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Hilary Wilce specialising in all aspects of education
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MBA courses in Africa

Published By: The Independent - 19 Apr 2007

The MBA is going global. New courses are multiplying in Eastern Europe and Asia, and the number of students taking MBA programmes is rising worldwide. Only Africa, where poverty, war and HIV/Aids continue to shackle economic progress, stands apart from this trend.

But this could now be changing. There is a growing international view that good leadership is the key which will unlock this region’s vast potential, and new signs that African managers are looking to develop their higher-level skills.

Business schools in both the UK and USA report an increased interest in MBA programmes from prospective students in Africa, while new scholarships are opening up opportunities to high-flyers.

This autumn the Mo Ibrahim Foundation announced a £50,000 scholarship to support one student a year on the full-time MBA course at the London Business School. Ibrahim, who made his money in telecommunications and claims never to have paid a bribe, is in no doubt that governance and leadership “are the most important challenges facing Africa today, and if we succeed in those areas all other things will follow.”

Meanwhile Aston Business School, in partnership with the Allan and Nesta Ferguson Charitable Trust, last year launched a £30,000 ‘MBA Africa’ scholarship fund, to reach out to African students, who were under-represented on its MBA. And Cass Business School, in association with Ethos, a leading South African private equity firm, has launched a scholarship scheme for one South African student a year to take its full-time MBA.

At the same time, African business schools have come together to raise standards and work towards international recognition. Last year the Association of African Business Schools was set up in Lagos, and reports that business education programmes are now growing rapidly in countries such as Nigeria, Kenya and Ghana.

South Africa is the sole African country with a long history of MBA programmes, having launched the first MBA ever outside the USA in 1949, and has recently conducted a formal evaluation of all its programmes, measuring them against standards set by international accrediting bodies. “This will increase the average quality of the MBA in South Africa and allow it to compete strongly in the local and African markets,” says Eon Smit, director of the Stellenbosch Business School. The country also now has a world class programme, in the University of Cape Town’s MBA, which was ranked 66tth in the Financial Times’ 2006 rankings.

South African MBA programmes offer the usual range of modules, but also focus on locally-relevant subjects such HIV/Aids, racial diversity and sustainable development.

Henley Management College has been offering an MBA programme in the country for the past 14 years, and is a registered local education provider. It has a small campus in Johannesburg, 3,000 alumnae, and more than 400 students currently on its flexible, distance-learning MBA programme. This year the college teamed up with Archbishop Desmond Tutu to start offering bursaries to management students. Next year it will fund five students taking MBAs in South Africa and two students taking an advanced course at Henley. The aim, says Archbishop Tutu, is to develop strong and ethical business leaders.

“There are huge possibilities for business schools in Africa, but you have to be willing to be in it for the long haul,” says Chris Bones, the college’s principal. “You have to want to put down roots and deliver high quality education across the board, not just cream off the top layer and prepare them for international opportunities. Those days are gone.”

One business school that has already been in it for the long haul is the Open University, which reputedly trained the entire Ethiopian cabinet, after its president studied for an MBA and was impressed by what he had learned. “It was after they had been fighting the Eritreans and there was a need to rebuild government. We regularly had cohorts of 40 students, and our lecturers would fly over to Addis Ababa to teach them,” remembers Mike Green, director of partnerships for the OU’s Business School. “It fizzled out after a time, when there were no more takers, but last summer they came over and we talked about marketing with them.”

The Open University has also had long links with South Africa, where it has an MBA programme running under licence to the University of South Africa, UNISA. Students in the graduate school of business leadership follow the OU’s programme, but get a local award -- South Africa requires a physical presence in South Africa for external schools to be able to offer their own awards.

The OU also has MBA students in many other African countries, including Botswana, Kenya and Nigeria, following its online curriculum, which starts with a foundation level, to give students a sound basic understanding of business and management before they embark on the MBA proper. “This is a route designed for people in remote areas, “ explains Green, “where face to face sessions are difficult, or in fact pretty impossible, to organise.”

Arshad Essa is a 27-year-old South African, studying for an MBA at Cass Business School on a scholarship funded by the school in association with Ethos, a South African private equity house.

In South Africa he worked as a junior lecturer at Witwatersrand University, then took his accountancy articles with PricewaterhouseCoopers, in Johannesburg, before working in corporate finance at the Rand Merchant Bank.

“I wanted to do an MBA to get a more strategic perspective on business,” he says. “And I wanted to come to London because it is such a hub for business and financial institutions for investing. If you do an MBA in South Africa, 90 to 95 per cent of the class will be South Africans, whereas here it is much more international. I think there are something like 42 nationalities here. That was the big, big reason for coming.

“There are very good schools in South Africa, and the MBA is definitely growing, but the country is never going to be able to attract people from all over the world. But it could certainly develop its regional market. The lower cost and shorter distance would make it attractive to people from other African countries. In fact there are already many Nigerians studying for their MBAs there.”