The Right Ideas

To spur economic growth in Africa, business schools must produce more innovative entrepreneurs than ever before. But to do that, they first must change what—and how—they teach.
The Right Ideas
IN 2003, THE WORLD BANK backed a US$4.2 billion oil pipeline in Chad with one caveat: that Chad’s government use the oil money to support regional development. But just two years after the pipeline went into operation, Chad’s government announced that it would use the profits for its own purposes, including buying weapons. The good intentions of businesses often go wrong as well. Take TOMS Shoes’ “Buy-One-Give-One” campaign, in which it sends a pair of shoes to Africa for each pair it sells. The company is providing shoes to communities that would much rather see solutions that alleviate their real underlying problems: unemployment and poverty. History offers plenty of examples that show what can happen when Western solutions are imposed on African markets.

Increasingly, more people are recognizing that Africa must find its own solutions. For instance, in 2013, IBM opened a new research center in Nairobi, Kenya. And, in 2014, the first African Think Tank Summit was held in Pretoria, South Africa, bringing together representatives from more than 45 think tanks from across the continent to discuss their role in generating new ideas, influencing policy, and supporting sustainable development. These examples reflect the growing realization that, if we are to solve Africa’s “grand challenges,” the work must be done on the ground, not imposed from outside.

To provide the workers Africa needs, business schools also must work “on the ground” to seek socially driven solutions and address the real needs of local communities. They must reach students earlier to develop their entrepreneurial skills. They must provide more opportunities for students to learn to innovate. And they must foster in students the sense that successful businesses do more than make profits—they make a positive impact on communities.


If Africa cannot prosper based on external solutions, how can its business schools help generate the right solutions? Some critics have suggested that business schools are simply teaching students in Africa the wrong things.

That point was central to EFMD’s November 2014 conference in Dakar, Africa, where delegates explored the theme “Entrepreneurship and management education in Africa: Are we miseducating our students?” Delegates agreed that business schools are introducing students to the idea of entrepreneurship far too late. We might be able to “teach entrepreneurship,” but it’s harder to instill in students entrepreneurial attitudes and an inclination toward innovation.

Ideally, students should be exposed to activities that encourage entrepreneurship and innovation from their elementary school years on. By the time they reached business school, students then would be more inclined to start businesses and produce innovations. As business faculty, we could focus less on teaching entrepreneurship and more on nurturing entrepreneuring mindsets that can accept responsibility, take actions, develop projects, and innovate business models. To do this, faculty would showcase to students how entrepreneurial and innovative businesses contribute to a thriving economy.

Luckily for us, there already is a lot of entrepreneurial energy in Africa. The Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM), the world’s largest longitudinal study of entrepreneurship, illustrates that the entrepreneurial landscape in sub-Saharan Africa is on the increase and African economies are booming. In its 2014 report, GEM finds that more than 70 percent of Africans between the ages of 18 to 64 view entrepreneurship as a “good career choice”—the highest of any global region. More than 45 percent say they have “entrepreneurial intentions,” compared to only about 12 percent in the E.U. and the U.S. And 26 percent are involved in early-stage entrepreneurial activity, compared to 13 percent in Asia and Oceania, around 17 percent in Latin America and the Caribbean, and around 8 percent in the E.U.

The GEM report also notes that while just over 26 percent of those surveyed in Africa view entrepreneurship as “necessity- driven,” 71 percent view it as “opportunity-driven,” similar to numbers from other regions. That indicates that many African countries are moving beyond “survivalist” entrepreneurship to instead look for ways to exploit market opportunities. (To read the GEM 2014 Global Report, visit

According to Forbes, there never has been a more inspired generation of young Africans. In 2014, it released its list of the “30 Most Promising Young Entrepreneurs in Africa.” The list included 30-year-old Ashley Uys. His company, Medical Diagnostech, makes affordable and reliable medical test kits for malaria, pregnancy, syphilis, and HIV for South Africa’s rural poor. Uys is a recipient of a US$100,000 Social Innovation Award from the South African Breweries Foundation.

