Focus on Africa

Africa is full of promise, and full of issues needing solutions. We’re proud that Cambridge Judge is helping to provide insight into this important region.

Multicolored lighting on Nelson Mandela Bridge in Johannesburg city.

The current issue of Research Horizons, the University of Cambridge research magazine, focuses on Africa, mentioning the long history of collaboration between Cambridge and the African continent in leading-edge research ranging from health to zoology to engineering.

This focus supports something that we at Cambridge Judge Business School have also been involved with: we do research on and help organisations in various aspects of African finance and business, including research studies on oil and other natural resources as well as education programmes with government organisations.

Africa holds such tremendous potential in so many areas, including energy and tourism, but it is at the same so poor and lacks infrastructure, skills, property rights (such as legal protection) and constructive regulation, all of which hold back such promise.

Just this month, the inaugural report on the alternative finance markets in Africa and the Middle East was published by one of our research centres at Cambridge Judge, the Cambridge Centre for Alternative Finance. The report showed that online alternative finance market in Africa grew 36 per cent in 2015, to nearly $125 million, the largest part of which (41 per cent) is in East Africa. Yes, non-banking financial services grow faster than the banking sector, in Africa just as much as in other parts of the world.

The report illustrated, however, that much of Africa’s alternative finance volume comes through online microfinance and donation- or reward-based crowdfunding. These could be risky (fraud-vulnerable) areas, in sharp contrast to the dominance of regulated peer-to-peer lending model seen in more developed alternative finance markets such as the US and UK. There is a pressing need for evidence-based regulations and policies in order to harness potential benefits of financial innovation while protecting consumers (microinvestors) from risks.

Other recent research relating to Africa has included an extensive look at Nigeria’s efforts to diversify its economy away from oil and gas – the so-called “resources curse” – by Dr Othman Cole, Deputy Director of the Executive MBA programme at Cambridge Judge. Previous efforts to diversify in the 1970s were unsuccessful, so Dr Cole recommends learning from those mistakes in today’s low oil price environment – with an emphasis on building smaller-scale support industries for larger sectors such as oil and gas, in order to build new platforms that can grow independently from fickle energy prices.

A paper by marketing professor Jaideep Prabhu, known for his research into “jugaad”, or frugal innovation, identified ways that social enterprises in Africa and other developing regions can successfully scale up. There are unmet needs in areas such as healthcare, energy, sanitation and education for up to four billion people around the world, so scaling up such businesses through greater market penetration, product development and diversification can help meet this demand. Research by Dr Helen Haugh and PhD candidate Marlen de la Chaux has highlighted how entrepreneurship initiatives can fill the “institutional void” of long-term refugee camps in Africa and beyond, while also highlighting the role of micro-lending institutions and innovation hubs such as those recently set up in Kenya.

Closer to home, the Cambridge Africa Business Network is an ongoing alumni and student led initiative to promote networking about business in Africa. The Network forges ties with African universities and foundations, promotes best practices in business leadership in Africa, and holds an annual conference at Cambridge Judge that brings together business leaders, academics and politicians or public sector executives to explore topics ranging from healthcare to creative industries to finance. The theme of this year’s sixth annual conference, which will be held at Cambridge Judge on 17 June 2017, is “Delivering Impact” – and the conference will also include a “Dragon’s Den”-type prize for the most promising startup from Africa.

Cambridge Judge is also really proud of ventures we have helped mentor that are focused on Africa and other developing parts of the world, part of the School’s continuing emphasis on entrepreneurship and social enterprise.

They include Aspuna, founded by three students who completed the Executive MBA programme, who used their global commodities-trading backgrounds to create a business in Africa based around social responsibility. Aspuna is working with the government in Gambia and the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation to establish farming cooperatives focused on cassava (also known as tapioca), which is processed into starch and flour for food and also used by the pharmaceutical industry.

Other such ventures include Hyperion Development, which has developed an online course platform enabling aspiring programmers in Africa to learn key tech skills; KisanHub, a farming enterprise software firm; SimPrints, which has developed a biometric scanner to allow health care workers to access patients’ records through the touch of a finger; and JustMilk, which delivers food and nutrient to breastfeeding babies though a silicone device worn by the mother.

The promise and problems of Africa are both huge. Cambridge Judge Business School is just a small player, but we’re glad to make our contribution in raising awareness of opportunities, issues and ideas relating to Africa.

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