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Can Africa Manage Its Own Growth?


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Later in this hour that we are dedicating to finding out about new ideas and issues in Africa, we'd like to introduce you to two young Ghanaian women who are trying to challenge the idea that good African girls don't talk about sex. They'll tell us about their blog, "Adventures from the Bedrooms of African Women." That's coming up later. And yes, it is an adult conversation. But first, we want to talk more about Africa's economic growth and some of the things that might be holding it back. And if you've ever traveled to the continent, you probably noticed that the people serving your food and drinks and carrying your luggage probably come from the country you're visiting.

But as you move up higher in the management chain, chances are that person will be from somewhere else. That's a phenomenon not limited to the hospitality industry. But as Africa's economy continues to develop, many people are saying that what it really needs are more skilled local managers. And that's where the African Management Initiative comes in. This group would like to establish one million well-trained managers from within Africa within the next decade. Here to tell us more about that is Rebecca Harrison. She is the director of the Initiative and she's with us from Johannesburg, South Africa. Rebecca Harrison, thank you so much for speaking with us.

REBECCA HARRISON: Thanks, Michel. It's good be here.

MARTIN: Who are the managers in Africa right now? What kind of training do they have, and why do you perceive this talent gap, as you call it?

HARRISON: Yeah, well, what we're hearing over and over again is that while there's a huge amount of opportunity in Africa, one of the biggest constraints is a lack of talented skilled managers to be able to make the most of those opportunities. You get a lot of experts as larger companies import experts to lead their business locally, which is obviously expensive, and it's not ideal 'cause they often don't know the markets well enough.

Then in smaller family-run businesses, we hear over and over again that growth is held back because people running those businesses aren't skilled, professional, trained managers. So they might be very visionary, or they might just have had a good idea, or they might have taken over the family business, and they might have some decent business kind of savvy and some good know-how, but they don't really know how to take their business to the next level of growth.

MARTIN: What do you think is the cause of this talent gap? Do you think it's education? I mean, is there just not the opportunity to have, kind of, professional management training in Africa? Is it a lack of a tradition of this kind of training? Or do people not think it's important? What do you think is the core issue here?

HARRISON: Yeah, I mean, I think it's a combination of issues that, a lot of those things you just mentioned, and you get young people promoted a little bit too early or put in a job that they're perhaps not prepared to do. And part of the challenge, as you mentioned, is a lack of accessible management education and training. As part of our research, when we first started, we did quite an in-depth look at the management education landscape in Africa.

We actually went out and counted all the business schools. And we could only find a hundred business schools. And just to put that in perspective, in India there are about 3,000. We stopped counting pretty quickly there 'cause there's just so many. And it's not all about numbers either. I mean, of those hundred, only a handful really are operating at international standards. Many are quite academic. They're in university departments rather than in touch with the realities of Africa's dynamic market, so they're out of touch with what's really happening on the grounds. They're often just simply too expensive for the vast majority of managers. So there are about 10 million people in management and supervisory positions in Africa.

We think business schools are reaching about 300,000 of those, have probably reached about 300,000 over the last decade. And then you get kind of patchy private training markets in some of the big centers, but it's very variable in quality. And there's a few really excellent training programs targeting smaller businesses, but they're really not sustainable and not very scalable.

MARTIN: Describe to me why you think effective management matters, because a lot of people listening to our conversation will say, well, you know, so what? That's just somebody else to push paper around. Africa's entrepreneurial spirit is well-known. It's certainly becoming better known. Why does this really matter? Could you just describe that for us?

HARRISON: Yeah, absolutely, and it's a problem we come up against, 'cause, you know, management is just not very sexy, if we're honest. I mean, managers get bad rep. As you say, they get reputation for being pen pushers and just wasting time. In our experience, when you get bad management or when good management just is absent, things can really break down very quickly.

So one of my colleagues tells a story, he tells a story about his daughter who is a doctor and was working in a rural hospital in a part of South Africa, quite a poor area of South Africa. And a man came in one day and was displaying conditions that they suspected was probably heart failure. So they went to find the machine that would diagnose whether it was heart failure or not, and it wasn't working. But it was OK, 'cause there was another machine. So they went to find the other machine, turned it on, got it working, but they couldn't do a diagnosis because someone hadn't ordered paper to put in the machine.

It wasn't a lack of trained doctors. It wasn't a lack of good facilities. It was just a management failure. Someone had failed to order paper. And that's the kind of thing, you know, it's not sexy. It's not as exciting as talking about entrepreneurship, which is also really important, but it really, really matters.

MARTIN: Why do you think it matters that these managers be local?

HARRISON: I would argue that local managers have a much deeper and richer understanding of the local market, whether that's in the private sector or the public sector. They have stronger relationships, stronger networks, and also, just in terms of employing more people and creating good jobs that are available to local people, it's important that local people have access to those positions.

MARTIN: Well, what would help you get there?

HARRISON: One option is go out and build more business schools, which takes a really long time and a huge amount of money. So we've been looking at how can we take some of the transient online education and kind of - some of the quite exciting innovations in online education globally, and adapt that to our markets. We don't want to just offer more academic courses.

We really want to make our programs applied and relevant. So the goal is extremely accessible, practical, locally relevant, but high-quality short courses that can be accessed anywhere, including on a mobile phone.

MARTIN: The goal is one million skilled African managers by the year 2023. You think you can make it?

HARRISON: It's an ambitious goal, but we think we're living in an ambitious continent, you know. So I think - I'm originally from the UK. I've been living here for about a decade now and one of the things that I love about living in Africa is the sense that you can make a change if you want to and that it's a continent of opportunity and optimism.

So we're in that spirit. We've set ourselves this extremely ambitious goal, but, as I say, we think that there's this unique opportunity to leverage the kind of the real change that technology's bringing, to do something really large in scale in impact.

MARTIN: Rebecca Harrison is director of the African Management Initiative. We caught up with her in Johannesburg. Thank you so much for speaking with us. Keep us posted, if you will.

HARRISON: Thank you, I will. Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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