Sub-Saharan Africa may be one of the fastest growing regions in the world, but it will have to overcome a number of roadblocks if it is to achieve its lofty ambitions for the coming years.
The “lack of management skills is a constraint” on economic growth, says Rebecca Harrison, chief executive of the Nairobi-based Africa Management Initiative (AMI).
Companies and investors struggle to find managers with the skills needed to take their business forward, while millions of degree-educated Africans lack the tools to land a good job or start a business. Without being able to hire local talent, companies and charities are faced between the options of expensive training or bringing in their employees from overseas.
AMI believes that more effective and better trained managers are needed if the continent is to reach its economic potential. Having reached 10,000 managers and entrepreneurs in 25 African countries since its establishment in 2012, AMI says that its goal is to train 1m skilled managers across Africa within the next decade.
The brainchild of Harrison, a former Reuters journalist, and Jonathan Cook, the former chair of the association of African business schools, AMI, which was formed in 2012, is a pan-African online social learning platform.
A for-profit social enterprise, AMI has so far received most of its funding from the Canada-based Lundin Foundation and the Nigeria-based Tony Elumelu Foundation.
Harrison argues that good management is the missing link that would make Africa’s economies more competitive, create jobs, develop strong and growing small and medium-sized businesses and to close the skills gap. “Our goal is to empower African entrepreneurs,” she says.
Overcoming the skills gap is clearly one of the main challenges facing Kenya and sub-Saharan Africa. Today’s generation of young Kenyans is the country’s most highly educated – yet the presence of many thousands of unemployed graduates in an economy that is growing by more than 5% a year, suggests that students are not coming out of university with the skills businesses need.
“We are seeing a generation of Kenyans who are rich in ability, but somehow people are not ending up with the right skills,” says Harrison.
A report by the AMI back in 2012 on Africa’s management gap saw numerous companies bemoan the quality of graduates who seemed to have been “stuck in a lecture theatre with 1,000 other students for four years and been taught to regurgitate facts”.
“It’s not just about skills but about mindset,” Harrison adds, stressing the need to instil the “personal initiative to make sure things get done”.
But despite the need for management education and training in sub-Saharan Africa, too often what is on offer is either too expensive or inaccessible.
The average MBA course in the region costs around $3,500 per year, while Africa as a continent has only about 90 business schools offering an MBA, compared with more than 1,500 in India alone.
“Initially we thought we might put new business schools all over Africa but we don’t need to put in place more bricks and mortar,” says Harrison.
Instead, the concept behind AMI was to plug this gap in the market and to break down the barriers of elitism and expense associated with studying for an MBA. “[We saw] a lack of anything that was affordable and accessible,” Harrison tells me.
As a result, much of the programme’s content is available to individuals for free, while programmes for companies start at a mere $10 per month per person.
The courses themselves are run from a Virtual Campus featuring more than 30 different course modules ranging from people and money management, to communication.
The course material is available by video and audio, and at low bandwidth so that people can access them from their smartphones.
Meanwhile, for those who want a classroom and contact time with a lecturer, learning labs are available in Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda. All in all, the model is a mix of LinkedIn, Facebook and the UK’s Open University.
Yet despite being organised around the anonymity of the internet, AMI wants its courses to be seen as distinctly ‘African’.
The course lecturers are all African, while AMI has partnerships with three of the region’s top business schools – Nairobi’s Strathmore Business School, the Pretoria-based Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS) and Lagos Business School in Nigeria.
At the same time, Harrison says that the challenge is to avoid the trap of becoming like the stereotypical one-off workshops, offered to reluctant employees, who, at the end of the day, are given a folder of worksheets which gathers dust on a bookshelf. AMI says it is replacing the “one-off workshop with a community of learning”.
At 95%, the course completion rates are much higher than usual for online courses, while the certificates which completion of its courses carry are rapidly gaining acceptance among employers.
Having trained more than 1000 people from 25 countries across the continent, Harrison says that AMI’s next plan is to launch a membership scheme in the first half of 2015, and is bullish about the continent’s future.
“Africa is a continent full of talent,” she says. “Technology and business can be the catalyst for change.”