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Business Schools in Sub-Saharan Africa

Posted By Guy Pfeffermann, Thursday, September 04, 2014

I am excited about our November annual conference that will have a special focus on Sub-Saharan Africa, where ten of our 69 member schools are located.  In the run-up to this event, I was asked four good questions the other day about business schools in Sub-Saharan Africa. Here are my answers, and I would love to hear your views, which you can post below in the comments section.

Question # 1: Has Sub-Saharan Africa been slow in developing a formal business education sector?

I don’t think that Africa has been slow. UNISA, one of the world’s major distance learning universities introduced a Masters of Business Leadership back in 1965. Other South African universities have been teaching business for decades, as have “legacy universities” such as Ibadan (Nigeria), Makerere (Uganda) and the University of Ghana. However, outside South Africa, government universities were steeped in academic traditions that are quite divorced from the needs of employers. Indeed, links between these universities’ business schools and local business communities are, to this day, rather tenuous. On top of this, official aid institutions have neglected universities in general because the Millennium Development Goals did not include higher education, and this has contributed to deteriorating quality. It is only recently that more funding is being allocated to the sector; it will take years to find out whether quality and relevance will improve as a result.

What has changed the picture for the better is the fact that, starting in the late 1980s, government after government liberalized higher education, opening a space to private institutions. Private business schools – commercial as well as not-for-profit – have mushroomed since then. A number of good schools have grown over the last 10-20 years – by which I mean schools that meet the hiring standards of local and multinational companies. The Association of African Business Schools, which has tough admission criteria, now has 28 member schools in Sub-Saharan Africa (of which 20 are outside South Africa).  

Question # 2: Are formal business schools the right institutions to teach the skills that Africa needs?

Online learning is revolutionizing education, and formal business schools around the world are busy trying to figure out how to benefit from new technologies. Low-income regions such as Africa and South Asia differ from middle and upper-income countries because computer/broadband penetration is still very low. According to the latest data from the International Telecommunications Union, only 11 percent of African households have Internet access at home. However, Internet penetration has grown fastest in Africa, with an annual growth of 27 percent. On the other hand, 70 percent of Africans have access to mobile phones, and for the next few years at least, much will depend on how well and fast useful and financially sustainable mobile business education programs enter the market. The common wisdom is that blended programs, combining online and face-to-face, are most effective. It will be fascinating to see how formal African business schools fit into this evolving picture.

Question # 3: Can Africa grow the management and business skills it needs on its own?

Every good business school has international partnerships with other schools around the world. Indeed such linkages are vital to establishing, developing and nurturing high-quality business schools. African schools would only damage themselves by pursuing autarkic paths. Collaboration between African and other business schools can be a win-win proposition. When we started GBSN, we believed, wrongly, that “knowledge” would flow mainly from schools in advanced industrial countries to schools in the developing world. What we found very soon, however, was that deans and faculty of European and American schools were hugely interested in learning about the fine-grain realities of Africa and other developing regions. And so, right away, knowledge was flowing in all directions: North-South, South-North and South-South. Opportunities for international and inter-regional professional networking are of the utmost importance to the development of good business schools anywhere on the globe.

Professional conferences, workshops and other meetings – face-to-face, online, by email, whatever, are key to international collaboration. This is why GBSN organized mentorships focused on case writing and case teaching; this is how many productive faculty exchanges materialized. Formal school-to-school partnership agreements can also play a part, although many of them exist only on paper.

Question # 4: Does Africa need the same skills as everywhere else?

That is a very important question. In highly industrialized countries, most people make a living working in companies, large or small. In Africa, formal sector jobs are few and far between. It is therefore essential to equip individuals with entrepreneurship skills (at all levels, starting in high school if not sooner). How to supply such skills in a financially sustainable manner is a key question, and a very tough one, not only for African business schools and online education providers, but for governments and international funders as well. 

Guy Pfeffermann is the Founder & CEO of the Global Business School Network

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