institutions in the US and Europe.

In Ghana, the African schools began talking to each other on a regional level for the first time and set in motion the new association. The IFC is contributing to the AABS’s running costs, with the balance of funding coming from the schools or other donors.

One of the association’s priorities will be to develop and share case method teaching materials. Many African schools still rely on traditional methods of a professor lecturing and students taking notes. Often companies find they have to train graduates after hiring them.

“Teaching in Africa was and is theoretical, with very few links to the business community,” says Guy Pfeffermann, the GBSN’s director. “Employers want people who can solve problems from day one.”

As AABS members develop cases, which will later be posted to the association’s website, they will be aiming for material relevant to the African context.

“We want to provide education that will address real-life problems in Africa,” says Erasmus Kaijage, dean of the Faculty of Commerce and Management at Tanzania’s University of Dar es Salam and a member of the AABS’s governing board.

In an environment of high interest rates and poorly developed stock exchanges, for example, African businesses face unique challenges relating to financing. The continent also abounds in dynamic small and mid-sized enterprises, so schools hope to develop case material relevant to that sector.

Another of the AABS’s goals will be to improve educational standards amid a proliferation of new business schools in Africa’s more dynamic economies. In Senegal, for example, a number of small, private schools – many of dubious quality – have been founded in recent years.

“It is in fashion now to do business school,” says Idrissa Mbengue, director of Dakar’s Institut Supérieur de Management (ISM) and AABS board member. The new association – along with its partnerships with schools in the US and Europe – will help ISM “to differentiate itself from other business schools”, he says.

Member schools say they may also pool resources, for example, to offer PhD programmes by sharing faculty.

“We are spending millions sending people abroad, when we have the resources here,” says Prof Kaijage. “It’s a question of getting ourselves organised.”

As in many cross-border initiatives, South Africa, the continent’s biggest economy by far, is taking a leading role. South African economic clout and – in some cases – perceived arrogance has been known to cause friction in the poorer countries to its north.

However, this does not appear to be an issue in the AABS. Although composed largely of black Africans, AABS’s board did not hesitate to elect Prof Binedell, a white South African, as their leader at a meeting in Lagos last October.

Member schools freely acknowledge that South Africa has many of the continent’s best schools, with standards that rival top-level European or US MBA programmes.

London’s trading floors and corporate offices abound with graduates from institutions such as the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business, a member of the AABS.

Notwithstanding their more developed economy, South Africans also understand the continent’s realities well.

“I would learn more from a South African school than from a business school in the UK,” says Franklyn Manu, dean of the Ghana Institute of Management and Public Administration.

MEMBERS OF THE ASSOCIATION OF AFRICAN BUSINESS SCHOOLS

Gordon Institute of Business Science (South Africa)

Ghana Institute of Management and Public Administration (Ghana)

Institut Africain de Management (Senegal)

Institut Supérieur de Management (Senegal)

Lagos Business School, Pan African University (Nigeria)

Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile-Ife (Nigeria)

Graduate School of Business, University of Cape Town (South Africa)

University of Dar es Salaam Faculty of Commerce and Management (Tanzania)

Unisa Graduate School of Business Leadership (South Africa)

University of Nairobi School of Business (Kenya)

University of Stellenbosch Business School (South Africa)

United States International University (Kenya)

Catholic University of Eastern Africa (Kenya)*

Turfloop Graduate School of Leadership (South Africa)**

*provisional member

**associate member

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