Are B-Schools Missing the Boat in Africa?

Business Schools in Africa

According to everyone’s favorite Irish rock star and world-saver, Bono, “Africa is a continent in flames. We’re standing around with watering cans, when what we really need is the fire brigade.” Africa is by no means the economic disaster area of popular perception, however. As James W. Dean Jr, dean of the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina, puts it: “Every time I ask people where they can find a market of nearly a billion people, GDP growth rates as high as 10 percent, and significant business opportunities for those willing to learn what it takes, everyone says India. But all this applies to Africa, too.”

Six of the world’s fastest-growing economies from 2001 to 2011 are based on the continent, and the International Monetary Fund predicts that by 2015 at least one more top 10 slot will be occupied by an African country. But what is the business education community doing to help Africa to fulfil its true potential?

If you take a look at which foreign investors have been most active in Africa in recent years, those from the West pale into relative insignificance in comparison with China. So it’s perhaps not surprising that the first of the major international business schools to put boots on the ground was Shanghai-based CEIBS. In 2009 the school opened facilities in Ghana’s capital, Accra, to teach a part-time executive MBA, and it has plans to set up a full-blown campus in the city offering a full-time program. Ever bullish, CEIBS President Pedro Nueno has described Africa as business education’s “last big opportunity on the planet.”

Of course, western business schools haven’t been ignoring Africa completely. A number, such as Germany’s European School of Management & Technology and the U.K.’s London Business School, offer scholarships for potential students from the continent. Others, including MIT’s Sloan School of Management, the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin, and Thunderbird School of Global Management, run student trips across the region, while in Europe students at France’s EDHEC Business School take one of their MBA modules on the ground in Africa. And Spain’s IESE has helped strengthen a number of local business schools in Kenya, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, and Angola. It’s only relatively recently, however, that the West has shown real signs of taking the potential of Africa as seriously as China does.

“To U.S. business schools in particular, Africa was almost completely off the radar,” says Guy Pfeffermann, founder and chief executive of the Global Business School Network, a not-for-profit that promotes management education in emerging markets. “If they talked about Africa at all, nine times out of 10 they meant South Africa. Other markets were booming, so why bother to get into very unfamiliar territory? Then several things happened. We began to get African deans together with top people from U.S. and European schools through networking and capacity-building programs. And GMAC also ‘discovered’ the market potential of Africa at the same time as traditional markets in Europe, the U.S., and Japan became saturated.”

While U.S. schools might have been late to the game, there are already some signs of the impact they are making. The University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, for example, has helped strengthen the capacity of several schools in North and Central Africa, UNC Kenan-Flagler runs a sustainability immersion course in Kenya, and Babson College, the University of South Carolina, and the University of Maryland’s Smith School of Business have all partnered with the Mediterranean School of Business in Tunisia.

But for now there seems to be no indication that U.S. or European schools will follow CEIBS’s avowed lead and set up campuses in the “real” Africa outside the continent’s most westernized country, South Africa. While less daunting emerging markets in Latin America and Asia continue to offer so many opportunities, it seems that Africa may still have some time to wait for the arrival of the business education fire brigade.

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