As African economies grow, so do opportunities for entrepreneurship. And, increasingly, African entrepreneurs are studying business degrees abroad, picking up the skills and the network necessary for success, then returning home to make a difference.
“People are heading, more or less, straight back,” says David Simpson, admissions director at London Business School, where 5% of full-time MBAs are African.
“We’re definitely seeing groups of students who want to make a difference straight away, and social impact has come very much to the forefront.”
Oluwasoga Oni co-founded MDaaS, which brings refurbished medical equipment from the US to hospitals in Nigeria, during an engineering and business masters course at MIT.
Previously a software engineer Nigeria, Oluwasoga relocated to the US to get a better tech education than he could back home. With his co-founder, MIT Sloan MBA Genevieve Barnard, he decided to develop his business idea, leveraging the school’s resources.
“I wanted to do more for the country that gave me so much,” he explains. “My father owned a small hospital in Nigeria, and I saw how he struggled with managing and acquiring equipment.
“We want to make medical equipment more affordable, more available and more accessible in African countries.”
The ambitious entrepreneur launched MDaaS in January 2016. Now, he’s working with five hospitals in Nigeria.
“We hope to be the biggest independent equipment business in Africa in the next 10 years,” he says. “The problem with medical equipment is the same everywhere. If we can get it right in Nigeria, then we can transfer into other countries and make it happen there too.”
Carol Kariuki is a Kenyan entrepreneur with similar, continental ambitions. After an MBA at Warwick Business School in the UK, she returned to Africa, worked in finance for several years and even set up a company financing affordable housing. Then, in 2014, she co-founded GreenPot Enterprises, Kenya’s first bamboo company (team pictured below).
A fast-growing, multi-purpose plant, bamboo can be used in construction, in creating textiles, and as a renewable energy source. GreenPot Enterprises is in the process of commercializing bamboo in Kenya.
It’s also a social enterprise. Its large-scale nursery employs 60 local Maasai people and its plantations, which extend over 1000 acres, have up to 100 locals working there at any one time. Plus, it runs an outreach program encouraging local communities to set up their own bamboo farms.
“There’s a lot of unemployment among youth and women in Kenya,” Carol explains. “We give them a consistent way of earning income.
“Our aim is to create a vibrant bamboo sector in the country,” she continues. “And we’re sure that it’s something that could have a huge social, economic and environmental impact in Africa.”
The idea for GreenPot Enterprises was inspired by a trip to China, which grows over half of the world’s bamboo. And with business links between China and Sub-Saharan African countries only becoming stronger, some African MBAs are looking to China, to attain the relevant knowledge they need to help spur development back home.
“I look at China as a big brother in terms of emerging markets development,” says Samwel Odundo, a Kenyan MBA student at China Europe International Business School (CEIBS). “I can learn lessons from this side of the world to take back to Africa.”
While entrepreneurship is certainly on the cards, Samwel wants first to work in consulting roles for companies with an African agenda, and help generate social impact on the ground. “If you want to do an MBA program, the key is to look at where you see yourself in the next 5-10 years, and which market can you leverage from the experience,” he says.
Carol agrees: “Stepping out of your own country really opens up your mind,” she says. “It’s different from doing it in Africa where people think the same way.”
While the majority still head to US, Europe’s business schools are making concerted efforts to attract more African MBAs. At Maastricht School of Management (pictured below), a third of full-time MBA students come from Sub-Saharan Africa each year.
“The entrepreneurial orientation of our African students is outstanding,” says the school’s South African dean Wim Naudé.
“Unlike the stereotyped MBA concerned largely with finance, Wall Street and personal enrichment, our African students have a stronger long-term view. They have a very acute awareness of the importance of the role of business in development and in supporting communities.”
Among them, recent MBA grad Ivy Musora. “I plan to return to Africa,” she says. “Because I believe I have an important contribution to make towards the continued development and sustainability of the continent.”
While the number of African MBA students at Copenhagen Business School are fewer, the situation is the same.
“A lot of African students will either pursue impact industries or an entrepreneurial path,” says Thuli Skosana, Copenhagen’s South African admissions director. "And most come here with the idea of getting the skills to take back home."