I recently had the opportunity to listen to a distinguished professor from a top global business school engage with a group of African students about Walmart’s founding strategy.

A key observation that he cleverly extracted from the group was that targeting “rural” markets was key to the success of the behemoth in its early focus on growth its home country market. I noticed a pause in the room as students contemplated the implication of “rural” in the context of a retail strategy. As we know, “rural” means very different things in Arkansas and Angola.  

For all of us operating in our part of the continent, this sense-making process happens time and again as we engage with key management concepts and models, the vast majority of which have not been birthed in Africa, let alone some other developing market. That’s not to say that normative or often western business models are not necessarily important or useful. What I am suggesting is that some degree of interrogation is required before we rush to follow recommendations to build smart cities styled on those in developed markets when we don’t have basic sanitation sorted, procure precision equipment that demands constant voltage without considering a UPS to counter electricity surges, implement performance management models that were birthed in individualistic cultures, and assume that the largest stressors in the lives of our employees emanate from their workplaces. Beyond interpreting theory that has been developed in other contexts, we need to contribute to the field of management by generating our own as well.

Whilst the world argues about the relative pros and cons of tariffs versus free trade, democracy relative to dictatorship, and minimum wages in contrast to open labour markets, we shouldn’t lose sight of the absolutes when it comes to the demographic reality of this continent. The recently launched Inlulamithi Scenarios remind us that this year the median age in Africa is 19.7 years in contrast to the median of 40 in developed countries. By 2030 one-third of all children in the world will be African children. Whether you believe that population bulges automatically generate demographic dividends or not, what’s indisputable is that we are going to have many more people to serve. It’s not a large or sophisticated leap of logic to assert that we need models of management that are effective to do so. To get that right, we cannot just import thought leadership from the rest of the world – successful establishment and growth of organisations demands contextual relevance.

Whilst our focus at GIBS has always been to search for and where appropriate re-interpret global best practice, the school has been more deliberate about focusing on an African research agenda in recent years. The conceptualisation of the GIBS Centre for African Management and Markets (CAMM) was not built off the assumption that Africa is a single market, nor that there is only one effective way to manage across the continent. The deliberate inclusion of management in the naming of the centre is rooted in a frustration around the deficit of thought leadership about management across and within our African context. That’s not to suggest that there aren’t large numbers of managers who don’t have significant experience and expertise in doing business in the continent. The issue for me is that so much of the knowledge that is tacit has not been made explicit. Business schools have both an opportunity and a responsibility to play their part in creating and sharing thought leadership that leads to effective management of public and private sector organisations in our African context. To do this, we need to collaborate with each other, scholars located in schools outside the continent who are interested in our context, and most importantly, new and existing businesses that need to serve current and future generations of Africans.

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