In its 2013 list of “30 Under 30: Africa’s Best Young Entrepreneurs,” Forbes included Sizwe Nzima, a 21-year-old Capetonian who saw how elderly and ill patients had to travel long distances and wait for hours to collect medication for chronic illnesses. This inspired him to create Iyeza Express, a delivery service that delivers prescriptions to nearly 300 residents of Khyalitsha, an informal settlement in Cape Town. Nzima developed the idea for his company during a course at the Raymond Ackerman Academy of Entrepreneurial Development, based at my school, the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business (UCT GSB).

Another UCT GSB student, Francois Petousis, won the People’s Choice Award at the 2013 Global Social Venture Competition at the University of California, Berkeley. His idea, Lumkani, is an early-warning fire detection system designed for shack communities, where a fire in one shack can quickly destroy the entire community. Lumkani, which means “be cautious,” is designed to trigger alerts in every shack so residents can swiftly extinguish the fire or escape.

In a recent UCT GSB publication, Petousis offered this advice to social entrepreneurs: “Engage with the people and the world you want to impact ... It’ll give you the personal connection you need to be inspired in your work. With that connection will come the deep care and values that need to be clear in any growing social enterprise.” His words represent the entrepreneuring mindset that business schools need to engender in themselves and their students.


The mindsets of these entrepreneurs reflect a growing global belief that businesses should embrace the idea of “not just creating economic value, but creating social value,” as Harish Manwani, COO of Unilever, said in a 2013 TED talk. “Companies cannot afford to be just innocent bystanders in what’s happening ... in society. They have to begin to play their role in terms of serving the communities which actually sustain them,” Manwani said. “We have to move to an ‘and/and’ model, which is, ‘How do we make money and do good? How do we make sure that we have a great business [and] we also have a great environment around us?’”

I agree that companies and businesspeople need to look at the value their companies bring to their communities. They need to ask, “If we ceased to exist tomorrow, what would the world lack?” But this is a question for business schools to ask as well. What would the world lack without us? I argue that we want the answer to include more than simply “profitable businesses.”

At the UCT GSB, for example, we encourage entrepreneurs to develop business ideas that solve key social and environmental problems. For example, our newly launched MTN Solution Space, a shared workspace located at the heart of campus, is designed to bring entrepreneurs together to work, learn, and stimulate innovation. The initiative is sponsored by MTN Group, a leading telecommunications company in Africa and the Middle East. MTN Group shares the UCT GSB’s ambition to engender innovation on the continent, through business model innovation, technological development, and the integration of mobile technologies.

A related initiative is the Social Franchising Accelerator, established at the UCT GSB Bertha Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship in 2013. The school formed the accelerator in partnership with the International Centre for Social Franchising, a nonprofit based in the U.K., U.S., and Australia; and Franchising Plus, a Johannesburg-based franchising consultancy firm. Supported by funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, the initiative is a collaboration among academia, NGOs, and the private sector. Our goal for the accelerator is to meet the needs of South Africa’s poor by supporting and scaling up successful social impact organizations.

A third initiative is the Social Innovation Lab, part of our MBA program. The SI Lab immerses students in theoretical coursework and practical activities designed to drive social innovations for emerging economies. Students who participate in the SI Lab also can specialize in social innovation and work directly with viable social enterprises during their studies.

Instead of narrowly focusing on curricula and course material, business schools should pursue more initiatives that ensure that students are exposed to the real world as much as possible—especially students studying in emerging economies. We must invite students to participate in projects and programs that uplift communities, and we must provide more paths that inspire and motivate students to become change agents in the world of business. (See "Curricula for the Real World," below.)


Africa’s socioeconomic challenges present tremendous opportunity for African business schools. But our schools need to embrace these opportunities—eagerly. We need to innovate and experiment more, and our programs need to be more flexible. We need to offer students learning experiences that will transform them into the leaders and entrepreneurs that their countries and communities need most. And we need to model the skills we teach. Only by doing so will we train leaders who can help African countries achieve their goals.

An interesting paradox is that the conditions we see in today’s emerging economies—high degrees of uncertainty, complexity, and social inequality—are conditions we increasingly see in many parts of the developed world. The workers most needed by businesses in Africa are those needed by businesses worldwide. African business schools are incredibly close to these issues—they’ve been living and breathing these conditions for 50 years. That means our schools actually can be the models for their Western counterparts. Our schools have the potential to lead the world.