African MBAs – beating Bono at his own game

GOVERNMENTS, NGOs, rock-stars and politicians of all stripes have tried to help African development. Now a wave of business schools is trying to do its bit. Henley, Edinburgh, Duke, Spain’s IESE and even Shanghai-based CEIBS have all gone into the continent with varying amounts of fanfare. In theory, they should be able to do a lot of good. In 2005, a report by Tony Blair’s Commission for Africa said that poor management hindered the continent’s development in many areas. Surely, then, creating more MBAs must be a force for positive change.

Not everybody agrees. Last month, Professor Walter Baets, director of the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business, emotively described this influx as “another wave of colonisation”. “Western-style” business schools are now “flocking” to Africa, he said, offering Western students “edu-tourism” – trips that don’t teach anything of value – and bringing with them a dose of arrogance. “Almost without exception, these incoming schools talk about bringing pre-existing European/US models to Africa as if this will be the answer to all of the continent’s problems”. These lack “local relevance”, he wrote, suggesting that a specifically African model, rather than the “Harvard pedagogical approach” would serve the continent better. Business education may be important to Africa, but it isn’t getting the right sort, thinks Baets.

Is his criticism valid? No, says Professor Kwaku Atuahene-Gima, professor of marketing and innovation management at CEIBS’s Ghanaian satellite in Accra. “We are not transplanting a western model,” he says, and anyway, he adds that one of the key skills for Africans to develop is innovation – necessary in a place where rains can wash away roads and power outages can occur with no notice. Innovation, by its nature, is a concept that is adapted to particular situations, and looking at the way people have innovated in Silicon Valley, the City or China can’t possibly harm. Having more tools in the toolbox is a good thing.

Few people have as much experience in African business education as Professor Lluis G. Renart of Barcelona’s IESE school. He has taught at five business schools in Africa, and he says that creating local case-studies is at the heart of what he does. A key part of setting up business schools is teaching academics how to write case studies about local businesses. He says that Western schools are well aware that subjects should be adapted to “the African reality or to African needs and circumstances”. In Islamic countries, for instance, it would be crazy not to have an awareness of Islamic finance.

The best way to ensure that schools have an African perspective is to have African faculty, which is exactly the aim for Renart. This has happened in Lagos Business School, established in 1992, and is almost complete in Strathmore Business School, Nairobi, set up in 2005.

Still, despite such progress, Baets’s concern must also be judged against the likely end-results. This style of education, he suggests, is just not powerful enough to solve Africa’s problems. Renart provides a robust counterargument, pointing out that business helps create a professional class that can challenge politicians. Dictators, he says, are rarely fans of “intelligent, educated” businesspeople. Business has the power to be a force for good, promoting the rule of law – contracts are fundamental to trade – and acting as a counterbalance to corruption; some of the best-known African case-studies are about businesses that stood up to corrupt officials.

CEIBS’s involvement in Africa has its cynical side – the Chinese government is keen to build its influence in the continent – but at least some of the faculty have nobler aims. “One of the reasons CEIBS came to Africa was that we believe we have had an impact on the Chinese economy, helping to turn it from a planned economy to one of the most vibrant in the world,” says Atuahene-Gima. “What you see in Africa largely mirrors what you saw in China 30 years ago.” After independence, many African nations relied on socialist state-run industries, which have failed to develop the continent. CEIBS thinks it can change that.

The economic flowering of Africa will not be achieved through the massive, state-run liberalisations of China but at the micro level; CEIBS wants to start promoting the education of women. From next year, CEIBS will offer cut-price business courses for women, with backing from companies including Unilever, Heineken, Diageo, Guinness and others, on the grounds that educating women is the most effective way of injecting business savvy into the population. “We strongly believe that women are the backbone of Africa,” says Atuahene-Gima. If this is colonialism, then the world needs more of it.