Plugging Africa’s middle-management gap

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Across the continent, companies cite access to talent as one of their biggest challenges.

A pan-African social enterprise is seeking to fill some of these talent gaps by equipping managers, entrepreneurs and young professionals with practical skills. African Management Initiative (AMI) is taking on an ambitious goal to train one million African managers by 2023.

“We did research two years ago, which showed big companies were struggling to find middle-management talent. We also found many SMEs had a strong founding team but then there would be a big drop off between people at the next level. What we heard, over and over again, was the disconnect between the academic credentials people had, and their ability to actually perform on the job,” says Rebecca Harrison, CEO of AMI.

Transforming the continent through better management

A former journalist, Harrison co-founded AMI two years ago, together with Jonathan Cook who previously served as director at a South Africa-based business school and chairman of the Association of African Business Schools. Last year AMI secured US$750,000 from investors.

“We felt there was a growing need to provide practical, affordable, locally relevant management education and training. We wanted to be able to empower African managers to be more effective on the job, to build their companies, to accelerate their careers, and ultimately to transform the continent through better management.

“The existing options just weren’t sufficient to meet the need out there,” says Harrison.

Although some of the continent’s small number of business schools offer good training, Harrison says they are out of reach for the bulk of the population.

“They are really an elite option for a small number of people who can afford to go do an MBA.”

AMI runs a virtual campus that offers web and mobile-based practical tutorials in the form of video, audio and text.

“We combine that with a social learning approach so participants are able to connect with each other online, and hold each other accountable in applying what they learnt on the job.”

AMI has developed over 35 practical business modules. Participants pay about $10 for each module. Some companies sponsor their employees and pay about $150 per person for a full year of learning. AMI also conducts in-person workshops, but this is currently available only in East Africa.

One million – a too ambitious target?

But is the “one million African managers by 2023” really attainable? So far AMI has only reached 10,000 people.

“Of course it is a very tall order, but we like to set big goals. The one million managers is an aspiration rather than a concrete target. We think that is the number that needs to be reached to make a difference in Africa. So whether AMI reaches that million alone or whether it is a collection of different organisations, we don’t mind.

“But to have an impact, we need a million effective, competent and responsible managers on the continent.”

“If we can improve the level of management across the continent then we will see companies that are growing, flourishing, competitive on a global scale and employing more people. Our hospitals and schools would be better run and individuals would be able to take charge of their careers and take advantage of more opportunities,” explains Harrison.

An alternative to traditional corporate training

In Kenya, AMI has worked with a parking services provider, training everyone in the company – from the MD down to basic entry level staff. While in Tanzania, it has been commissioned by a rapidly expanding solar services company to train all its new staff.

“The companies are seeing improved performance, a more customer-focused approach… and they are also able to retain their best talent,” says Harrison.

“We have had a lot of interest from companies wanting to develop their staff. There has been a lot of bad training around and companies want an alternative that actually works. Traditionally, a training consultant will come in one day to do a workshop where they effectively talk at people all morning, then everyone tries not to fall asleep after lunch.

“And at the end of the day the consultant gives them a big fat folder full of handouts which they just put on the top shelf to gather dust,” she explains.

“What we are trying to sell is improved performance for companies and organisations, not just training workshops. So there is a mindset shift that has got to happen for organisations to understand that that is something worth investing in.”