Students are finding great case studies in Africa's developing economies—both in the countries themselves, and back on campus
Long relegated to the back shelf by the media, Africa is hot these days. And not just in the celebrity circles frequented by Bono, Angelina Jolie, and Oprah. Africa is top-of-mind on B-school campuses, too. Schools such as Columbia, Yale, and Dartmouth's Tuck are sending their students to places like Tanzania and South Africa. Meanwhile, B-schools are tweaking their curricula to include Africa-centric case studies. As far as many MBAs are concerned, there's no better emerging economy to explore
"There's a huge area of land with a lot to offer in terms of human resources," says Shamik Narotam, a second-year finance student at the London Business School who studied in Cape Town this fall. "You can't ignore it anymore."
Yes, Oprah and her ilk have done their part to thrust Africa into the U.S. consciousness. (The talk-show host's $40-million leadership school for girls outside Johannesburg made headlines.) And some MBAs are bringing a do-good ethos to their African focus. But many recognize the continent is an emerging market with rich money-making potential, much the way Asia was a generation ago.
"People are going: 'What's the next China? What's the next great thing?'" says Parker Snowe, head of international programs at Penn's Wharton School "We want to go see what's going on in Africa, so that when it becomes [a] mature market, we will be ready."
Exchange programs are proliferating. The University of Cape Town's business school, for example, has partnerships with 24 schools around the world, 10 of which are from the U.S. (see BusinessWeek.com, 11/2/06, "Africa's B-School Challenge"). Over the past two years, several top MBA programs have set up partnerships with African B-schools. And schools are sending students over not just to sit in the classroom, but to see first-hand how businesses run.
One such school is Wharton, which last spring dispatched 30 MBAs on a three-week tour of Senegal, Ghana, and South Africa, where they learned the lay of the land from local business leaders. The trip included a stop at the Ghana headquarters of BusyInternet, a company that provides information and communications technology to African entrepreneurs. There they got a first-hand look at how access to basic resources like computers, meeting spaces, and the Internet help local businesses take off. "Unfortunately, very few people that I know of are developing innovative services," says Mark Davies, BusyInternet's founder. "Nobody has done what we've done."
For B-school students, Africa presents thorny business challenges, from poverty to AIDS to racial tensions left over from apartheid. These make for compelling case studies. Earlier this month in Tanzania, for example, Bridget Gillich and other first-year Yale MBA students toured a factory where pipes critical to the delivery of clean water were being produced. There they discussed the challenges of attracting investors and mustering enough human capital to stay self-sufficient.
The group of MBAs also met managers at Citibank (C, Standard Bank, and Rand Merchant Bank. They discussed the challenges of persuading conservative CFOs—apprehensive about past high rates of inflation—to partake in debt financing.
They examined cell-phone banking as an alternative to typical "bricks and mortar" banks for poor rural areas lacking infrastructure like Soweto, the cluster of South African townships with one of the world's highest rates of murder, rape, and poverty—where Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu's mansions coexist with shacks alongside dirt roads (see BusinessWeek.com, 1/29/07, "Meeting All the World's Tech Needs").
African Studies Stateside
Vash Mungal, director of academic programs at the University of Cape Town's Graduate School of Business, is quick to see the upside of such exposure. "It's taking their first-world knowledge and knowledge applicable to the corporate world and applying it to the emerging world."
Back in the U.S., Africa is finding its way into the course load. This year, students at Washington University's Olin School of Business are working on an alternative-fuels project that makes use of an indigenous African plant, while students at Ohio State University's Fisher College of Businessare working to develop markets for Ethiopia's cash crops, and Northwestern University's Kellogg Business School students are dipping into a $4.9 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to research HIV prevention.
Popular as it is to study Africa in B-schools these days, there's still much room to translate classroom theory into practice, says BusyInternet's Davies. "Who's got $50,000 and a spare year to set up a new idea?" he asks. "There's no angel network that allows you to do that in Africa." Young, idealistic, and bustling with talent, B-school students may be the closest thing going.