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Africa as an Emerging Market for Executive Education

By Karin Kuta and Michael Devlin, Athru Services

Published: July 10, 2015

The recent UNICON conference in South Africa provided a glimpse into the potential of the
African Continent as a market for University-based Executive Education. The topic is of a great
deal of interest to UNICON members. Is Africa the next great opportunity for executive education?
How does a provider based in The Americas, Europe or Asia assess the opportunity? What are the
unique challenges associated with providing executive education in Africa? These were just some
of the questions we asked several UNICON members who are familiar with the market.

First, some geographic clarity. To think of Africa as anything close to a homogenous market is a
mistake. Each of Africa’s 54 countries has its own culture, economy, market dynamics and
education system. And the differences can be profound. Another often-overlooked aspect of
Africa’s geography is its sheer size. At 4,500 miles long and 4,000 miles wide, the Continent is
larger than China, India, The United States of America and most of Europe combined. And size
matters. While it might seem logical for a business in Nigeria to consider sourcing its executive
education from – say – South Africa, it might be less inclined to do so when considering the fact
that Paris, Barcelona and London are all much shorter flights.

Lucy Voss-Price takes on that challenge every day. And with increasing success. “Despite the
challenges, more and more firms on the Continent are sending people to GIBS rather than Harvard
or INSEAD,” said the Director of Custom Programs at the Gordon Institute of Business Science.
“We are a regional champion, and we see potential throughout the Continent,” she continued.
“But it isn’t easy.”

“Easy” was not a term we heard often as we interviewed our panel of Africa experts. Imagine for
a minute you are running the executive education program at The American University in Cairo,
Egypt. You work hard on the parts of your job that you might work on at any other University-
based Executive Education provider in the world. You create great programs. You price them
right. You develop solid relationships with local and regional companies, persuading them that
executive education needs to play an important role in their development as a company. And then
the Arab Spring happens and – despite all the attendant hope and optimism – people consider
your city too dangerous to visit. Not usually much of a consideration in Minneapolis, Madrid or
Kevin O’Connell, Associate Dean for Executive Education at the American University in Cairo,
has that job and, despite having to deal with issues that are unimaginable for most of us, he is
remarkably relaxed about the environment in which he lives. “Crisis management classes are very
popular,” he muses, “especially with the police! But so are our postgraduate diplomas in sales
management and human resources management. In fact, the political and economic uncertainty
has helped drive the demand for executive education.”

Beyond overcoming safety perceptions, Kevin identified several cultural factors that can trip-up a
naïve executive education provider. “There is a slightly different perception in our region of what
constitutes a binding contract.” he said. “A signed contract sometimes can still be considered up
for discussion, unlike in Europe or North America. Building relationships is critical and it takes a
considerable length of time and numerous visits and discussions. It may not be necessary in other
parts of the world, but it’s very, very important to our customers.”

Kumeshnee West, the Acting Director of Executive Education at the University of Cape Town
identified other equally important cultural nuances. “About half of our open enrollment
participants come from outside South Africa,” she said. “That brings a wonderful diversity of
perspectives to our classrooms, but it can also surface some subtle challenges. For instance, our
Nigerian participants like to manage their day a little differently than our South African guests.
They prefer to start a little later in the morning, and end at 4:30. And they have specific luncheon
preferences. So, we have hired a chef who can prepare lunch the way the delegates from Nigeria
would like it.”

“You have to understand the context,” said Lucy. “Context creates culture. Without local
knowledge and ‘tone,’ executive education providers can be caught off guard. You’re often dealing
with a ‘hustle’ economy. Don’t expect that when you arrive in an African country, ready to run an
on-site program, everything will work. You’re less worried about a bulb failing in a projector than
you are about whether or not the electricity will be running that day.”

Sharmla Chetty, Dukes CE’s Regional Managing Director for Africa reiterated the infrastructure
issue, saying, “The governments cannot be relied upon for infrastructure and thus companies must
think about making their own investments in infrastructure required to run the business.”

Program pricing is a significant issue. Lucy warned that overseas providers will have to “tone
down” the pricing that they charge in Europe, North America and elsewhere. Kevin talked about
the difficulty he had selling a five-day program for $2,400. “That’s considered a huge amount of
money,” he said. “In the end, we couldn’t attract enough participants at that price to run the

As for advice they would give to non-African University-based Executive Education providers,
our experts were thoughtful and generous. Kumeshnee was particularly clear about what it takes
for non-African providers to be successful. “Everyone is welcome,” she said. “But please
collaborate with us – don’t do it for us. We understand the needs of the Continent, so please come
in prepared to understand, learn and collaborate.” Kevin is looking forward to establishing more
international partnerships. “But prepare yourselves,” he warns. “This is a ‘complaining culture’.
It’s fun to complain here. Those evaluations might hurt your Financial Times ranking!”

Sharmla added, “You cannot move into the Continent thinking of Africa as one Africa. You must
account for the breadth of diversity found on the Continent and the sheer size of the Continent. In
addition, sustainability must be built into your model for how you will work in Africa.”

Finally, we asked each of our experts about the future of the African economy, and the risks
associated with entering that market. Lucy warns that the Continent is at a tipping point. And she
used that term mindfully. “There could be a meaningful upturn in the Continent’s fortunes, or
there could be a disastrous downturn. Many things aren’t working. Life is unpredictable. The
Continent is still wounded by colonization. The desire to be self-sufficient and successful is there.
We’ll see if the capability follows.”

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