James Ferguson illustration
© James Ferguson

Business schools can hear the call of Africa. The IMF forecasts that the sub-Saharan African region will enjoy growth of 6 per cent in 2014. But there is a dearth of management expertise – even though there appears to be a healthy demand for acquiring it.

Overseas business schools interested in expanding their reach will have noticed data from the Graduate Management Admission Council that show 5,490 GMAT tests were taken in the African region in 2012-2013 – more than in eastern Europe and only about a thousand fewer than in Canada and Latin America respectively.

“We believe that Africa is a very dynamic economic environment. It’s the fastest-growing market in the world,” says Annette Nijs, executive director of Ceibs’ global initiative.

However, the different ways some overseas business schools are responding to that fast-growing market are in some cases inspiring deep resentment and accusations of neo-colonialism and exploitation.

Jon Foster-Pedley, dean of Henley Business School Africa, based in Johannesburg, says that a few years ago there was a crackdown on the fly-in, fly-out business school model many overseas business schools were adopting to gain a feel for the African market. There had been a feeling that some operators were cynically capitalising on the emerging world. “What you have to do if you want to operate here is play by the rules,” he says.

Nonetheless, there is a need for management education in Africa.

“There’s an incredible shortage of well-trained business leaders and managers in the developing world,” explains Guy Pfeffermann, chief executive of the Global Business School Network, an organisation that aims to promote management education in emerging markets.

Mr Pfeffermann says some overseas business schools are offering scholarships to educate African students. But he points out that the problem with that approach is that the students often do not return to Africa. The fly-in, fly-out model in which teachers spend a few weeks teaching before returning to their home countries is “horribly expensive and politically unsustainable”, he adds.

An alternative method, according to Enase Okonedo, dean of Lagos Business School, who has just stepped down as chairperson of the Association of African Business Schools, is the online approach.

“A number of overseas schools are offering online degrees and they are marketing them very aggressively. I have my opinion of why we’re seeing a more aggressive influx of overseas business schools in Africa,” she says.

She says the commercial interest is evident from the areas in which a large number of schools have chosen to set up. “They are choosing places such as Nairobi, places in which you have a great number of people whose incomes are higher and can afford the fees.” Unsurprisingly she says this approach is often characterised as exploitative and even a return to old colonial ways.

The better way, says Mr Pfeffermann, is to develop local managers and leaders as Iese Business School has done. “Iese has done more for capacity-building in the developing world than any other school I have heard of.”

Iese started in Africa more than 20 years ago, helping to establish Lagos Business School. It is now working with Strathmore Business School in Nairobi.

“We provide the initial knowhow,” says Alejandro Lago, one of a team of Iese professors involved in its African initiatives. He says Iese helps the schools develop their resources, and ultimately they become peers.

Iese, which was established by Opus Dei, a movement within the Catholic church, might have found it easier than some business schools to pursue a philanthropic approach to setting up in Africa. But Prof Lago says the early efforts are delivering dividends.

“It’s not a marketing effort. It’s in our mission. We want to make an impact on society and we want to do it globally.” It means, he says, that Iese can answer critics who accuse business schools of creating a culture of greed focused too highly on financial return.

Those with sustainable business models are certainly reaping financial benefits. Edinburgh Business School, part of Heriot-Watt University, was an early mover in providing distance-learning courses including MBAs and was well placed to accept African students. Alick Kitchin, joint head of the school, says more than 3,000 of the 11,500 students are in sub-Saharan Africa.

Edinburgh delivers half its programmes via distance learning and the other half in approved centres using tutors trained to deliver the material. The course is divided into modules costing £550 each for a distance-learning student from Africa, a slight discount on the fees students in western countries must pay.

“There would never have been a time when we were not operating at a surplus,”[income] says Mr Kitchin.

Prof Foster-Pedley says Henley has also benefited from being an early mover. The student body is mainly South African and over the past five years there has been a sharp increase in the number of black students from about 20 per cent to 55 per cent of the student body. Fees are high enough to interest any overseas school. An MBA at Henley costs 200,000 rand (about $18,000).

“Good business is not about exploitation, it’s about creating value,” says Prof Foster-Pedley, but adds: “Good business schools should make money.”

Despite the resentment against those established business schools already reaping financial rewards in Africa, Mr Pfeffermann thinks there is room for them. The demand in Africa, says Mr Pfeffermann, is “absolutely humungous” and he is less suspicious of motives than many. “They are all social entrepreneurs …You can’t run a business school in Africa without being a social entrepreneur.”


An education that makes a positive impact

Business schools with the ability to look beyond immediate financial goals can expect vast rewards not only for themselves but also in terms of the contribution they can make in Africa.

Educators must firstly realise that they have much to learn. Guy Pfeffermann, chief executive of the Global Business School Network, says: “Originally we thought it would be mentors and mentees but as soon as [our work] started we realised knowledge was flowing in both directions.”

That sentiment is echoed by David Altman, managing director of the Center for Creative Leadership Emea, which provides leadership training in Ethiopia and South Africa, working with both corporations and NGOs. “If you go in with the idea that we are going to teach them how to do things then that would be wrong unless that is what they want,” he says.

If a business school were to get it right, it might look at the example set by Frankfurt School of Finance and Management’s efforts in Kinshasa, the capital of Democratic Republic of Congo. After three years’ partnership with Université Protestante au Congo, offering Masters in Microfinance, the two institutions have formed the Central Africa Europe Business School which accepted students on to its first executive MBA course in October.

Patrick Bakengela Shamba, academic director of the new school, says: “When I can just see those students and get their feedback I feel very proud. People did not think it was possible to do something that’s new and of an international level. And when they see it is possible, OK, then I think we did something that’s useful for the development of the country.”

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