Like many young African graduates in science, technology, engineering and math – the all-important STEM disciplines – Hariet Marima had no formal business training when she graduated with a master’s degree in mathematical science.
Reducing that deficit is the main goal of non-profit Industry Immersion Africa (iiAfrica), which is hoping to stem the brain drain of talented students to the West when they are so badly needed on the continent to contribute to the economic transformation of Africa.
Assisted by business professors in Germany and Canada as well as Academics Without Borders, iiAfrica delivers a program that teaches business fundamentals and provides workplace internships to top STEM graduates like Marima.
Since 2017, the Industry Immersion Program has graduated 274 STEM students from 27 African countries. All of them, says iiAfrica managing director David Attipoe, “have remained on the African continent, working for businesses here, and most have gone on to be managers.”
Key to iiAfrica’s early success is a partnership between the European School of Management and Technology (ESMT), a Berlin-based private non-profit business school, and the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS), based in South Africa with campuses in other African countries. Initially, ESMT professors travelled to South Africa to teach business principles to AIMS students for five weeks before the students moved into a three-month (at least) company internship.
More than 80% of graduates have landed meaningful jobs within one year of graduation, according to iiAfrica.
The lure of STEM scholarships
When founding ESMT dean Wulff Plinke was a guest lecturer at AIMS in 2014, he found the students were passionate about math but not, as had been assumed, interested in teaching careers. Instead, he says, “they wanted to use mathematics in the economic world.”
Plinke knew from experience that well-intentioned scholarships from Western institutions often lead African students to stay abroad after their studies instead of returning home.
With iiAfrica’s program, he adds, “it is not in our vision that anyone would leave Africa after the program. We want to bring them into employment, and we did.”
You can educate people until the cows come home, but if the jobs aren’t there, then it gets to be really tough.
-David Dunne, a business professor at the University of Victoria
Currently, students at AIMS campuses in South Africa, Ghana, Rwanda, Senegal and Cameroon and at Strathmore University in Kenya pay no tuition for the program and earn a certificate in business administration. University partners pay for internet access, housing and tutor support.
Marima, who is from Harare, Zimbabwe, joined the program in 2018. She says the business studies curriculum “opened doors to a world that I had no idea existed.” Though well-versed in statistics and math through her AIMS degree, she notes that “you don’t get to learn much about business from those disciplines.”
After the academic component, Marima landed an internship with B. Braun, a German medical and pharmaceutical device company with an office in Harare. After three months, she joined the company full-time and now is a human capital and strategic development manager overseeing a staff of 30 people. She plans to earn a master’s in business administration from the University of Zimbabwe.
A Canadian business school connection
Since 2019, iiAfrica has partnered with Canada’s Academics Without Borders (AWB) to scale up the program across Africa. Business professors from Canada volunteer their time in the classroom and train campus-based African tutors at each participating university, ultimately replacing themselves.
With this train-the-trainer model, African universities build capacity, says AWB executive director Greg Moran. “We try to collaborate with partners in the developing world to make changes they can sustain themselves.”
Like iiAfrica, AWB believes that part of its mission is to stem the exodus of graduates from Africa. One way to do that, says Moran, “is to help them build capacity in their own programs.”
Still, challenges remain: iiAfrica aims to add one African university each year to the program, but too often participating universities lack financial resources to pay their share of costs. As well, as enrolment climbs, so does pressure to secure internships, in-person or virtual.
David Dunne, a business professor at the University of Victoria and a former AWB board chairman who coordinates scale-up efforts with iiAfrica, is developing a template to add African university partners. “You can educate people until the cows come home, but if the jobs aren’t there, then it gets to be really tough.”
Attipoe agrees: “We need a lot of support from organizations around the world who believe in the transformation of STEM graduates in Africa.”