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Business education in Africa: what we need to do differently


This article also appeared in Finweek Magazine in their 08-Aug-2013 issue

The Association of MBAs (AMBA) has shortlisted Dr Shaun Vorster, the top MBA student for 2012 at the University of Stellenbosch Business School (USB), as one of only six finalists worldwide for the global AMBA/Independent MBA Student of the Year Award 2013. This is an incredible achievement, considering that the AMBA accredits MBA programmes at more than 200 of the world’s leading business schools in over 70 countries. Every year, each accredited business school nominates one outstanding MBA graduate for the MBA Student of the Year Award. Entry criteria range from academic achievement to leadership potential and career advancement potential, plus their commitment to enhancing the MBA degree.

Finweek spoke to Shaun about his passion, business education in Africa, and unpacked his thoughts on what we need to do differently to grow our education landscape.

  1. What are the problems with business education in Africa, and why?

In Africa, with its rapidly developing middle class, we expect average annual economic growth of around 5% until 2020. There will be massive new investment in infrastructure. Cities are growing. Various industry sectors are taking off. However, there is a chronic shortage of managers and entrepreneurs with relevant business training. This management gap is both a business risk and a potential ceiling on growth.

Exactly how big is this problem? Based on the African Management Initiative (AMI) report, Africa, with a population of some one billion people living on one fifth of the world’s land mass, has only 90 institutions that offer MBAs. The business schools that meet international quality standards you can count on your two hands. This translates into one business school for every 11 million people in Africa. Compare India, with around 1 500 MBA-offering institutions for its population over one billion people – this works out at one business school for every 800,000 individuals.

According to the AMI report, roughly 11 million of the 110 million-strong African formal labour force are managers. About 10% of these managers would be potential candidates for advanced management training. Do the maths. That’s one million managers who need to be trained via MBA degrees or executive education. Here’s the sobering reality: with our existing capacity, it will take us 22 years to reach this target.

So, clearly, we need new and innovative models for business education. We need to accelerate the pace and address the resource gap, in order to close the management gap. And we need a solution that offers quality, affordability and accessibility.

  1. Why won’t the approaches of other countries work in Africa?

Many of the challenges that African industry leaders grapple with, are global. So we need to incorporate the best from the global educational landscape into our own training programmes. We need global standards and a global perspective, but adapted for local conditions. Hence the term “glocalised”.

At the same time, we cannot simply compare what is needed from managers in Africa, with its complex cultural and political challenges, to what students are taught at many educational institutions elsewhere in the world. Many of those curricula are designed for relatively homogeneous societies and the conditions of wealthy, post-industrial, first world countries.

For too long, we, as Africans, have been force-fed foreign management models and leadership styles. Looking at the African Management Initiative, there are many different models that foreign business schools use for market entry – some competitive and some collaborative. However in Africa, we need more than ‘colony’ campuses, which simply import models and thinking styles from elsewhere.

Of course, that does not make Western or Asian business schools irrelevant to us – in fact, quite the opposite. We need them as partners. Collaboration is the key.

  1. What kind of leadership is then needed in Africa?

We need to nurture leaders committed to the triple bottom line, i.e. social inclusion, environmental protection and making profits. But we also need more. In Africa, we need leaders who are committed to the quadruple bottom line: leaders who also embody the spirit of ubuntu. In the new economy, servant leaders go much further than ‘hero’ leaders. Collaboration and co-creation go further than command-and-control and co-option. Africa demands leadership with a heart, leadership with an ethical conscience. Witness the role models we have in political leaders like our beloved Madiba, or industry leaders like Brand Pretorius.

In a way, we lost the early race for entrepreneurship in Africa many years ago when subsistence farming was simply replaced with exploitative industrial models. This created concentration camps of the mind. For decades, we failed to unlock our people’s entrepreneurial spirit. Today, we need a new generation of entrepreneurs who can break the mould of the colonial legacy, feudalism and failed socialist experiments.

  1. What can we do to solve these challenges, and why?

For starters, business school education must be contextually relevant. That means that we need more than one-size-fits-all programmes. Business education has to draw on the latest global thinking, but with a deep understanding of local circumstances.

