5 July 2012

Africa: Enase Okonedo, Dean of Lagos Business School and Chairperson of the Association of African Business Schools

Enase Okonedo is sitting on the terrace in Addis Ababa's sumptuous Sheraton hotel. She is attending the World Economic Forum on Africa - the first to be held in the continent's political headquarters, Ethiopia - and in keeping with the big themes of the week, her thoughts are on African growth, and turn to the role business schools can play.

"When you talk about the transformation of Africa, a lot of people see the growth potential in the region - but these prospects are based on the entire macro landscape and what needs more attention is what is actually going to drive that growth and transformation," she argues. "That is where good managers have to come in. And good managers are not born; they have to be developed."

A powerhouse in the business education arena, the fast-talking former financier is the chairperson of the Association of African Business Schools - a group mandated to strengthen business education on the continent - and dean of Lagos Business School.

As one of the only female deans in Africa, Ms Okonedo spends "a lot of time thinking about how we could encourage women into business education".

Filling Africa's dearth of managers will mean mobilising the continent's women, she says. One of the few world class African institutions outside of South Africa, LBS actually boasts a fairly even gender intake on its full-time MBA - not a claim that can be made by a lot of schools on the continent. However, its executive education courses remain overwhelmingly dominated by males.

"The problem stems from the role of women in a society like Africa," Ms Okonedo argues. "The challenges that women face make it difficult for them to devote themselves full time to their own development, because the expectations that also fall on you as a wife and mother are almost cultural."

Shifting societal preconceptions will go some way to changing that, just as they did in the West, she says. "With generational change, you will find that more men also work within the home, and it's not just left to the woman, and with those shared roles I hope to see an increase in the number of women enrolling in business schools, compared to previously in traditional African societies."

But in the meantime, the answer lies in creating awareness. "We need a lot of advocacy on what business education can do for women, and how that can increase their prospects for upward mobility, so that they can be better positioned to take on the managerial roles which are still dominated by men." At LBS, Ms Okonedo rallies female enrolment through university visits as well as via Nigeria's compulsory national youth service corps.

If mobilising the female managerial workforce will provide one avenue for Africa's development, educating leaders for the public sector must be another focus. Business schools need to do more on this front. "Most schools are working to provide the managers the private sector needs. These are operating in a space that is largely determined by the public sector, and yet we are not addressing the issues of leadership and governance, which are so critical in the public sector - especially in Africa," she argues.

"Looking at the bane of African governance, its root is in problems of poor leadership as well as other issues relating to integrity and ethics. So business schools have a great role to play in trying to create offerings that are specific to the public sector - because it's a way that we can begin to influence the sphere that private organisations play in."

This means more than ingraining 'integrity' and 'ethics' into existing courses - standards which are already prerequisites at reputable schools. Developing public sector-specific programmes will require research and time, but nearer-term options include short-focus seminars on specific issues related to governance. LBS launched a public sector initiative two years ago, starting a Centre for Infrastructure Policy, Regulation and Advancement. Short-focus courses aim to gather stakeholders and use that research to influence Nigerian policy.

"So far, we've just been facilitating discussions between the public and private sectors. What I hope that will do is get the public sector to start to craft policies that will be more conducive to businesses, with a better understanding of the challenges facing the private sector," Ms Okonedo explains.

Meanwhile the school is building a bank of public sector case studies with a view to one day rolling out the government-specific programmes which are "very much needed in Africa".

Broadly, Africa's business education landscape is improving, she believes - but there is more to be done. "If you compare the number of business schools in Africa to, say, China or India, you find that for the 1bn people on the continent, that number is grossly insufficient," says Ms Okonedo. Africa only has about 90 management schools, compared to India's over 1,500 institutions for a population only 170,000 higher.

Serious challenges are emerging, she believes - not least the influx of foreign schools to the continent. Many of these are criticised for fly-in fly-out academia, and a lack of locally-relevant knowledge, and are increasingly perceived, Ms Okonedo argues, as a threat to indigenous institutions. "Over the years we've seen the management education landscape change. Now management doesn't have boundaries and a lot of the major international schools have launched African initiatives," she explains.

"They bring in their own management, and depending on how well established a school in a particular African region is, if a top global school were to come into that region then that constitutes some sort of threat."

If African schools are to develop in parallel they must "focus on their competitive advantage, specific to business", she argues. "They need to ask themselves: 'What will stand you out even when these international schools come?'" The answer? "Knowledge of the peculiarities of the African business environment will set local schools in better stead, because we've just been playing here for longer."

This also cuts across the attitudes schools try to build in their students, "because those attitudes are a function of the environment they operate in".

Generating that kind of relevant knowledge will mean improving ties with local industry and enriching curricula with country-specific, regional, pan-African, and even other emerging market case studies - as opposed to the cut-and-paste Western cases which have often been used.

In this respect, LBS has been a success story. "Since I came in as dean, we have worked to increase the focus on our engagement with industry, which allows us to see what their real needs are and incorporate those into our curriculum," Ms Okonedo explains. That has involved making sure that faculty is engaged with industry as well as teaching: consulting jobs are encouraged. The school is also writing African case studies.

There are lessons here for other African schools. "Outside of South Africa that close relationship with industry is not something that we see very much in business schools," she admits.

"Schools keep within themselves and develop curricula without much regard to whether this is what companies require. That's a big problem."

But by focusing on interaction and collaboration between schools, AABS hopes to change that. "We've started to create awareness and highlight the importance of that engagement with industry, so I think going forward we will see more of that amongst our schools," she argues. "That's one of the advantages of belonging to a network."

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