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Getting down to business

Africa needs people trained in business skills to manage the commercial side of innovation says Walter Baets, newly appointed chairman of the African Association of Business Schools.

African business and management degrees are often vilified for occupying too much space in higher education, at the expense of science and technology-focused courses.

But Walter Baets, who heads up the University of Cape Town’s Graduate School of Business, calls this analysis “short-sighted”.

“We have a lot of technology, and it gets us nowhere,” says Baets, who was elected chairman of the Association of African Business Schools in November this year.

“The added value of the business school is that it helps ideas to be turned into companies. If you want to change society, you need to have business schools,” he says.

Belgian-born Baets, who took up the reins at the GBS in 2009, is the first to admit that the overall quality of business schools in Africa is low. This is something he hopes to address when he steps into his new role from 1 January 2014.

“The role of the AABS is to raise the quality [of training],” he says. This means teaching new academics not just the theory of business and management, but also making sure that the knowledge is relevant to the needs of the African businesses.

Making African business schools more relevant will involve pushing the numbers of PhD and master’s degrees, in addition to the more common MBA degree. An MBA will teach an individual to lead a company—but Africa needs a wider range of business skills, Baets says.

For instance, African science and technology graduates would benefit hugely from some training in management, he says. “That’s where we really should focus as business schools.”

‘Neo-colonialist’ trends

In recent years, top international management and business schools have set up shop in African countries.

For example, Shanghai’s China Europe International Business School has an executive MBA programme in Accra, Ghana, while UK-based Henley Business School and Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business both have campuses in South Africa.

Baets is openly critical of this trend, which he brands a “form of neo-colonialism”. These courses are not tailored to Africa’s needs, he says.  

“We don’t need a top European school in Africa. I would welcome cooperation between European or North American business schools, where there is true partnership with an African school. But they shouldn’t do it for us, they should do it with us,” he says.

Baets also doesn’t like it when top foreign schools offer Africans bursaries to study overseas. “They will be trained in things that will be irrelevant here, and they will never come back,” he says. Rather, schools like Harvard should sponsor bursaries for African students in Africa, and send professors over to lecture them in-situ. 

However the transformation of African business schools—in particular the raising of the quality standards—needs to be led by the schools themselves and by the local private sector, he adds.

“I’m not sure whether African business schools understand the contribution they can give to the continent,” he says. “We need to support the local supply chain, help companies delivery quality products. The moment we do that, we will really change Africa.”

Photo credit: UCT