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Much has changed since the launch of the first MBA programme at Harvard Business School in 1908. Back then, the degree was designed to develop business leadership under a structured configuration of management sciences at a time of heightened industrialisation and internationalisation of US firms.

The MBA was, by its nature, US-centric. It took nearly 50 years before the first MBA was offered outside the US. Even then, from Africa to Asia, degrees were either modelled on, or offered in partnership with, US MBA programmes.

Many insist the MBA is still ensconced in the US template; that it has failed to adapt to changing global dynamics of power, economics and demographics. With the shift in the economic axis from West to East, and growing commercial interests moving from North to South, the MBA and its content are capturing more attention than ever. Nowhere is the debate on what constitutes the right approaches to business and learning more relevant than in Africa.

Despite burgeoning opportunities, this continent is a tricky place to do business. A rich tapestry of cultures, religions and languages layered over obscure geographical lines and vast distances creates a business environment ridden with complexity. Economic disparities and a history of sociopolitical instability in a region that is institutionally weak and grossly underdeveloped mean there is no such thing as business as usual. Conventional approaches and standard business acumen don’t work. Preparing individuals and organisations for this context requires an MBA with a difference.

Five themes are shaping the African business context from the inside out:

First, politics and institutions continue to determine economic performance across the continent. These are inextricably linked to business. While some argue that Africa is more democratic and politically inclusive than ever before, and that its youthful population heralds major change, ageing, autocratic leaders dominate. Six of the world’s 10 longest-serving heads of state are African. Political institutions have not kept pace with commercial interests, requiring an understanding of the power, policy and institutional fluidity beyond conventional business acumen. MBAs need to understand the notion of power and politics in Africa.

Second, the demographics of development without facts and proven numbers make business decisions tricky. Africa will boast the fastest-growing population of any region over the next 50 years, and within 10 years most Africans will be living in cities. This will have huge ramifications for business and society. Issues like growing inequality, informal business and ballooning urban slums are core to any Africa strategy. For example, informal markets comprise an estimated 35% of Kenya’s economy and 66% of Nigeria’s. If business fails to grasp the relevance of this sector, Africa’s full economic potential will not be realised.

Third, the fourth industrial revolution will not be lost in Africa, where innovation and disruption are under way with a distinctly local flavour.

While automation understandably worries a continent grappling with unacceptable levels of unemployment, 80% of young people believe technology is creating jobs, not destroying them. This sentiment inspires hope. Again, policies need to keep pace because African countries lag the developing world in innovation and entrepreneurial flair.

Fourth, while there is talk of continent-wide economic integration, the free movement of goods, services and people remains a pipe dream. This is a prerequisite for realising the continent’s true economic potential. The intra-Africa disconnect poses a serious challenge to businesses seeking opportunities of scale between borders, requiring creative thinking and innovative solutions.

Fifth, the rise of African multinationals and the notion of “Africapitalism” present an interesting link and nuance to business development. The most successful firms in Africa have recognised their role in developing society and markets for the future. Purpose-driven business that strives for collective impact has become an integral part of strategy and execution in Africa. This is a cornerstone of the MBA in nurturing sustainable business.

These themes suggest the African MBA must be grounded in the African context, with a strong global connection. It should be geared for disruptors and entrepreneurs beyond the corporate climbers targeted by traditional programmes. Development with a direct impact in the community, increasingly part of day-to-day business in Africa, will underpin the MBA. Industry today and in the future requires “soft skills”.

Access to business education, especially in light of the management void across the continent, will be crucial. This is where the implementation of the African MBA may deviate from the norm. Managers and entrepreneurs have less time and funding for a lengthy MBA programme. Online and distance learning will be essential in reaching previously excluded Africans, and necessary for the desired mass impact on the continent.

Bespoke options with a focus on depth and creativity are important too. And while the MBA is essentially a practical degree, academic rigour is necessary to advance literature, case studies and general thinking on management sciences in the African context.

Quality is essential. Like most strategies and operations in Africa, an alternative approach to the norm is not exempt from international standards. Africa needs a world-class MBA with a local flavour to develop management competences and build excellence.

Lyal White is senior director of Johannesburg Business School at the University of Johannesburg

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