Secondly, we don’t have the time or the financial resources to build a new business school from scratch for every nation in every corner of our continent. Think of the history of national flag-carrying airlines in Africa. Often in the past, airlines were revered in the same way as armies: they were sources of national pride. But they were not financially viable. Why? The market was simply too small.  Let’s not repeat this mistake with our investment in business schools. Rather, we should take a pan-African approach. What does this mean? In simple terms, we will have to foster partnerships with world-class business schools on and beyond our continent. Think of the hub-and-spoke model of airline networks and alliances in Africa, and apply that to the education industry. Regional centres of excellence, joint education ventures and a network of satellite campuses could provide an innovative way forward. Business school network models could bring together the best of local and global expertise and knowledge. Imagine a golden triangle of the existing globally competitive African business schools in East, West and Southern Africa forming the nucleus of a hub-and-spoke model in Sub-Saharan Africa.  And by involving BRICS and Western business schools in joint venture satellite campuses, the educational needs of under-served markets can then be met.

Finally, the digital technology revolution has unlocked a myriad of new opportunities in blended learning. The spread of cheap high-speed broadband, tablet computers and ‘clever’ software all make technology-enabled learning very attractive. Just look how fast the new model MOOCs (massive open online courses) like Coursera and Udacity are spreading, literally from a zero baseline two years ago. But blended learning is more than MOOCs. It is a mix of e-learning platforms and classroom-based teaching.

  1. What are the benefits of this three-pronged strategy?

Partnership models and a pan-African approach will allow us to grow relatively fast from fairly low baselines. They could help close the resource gap. Regional hubs, joint ventures, satellite programmes and blended-learning models could all create access to world-class business education for a much bigger pool of future leaders.

Modern education technology is here to stay. And it will help us move forward. But let’s not put all our eggs in the e-learning basket. MBAs require meaningful face time as well. Interpersonal interaction and group work help to develop those critical emotional intelligence capabilities and people skills that leaders in the new economy need. They also provide the opportunity to apply e-book knowledge.

Accreditation or certification of educational programmes is critical. For MBA degrees, the international standards are set by AMBA, EQUIS and AACSB – which together represent the so-called Triple Crown. Out of almost 13,700 business schools offering business degree programmes globally, only 59 have earned this coveted triple accreditation. Only three of these are in Africa. These are the USB and Cape Town’s UCT Graduate School of Business, both South-African-born, and Henley Business School Africa, the South African arm of Henley Business School UK. Accreditation assures quality and protects us against fly-by-night educational outfits. Good quality earns a good reputation. This applies equally to the quality of educational programmes, the quality of lecturers and the quality of the students that business schools attract. So, the brand, accreditation and ranking of a business school (for example, international rankings by the Financial Times) are paramount to industry and prospective students alike. They need to know that the time and money invested in quality business education will develop their full potential.

Finally, there may be a growing role for business itself in joint education ventures – especially given the need for customised programmes. A good example is the bespoke executive education programmes widely offered by business schools for busy executives, where curricula are designed with, rather than for, corporate clients.

  1. What challenges does this approach present?

Firstly, we need to bring the right partners together – business schools from Africa and the rest of the world. Similarly, we require closer collaboration between business schools, industry and civil society. After all, the private sector knows best what the market needs. And civil society has so much to add. Two great examples are as follows:

  • The partnership between the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), a leading conservation organization, and the UK’s University of Exeter to create the One Planet MBA focused on sustainability, and
  • WWF teamed up with IMD, a top-ranked global business school in Switzerland, to offer the innovative One Planet Leaders sustainability programme for business leaders.

Both these educational partnerships aim to cement the environmental dimensions of the triple-bottom-line in business education.

Secondly, although distance e-learning is very attractive, it has issues that must be ironed out. For MBA degrees, we still need to work out how to ensure quality of content and testing, how to accredit or certify these e-learning programmes, and how to strike the right balance between e-learning and face-to-face interaction.

Virtual learning is exactly that: it is not reality. Even though we live in a digital age, MBA degrees and business education need to develop real-world leaders for real people. So face-to-face on-campus contact must supplement e-learning. Students must take part in team-building and joint project work. They need to be guided in learning more about themselves and how to interact with others, and be exposed to a wide range of disciplines and cultures. So it’s no surprise that, for international Association of MBAs (AMBA) accreditation, an MBA degree needs a minimum of 1 800 hours of learning plus 500 contact hours between faculty and students. For distance learning it is at least 120 hours of face time. For blended models it lies somewhere between 120 and 500 hours, with a bias towards the upper end.

Shaun Vorster has bold ideas for the future of business education in Africa. But I guess you wouldn’t expect anything less for someone who has been shortlisted for the 2013 global AMBA/Independent MBA Student of the Year Award. With the finalist interviews just a few days away, we’re rooting for this inspirational ambassador of South African business education to win the award and hold our SA flag high.

Author: Colette Symanowitz

Director of FraudCracker. Passionate about entrepreneurship, personal branding and networking. I also tweet under @FraudCracker

3 thoughts on “Business education in Africa: what we need to do differently

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