How Henley Africa gives people the freedom and confidence to express their ideas to help build Africa

Over the past decade, Henley Africa has gone from being a small outpost of Henley Business School in the UK, to a fully-fledged, privately-funded institution with a thriving research agenda, about to onboard our first doctoral students. We’ve done all of this without a large faculty base and limited resources. Find out here how we are charting new territory.

One of the striking attributes of advanced economies over the past three decades has been the strong growth in demand for university graduates and university research. Knowledge drives economies, and universities – business schools in particular – have a critical role to play in advancing research and developing skilled leaders and innovators to drive growth. 

But while African universities and business schools have made great strides in improving research performance over the past decade, we have a way to go yet. Sub-Saharan Africa accounts for 13,5% of the global population but less than 1% of global research output. The continent clearly needs to build African research capability, but how do you do this in a resource constrained context? In the private higher education institution (PHEI) sector, which is not eligible for state funding and research-output-related subsidies, this becomes even more of a challenge. 

PHEIs are an increasing force in the African education landscape, rising to serve demand that governments are struggling to meet. As such, they could play a vital role in helping to drive research on the continent. But is there a business case to be made for investing in private knowledge creation? 

At Henley Africa, our answer to that question is a resounding yes, because we believe that research should transform perspectives, encourage debate, and impact lives; our ambition is to build a better Africa. So, we’ve evolved a unique model, which if you judge it by our research output may look pretty much like that of similar institutions, but it’s been built it in a totally different way and we believe that its long-term impact is potentially transformational. 

Looking beyond the traditional 

While Henley Africa has been active in Africa for 30 years, it is only in the past decade that the business school has grown substantially from a small outpost of Henley Business School in the UK offering the international MBA from Reading University’s Business School, ranked 7th in Europe, into a fully-fledged institution with a suite of accredited undergraduate and postgraduate management development programmes that it offers to individuals as well as to corporate and government clients looking to grow their management capacity. As such, Henley Africa has climbed the rankings of business schools in SA over the past 10 years to occupy the top spot in some. 

But unlike other top South African business schools, Henley Africa, as a PHEI, does not have a large, full-time faculty base that engages in research. While we leverage our faculty links to Henley Business School in the UK and other partners institutions closer to home, this situation has compelled us to look beyond the traditional academic to work more with consultants and practitioners in the production of thought leadership. What we have found is that often people who teach on our programmes and buy into our vision to build a better Africa have the interest and the aptitude to engage in research, but because they are not working as traditional academics, they do not pursue this. 

Many are thus excited to be invited to participate in research. And now that we have opened the door to them, many suggest projects and thought leadership pieces we support if they align with our research focus areas. To make it attractive for people to take time out of their busy schedules to do so, we seek to ensure that they have the right support and structures to ensure a successful outcome.

Providing flexible research support

As many of our researchers have not published before, we have to take special measures to get them onto the publishing ladder. In this, we have found it helpful to assemble a professional support team, but it is not a one-size-fits all service. Some people will need support with writing and conceptualization, others may come with a full manuscript and only require light editing support in producing white papers, case studies teaching notes, conference papers and journal articles. Yet others produce these independently.

Around each project we build a project team that is staffed with professional people providing targeted support from project management to expert editing. We help to source sponsorship and, where possible, we might partner a new researcher with a more established academic in the field. In the end it’s really about creating the right system to encourage people to get involved in the production of thought leadership and then making sure they can get their project over the line.

Collaborating for greater impact

Henley Africa has an obvious advantage in that it is part of an international institution with campuses in the UK and Europe and Asia. This has given us the opportunity to work with well-established and prestigious academics based in the UK, and since 2021 these relationships have been cemented with the establishment of three research centres in South Africa – the Dunning Africa Centre for International Business, the Henley Centre for Leadership Africa, and the John Madejski Centre for Reputation Africa. All are sister centres to UK-based research initiatives but are staffed with African researchers who collaborate with the UK centre directors and researchers to drive research that is relevant to the African context.

But we don’t just rely on these links. We are actively pursuing a collaboration strategy with academics at other business schools and universities, mostly in Africa but also globally. We also work with corporate partners to ensure that we have right funding and resources to drive research.

Collaboration is in our DNA. As our dean and director Jon Foster-Pedley has said: to meet the enormous challenge of building African economies, African business schools must collaborate to raise the capability and standards of all.

“While individual schools can – and should – be worthy and respected rivals to each other, the logic, reach and power of African collaboration to build the reputation and credibility of the sector as a whole outweighs competition.”

To date, we have established ties with 25 researchers from ten African institutions working on a variety of research topics. Two additional research centres have been formalised as a result: the Centre for Emerging Market Consumer Studies and Henley Explore: Immersive Cases and Immersive Experiences, which is focussed on Virtual Reality.

Broadening access to research production

By following these three principles, our research output has grown steadily. We started by creating our own series of peer-reviewed white papers, inspired by the success of our inaugural white paper on the side hustle economy in 2018. The huge value of this approach is chiefly that we can get research ideas out into the world (and back into our classrooms) more quickly than through conventional publishing channels.

We’ve also developed a series of teaching case studies, many of which are accompanied by Virtual Reality films to support learning. These are available to our students but also more broadly via the And of course, we are growing our journal articles and published conference papers in reputable, quality journals, but in many ways, this is a happy outcome of our endeavours and not the sole objective.

Our true aim is to build a community of research practice that taps into the wisdom of practitioners and provides practical solutions to real-world challenges. By welcoming a broader pool of researchers into our orbit and providing the right support to innovative thinking, we create opportunity for researchers, we bring new ideas from the coalface of management to the broader market more quickly, and inspire new solutions. Ultimately, we are helping to build the pipeline of researchers that the continent so urgently needs.

By making reality our friend and working with what we have, I believe we have created something unique and special. Best of all, this model is the opposite of elitist. We give people the freedom and the self-confidence they need to express their ideas and to contribute to producing rigorous, robust and credible research to build their country and economy. Driving impact through ideas, this is the sprit and the culture of Henley Africa.

Danie Petzer is Professor at the University of Reading and extraordinary professor at the University of Pretoria, Head of research at Henley Business School

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