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Do We Need Harvard in Africa?

Africa MapAfrica, it seems, must brace itself for another wave of colonisation. No, it’s not China. This time, its “western style” business schools that, after ignoring Africa for decennia, are now flocking to its shores with an enthusiasm last seen in the heady days of the scramble for Africa in the 1870s.


A recent article in Bloomberg Businessweek attributed this influx to a rising demand for business education among Africa’s growing middle class coupled with strong economic growth on the continent and a dearth of good local business schools.


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. None, it seems, have paused to consider whether Africa really will benefit from what they are offering or if they are missing an opportunity to create something better.


Just prior to the article appearing, a conference co-organised by EFMD and the Association of African Business Schools (AABS) around business schools in Africa, was held in Portugal. One of the topics of discussion was the paradigm/pedagogical approach of African business schools and whether it is possible to take a success story in one part of the world and transplant it to another. 



The opinions on this vary. The China Europe International Business School (CEIBS), one of the “western” schools currently making inroads in Africa, thinks this is a perfectly acceptable option. A top international school based in Shanghai, CEIBS has recently set up a campus in Ghana and fly top faculty in to teach classes there.


In Ghana CEIBS is referred to as the “Harvard of Africa”. But what does that precisely mean? Does it mean that the Harvard pedagogical approach, content and developmental model the only right one in the world?


The assumption behind CEIBS’s approach is that the only way of helping Africa to develop is to impose an established business school model on the continent rather than contributing to the development of local resources. But there is mounting evidence that local development is more sustainable.


While there is undoubtedly a huge and growing demand for quality business education in Africa, that cannot and should not come at the cost of local relevance. And Africa should not confuse good business schools with western style business schools.


There are plenty of good business schools in Africa – some like the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business and University of Stellenbosch business school have EQUIS accreditation. Others are also ranked in the Financial Times rankings for both the MBA and their Executive Education short course offerings.


No doubt African business schools can learn much from other schools around the world. And everybody in Africa is willing to cooperate with whoever has an interest in genuine co-development. Africans do have some know how, they do have good business schools and they do have many interesting people with their own experience and ambitions who should be involved in the process.


There are other reasons why developing an African model of a business school distinct from Harvard may be a good idea.


With its emergent economy context characterised by uncertainty, complexity and unfortunately, inequalities, Africa is proving to be an ideal setting for learning to lead in this - the emergent market century. It is a place where foundation for the future of business is being laid.


The economic crisis, which many have laid at the door of the traditional Harvard business school model, also provides added impetus for finding a new way.


Business schools should exist to teach more than the fundamentals of business and management – they have an opportunity to shift to develop transformative leaders – leaders capable of great things through the way they think about the world and influence positive change.


There is more at stake here than just an unseemly scramble for the intellectual resources of Africa. There are tremendous opportunities in Africa, both for companies and for business schools that understand that they should do it “with” rather than “for” the people. It’s about building better models of business education and ultimately a more equitable world. And we can achieve more by working together and respecting multiple perspectives than we can by just replicating past models in new contexts.


Walter Baets is the Director of the UCT Graduate School of Business in South Africa.

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