Nigeria On The Rise: Africa’s Engine Draws B-Schools’ Attention

Prospects gather to talk to North American and European business schools at an event in Lagos, Nigeria this month. Marc Ethier photo

According to the Graduate Management Admission Council, which administers the Graduate Management Admission Test worldwide, GMATs taken by Nigerians number more than any other country in Africa. It’s a number that has fluctuated in recent years, having reached a high of 1,459 exams taken in 2016; but in 2017 nearly 1,300 Nigerians took the GMAT, ranking just below the number of test takers in Spain and Israel. (GMAC does not keep records for unique examinees.)

“The appeal of Nigerian students to business schools is not new,” says Ronald Sibert, GMAC’s market development director for Africa. “Business schools value diversity in the classroom and Nigerians are the largest and most mobile segment of the African population, making them more likely to pursue business school opportunities abroad.”

As for 2018, “Nigeria saw significant growth in GMAT registrations earlier this year,” Sibert continues, “but 2018 is likely to close with the volume being relatively flat, as demand for higher education runs counter-cyclical to economic trends. The Nigerian economy is notoriously volatile — with the country having emerged from an extended recession earlier this year accompanied by intractable budgetary challenges in tertiary education.”

The data is exams taken, not unique examinees. Also, in speaking with someone internally who has great insight into Africa, and Nigeria specifically, I can confirm that Nigerian test takers send out the most GMAT scores relative to other countries in Africa. Quick point of clarification. Test volumes do not necessarily translate directly into score sending rates. I wanted to verify that point.

NIGERIA: COUNTRY OF ENTREPRENEURS

Northeastern’s Evelyn Tate. Courtesy photo

The feeling on the streets of Lagos can mirror the volatility of the economy. But inside the walls of the Four Points Sheraton, where representatives from nearly 20 schools gathered earlier this month, there was no hint of anything but the optimism that comes with the exploration of new horizons. Many — perhaps most — of the attendees had some entrepreneurial background, making the event, for two days at least, perhaps the premier gathering of innovative business minds in Africa. 

Among the most popular portions of the event were an MBA Fair with schools setting up booths to chat with prospects, and a panel discussion, “Preparing Your Application, Advice from Admissions Directors,” with panelists from Northeastern University D-Amore McKim School of Business, MIT Sloan School of Management, Duke Fuqua School of Business, and Columbia Business School. Rotman’s Leigh Gauthier moderated. 

Evelyn Tate, assistant dean and director for graduate recruitment and admissions at D’Amore-McKim, sat on the panel and spoke to the rise of the Graduate Record Exam, or GRE, as a substitute for the GMAT. Afterward, she acknowledged that Nigeria is appealing to Northeastern because of Nigerians’ strong entrepreneurial drive.

“Northeastern’s D’Amore-McKim School of Business has a robust entrepreneurial community, including top scholars in the field and unique opportunities for students to learn about entrepreneurship and start or grow their businesses while in school,” Tate tells Poets&Quants. “Nigeria has the largest economy in Africa with a growing number of entrepreneurs, and we are hearing from more young Nigerian professionals that they are interested in earning their MBAs in entrepreneurship and returning home to start businesses in order to help their country’s economy develop. We feel that our full-time MBA program is the perfect fit for these students.”

Northeastern currently does not have any Nigerian students in its full-time MBA program, Tate says, though it has in the past. “Feedback from several Nigerian candidates indicates that the rate of the Nigerian naira against the exchange rate of the U.S. dollar has made it difficult for them to pursue their graduate education,” she acknowledges. “However, we offer merit scholarships to assist with paying tuition, and we remain committed to helping students from Nigeria realize their dream of earning an MBA.”

‘A NIGERIAN STUDENT WITH AN MBA IS WILDFIRE’

Oluremi Onitilo, 31, is regional digital lead for Central and West Africa for a major international company. He majored in computer science at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria, but now he wants to take a general management track at an elite school. He’s got his eyes on Fuqua, Dartmouth Tuck, and Virginia Darden, as well as Toronto Rotman, where “the school takes on the character of the country, which makes it very human.”

Onitilo wants to pivot away from his current work in consumer packaged goods, where he has worked for six years, and into tech. He plans to join an MBA program in August 2019 and live and work in Europe for some time after graduating, then come back to Africa and work there full-time. “In between then, I will set-up programs that are dedicated to accelerating talent (mostly in technology) and facilitating leadership teaching for young people,” he tells P&Q.

“I think U.S. and European schools are interested in Nigerian students because of three things: diversity of thought, ‘can-do’ spirit, and front-row stories of living in an emerging market like Nigeria,” Onitilo says. “What you find with Nigeria students is the multiplying effect they bring to the opportunities they get — a Nigerian student with an MBA is wildfire. 

“The average Nigerian student has differentiated and pushed him/herself in spite of certain limiting factors. These factors include the declining educational system, high unemployment, and curriculum irrelevance which invariably bring forth some sort of endurance. This endurance comes with its own set of humor which, I dare say, is distinctly Nigerian.”