Yet the African MBA applicant pool remains small. Why? The socio-economic reasons are vast. Many African countries are crippled by corruption, poverty and internal conflict. But another, MBA-specific reason is key: the GMAT.
In 2015, only 1.3% of GMAT test takers worldwide were based in Africa. 3,201 Africa-based applicants took the GMAT, compared to over 6,000 in Latin America, 20,000 in Europe and almost 110,000 in the US.
“We see that African candidates often avoid the test out of fear they cannot perform well,” says Ron Sibert, director of business development in Africa for the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC) – owner of the GMAT exam.
The global average GMAT score in 2015 was 554 (out of a possible 800). In Africa, it’s 450. In Nigeria, 415. Ron puts much of this down to African students’ educational history.
“African applicants don’t prepare for the GMAT effectively,” he says. “For most Africans, test prep means memorizing. And that has no value on a reasoning and problem solving test.”
Of course, there are various high-achieving African MBA applicants, students and grads. But institutionalized rote learning means many struggle with the GMAT and look for alternative tests. A poor GMAT score can be a barrier between them and the world’s top schools.
“I have encountered several low GMAT scores,” says Onyekachi Eke, head of IE Business School’s Nigerian office in Lagos. “We do encourage candidates to still take the GMAT, [but] an increasing number are taking the GRE.”
Some business schools are making concessions when it comes to the GMAT. IE accepts both the GMAT and the GRE. It even offers its own test – the IEGAT – which requires no prior preparation and tests decision making, analytical skills and comprehension.
London Business School (LBS) is flexible on its entry requirements when it comes to African applicants.
“The GMAT is an important tool,” says MBA admissions director David Simpson. “But if I was going to look at the average from different regions it does vary, so we’re open-minded. There’ll be people coming in on a 600 who might end up on the dean’s list.”
Still, African students make up less than 5% of the MBA class at LBS. “We’ve seen some growth in applicant numbers, but not as much as we’d like,” David continues. “We’d like to see more candidates applying.”
Developed in 2012, growing the African MBA applicant pool is the key objective for GMAC’s Africa Pipeline Development Initiative. It’s aiming to boost performance on the GMAT and increase awareness about how to prepare for the exam.
“We’re going out and we’re talking to prospective students,” says Ron. “In Nigeria, we’re talking to national youth service corps participants. We’ve done direct outreach to small forums of students in Kenya.
“Most testing is concentrated in Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa. We’d like to increase the number of test centers in smaller markets.”
There are only around 20 official GMAT test centers across the whole of Africa. And despite GMAC’s efforts, lack of access to secure and reliable test centers remains a problem.
Ivy Musora, a Zimbabwean MBA student at Maastricht School of Management in the Netherlands, was forced to take the school’s own online pre-admission assessment test, as a more accessible alternative.
“The GMAT is a less common assessment tool in my region and not widely known,” she says. “It’s difficult to locate its authorized exam centers and taking the exam involves travelling to a neighboring country which then increases inconveniences in time and cost.”