Africa is coming onto the world business stage and, for that reason, it is ultimately up to the private sector and its most important player — the entrepreneur — to find ways to jump-start economic growth and development across the continent.
Murray B. Low, the director of the Eugene Lang Entrepreneurship Center at Columbia Business School in New York, made that point in a recent interview.
Speaking in his office on the campus, where he also serves as an adjunct professor of management, Low said Africa has huge business opportunities, and “people are now figuring out how to tap those opportunities. I think there is pretty clear consensus that the straight aid model, in and of itself, is not sufficient to spur economic development and that finding the right way to have the private sector engaged is the secret to development.”
“Africa is the poorest continent in the world and there are a lot of models of economic development that have proven not to have worked,” Low said. “Today there is increasing agreement that private-sector development is the key to sustained long-term economic and social development.
“At the core of all of that are obviously entrepreneurs, who identify needs, raise capital, deliver products and create wealth for themselves and wealth for the larger society.”
Low called entrepreneurs the very essence of the business development model. “I think there are many things needed for economic development, but clearly one essential component is entrepreneurship. When I talk about entrepreneurship, it is not just the lone individual who comes up with an idea and starts a business; it is also that same sort of entrepreneurial spirit that drives existing businesses to new and better performance.”
“In Africa,” he said, “there is a great need for entrepreneurship and greater leadership and managerial ability in the private sector as well as in the nongovernmental organization [NGO] space.”
To help meet that need, Low said, Columbia University, through its Eugene Lang Entrepreneurship Center and its business school, is working closely with Africans in a number of ways.
Low teaches a course, “Entrepreneurship and Private Equity in Africa,” with Paul E. Tierney Jr., chairman of the board of TechnoServe, an NGO that provides investing advice and technical assistance to agricultural entrepreneurs in Latin America and Africa.
As part of their coursework, students are sent to Africa on strategic business consulting assignments to help African entrepreneurs. Columbia Business School is also working to enhance its affiliation with business schools at two major African universities: the United States International University (USIU) in Nairobi, Kenya, and the University of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania.
“Every year we send about 40 students to different parts of Africa in four- or five-person teams to do value-added consulting projects or case-study writing, and that again adds to the richness of our understanding,” Low said.
“About four years ago, we decided as a business school and a university that we wanted to make a contribution to the economic development of the continent. We thought, ‘Well, we are a pretty good business school, maybe we can work with one or two business schools in Africa and help them develop their capacity.’ There is a huge need for locally relevant, low-cost, high-quality, affordable business education,” he said.
“If you talk to professional investors as they look at business opportunities across the continent, there is no shortage of consumer demand. Ironically, I don’t think there is shortage of capital. The greatest shortage is the managerial talent to exploit those opportunities.”
“I believe the raw talent is pretty universally distributed and there are huge amounts of it in Africa,” Low said. “But to be able to run a business that has the capacity to grow to a substantial level requires a level of managerial sophistication that is in short supply in Africa. So we believe that by helping improve the quality of management education that we can make a real significant contribution.”
Besides teaching, Low said, Columbia Business School is also working to help its partner universities in Africa develop their research and administrative capabilities. About 10 Columbia faculty members will be traveling to Africa at various times to work with faculty at both universities and to advise “underserved entrepreneurial women.” The investment firm Goldman Sachs and its 10,000 Women program — a five-year investment initiative in Africa and throughout the world — are helping to fund this initiative, Low said.
Low said Columbia has helped USIU develop a global-executive MBA program in which the participants are a mix of senior business leaders, entrepreneurs, executive directors of NGOs and some people in government service.
Two faculty members from the University of Dar es Salaam are completing their doctoral degrees and will come to Columbia Business School as visiting scholars in the spring semester of 2011.
Reflecting on his experience working with Africans, Low said, “I have learned a lot about what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur by studying these very successful African entrepreneurs and seeing how under extremely difficult circumstances — where you are dealing with political instability, massive currency fluctuations, corruption and poor infrastructure — that even under these conditions, entrepreneurs can and do thrive and build wonderful, impressive businesses.”