Where others fear to tread


The decision by a Chinese business school to set up in Africa highlights Western schools’ reluctance to engage with the continent

FOR anyone seeking proof of the extent of China’s reach into Africa, this year’s graduation ceremony for executive MBA students at the partly state-run China Europe International Business School (CEIBS) in Shanghai would have been a good place to start. Alongside the predominantly Asian faces delightedly collecting their degrees were 30 Ghanaians and 12 Nigerians—the inaugural cohort on CEIBS’s Africa programme.
The programme, which kicked off in Accra, the capital of Ghana, in early 2009, is one of the first offered by a renowned international school in sub-Saharan Africa. Alongside the executives from both local and international companies were a smattering of governmental types, including a Ghanaian MP and a high court judge. Virtually all had met the programme’s $30,000 cost from their own pockets.
Although it currently only offers the part-time executive MBA in Ghana, which is taught mainly by Shanghai-based professors and uses rented premises, China’s largest business school has grand ambitions for Africa. It hopes to open a campus in Accra and to launch a full-time MBA. Pedro Nueno, CEIBS’s president and the Africa programme’s pioneer, calls Africa “the last big opportunity on the planet” for business schools.
China’s relationship with Africa is burgeoning. What started as the post-colonial, revolutionary solidarity of the cold war era, is now being driven by China’s need for the continent’s bountiful resources. Yet the behaviour of some Chinese elements has led to accusations, occasionally justified, of neo-colonialism, resulting in little economic benefit for ordinary Africans, but high costs, including environmental degradation and human-rights abuses.
CEIBS’s move into Ghana comes at an opportune time. The school chose the west African state, it says, because of its relative stability and decent educational tradition, as well as its proximity to the larger, but far less benign, Nigerian market. But it is little coincidence that Ghana also stands poised to join its neighbours as an oil and gas producer. The discovery of the offshore Jubilee oilfield in 2007 was followed, in July this year, by further discoveries at the Owo field, described as “transformational” by Tullow Oil, a British company working in partnership with Ghana’s government-owned National Petroleum Company.
However, CEIBS pleads more than mere business interests. “CEIBS has been instrumental in developing the business talent that has helped China develop,” says Kwaku Atuahene-Gima, a Ghanaian-born professor of marketing and innovation and the programme’s executive director. “The Europeans and Americans were the colonisers of Africa, but there was not much development, or improvement in standards of living. China has over the past 30 years transformed a very poor economy into a very vibrant one….We decided to bring our model to Africa to help Africa develop.”
Bold claims to make for an MBA programme. But Africa is certainly lacking in credible business education. Rankings and accreditation agencies are untroubled by schools outside South Africa, and local institutions are underresourced and oversubscribed—Ghana’s education ministry claims 40% of qualified applicants are turned down by the country’s public universities.
For some students, the China connection was indeed a factor in their decision to stump up the hefty fee (one young Nigerian entrepreneur enthuses about Africa’s need to “make a great leap forward”). Others, though, are more pragmatic: for them it is just a case of taking the available opportunities. One student puts it simply: “Africa has many incoming Chinese investors. CEIBS-trained managers may be of interest.” Another participant points to a confluence of factors in deciding to enrol: “A world-class school in Africa, removing the need to travel, plus the China synergies made sense at this time.”
Ghana’s government is similarly pragmatic about having CEIBS on board, especially as the school is bearing the costs and risk. One member of parliament, Inusah Fuseini, Ghana’s deputy minister of energy, has enrolled on the course “because it offers an opportunity to learn about the East Asian way of conducting affairs”. John Dramani Mahama, the country’s vice president, who accompanied the cohort to Shanghai for the graduation, says the entry of CEIBS offers an opportunity to “broaden the mindset” of Ghanaians. In development terms, he says, “the challenges China has faced are similar to those Africa faces. Such interaction will make much difference.”
The attitude of both students and the government to CEIBS points to a maturing African attitude in dealing with China—a desire to engage, but to do so on more equal terms, with eyes open to the risks. Whether the school’s risk will pay off has yet to be seen. Unlike most executive MBA programmes, few participants receive sponsorship from their companies. Furthermore, Professor Atuahene-Gima admits that that the programme continues to be a money-loser for CEIBS, and that he and Professor Nueno had to overcome much scepticism within the school to launch the programme in the first place.
In the meantime, he is relishing the opportunity to establish a programme in the country of his birth. Future intakes, he hopes, will attract students from across sub-Saharan Africa (the second cohort already has a few non-African participants from multinationals working in Ghana) and scholarships will be offered to attract more women and less well-off students.
And as well as well as a new campus and a full-time MBA, he hopes to launch an African case-studies centre and programmes for women, small businesses and for village elders to help them bring business skills to their communities. Ambitious plans all, but with European and American schools seemingly unwilling to compete the African market, it can afford to be bold.

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