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US business school's brief-case brigade.

They're a kind of peace corps in pin-stripes, a brief-case brigade whose sphere of operations is Africa's corporations, government institutions and NGOs. They're graduates of the University of Michigan Business School African Business Development Corps (ABDC) and their mission is to uplift the business skills of lower and middle management in developing countries around the world and, at the same time, polish their own business and management talents.

It's a learning programme unique in Africa in that it offers participating African businesses and government agencies a chance to receive highly qualified and affordable managerial and technical assistance in a wide variety of functional business areas. At the same time it gives its internship fellows an opportunity to gain valuable professional experience while applying their theoretical knowledge to real world situations.

Director of the Corps, Mr E LaBrent Cright, and Dean of the Business School, Mr Joe White, were in Johannesburg to assess the progress and achievements of the 13 students flying the ABDC flag in Southern Africa - eight in South Africa, four in Namibia and one in Zimbabwe.

"Essentially, what we do is establish a number of contacts with different kinds of organisations which express a need for technical, managerial, or operational assistance," explains Mr Cright. "Then we match those organisations with interested and experienced students. The School provides the air transportation and a living allowance. The host organisation is expected to provide accommodation and transport."

"Our students are not 18 years old," comments Mr White. "They're in their middle to late-20s and they have a lot of work experience. They are involved at the firm level in economic transition and economic development around the world. For some, our African programme represents an opportunity to learn, to help and to serve. I'm sure that some of these students will capitalise on their experience later in their careers to do business in and with African countries and companies."

The programme is six-years old and has been operating in Africa for the past three years. "We have three times as many applicants as we have positions which is, of course, exactly the way we want it. That way we can select the most highly-qualified students for the positions," Mr White adds.

At the outset, the ABDC operated Africa-wide and was involved in Uganda and Ghana. "But," says Mr Cright, "we found the vastness of the continent made the programme very difficult to manage. So, for a number of reasons, an important one being to maintain quality, we decided to focus our efforts on southern Africa. It's easier to manage."

ABDC student, Mr Walter Brucker, has just finished a three-month stint with the Finhold Group in Harare, Zimbabwe. "I chose Zimbabwe for the challenge of it. I was really looking to stretch myself and test my abilities as far as I could. I found the level of competence pretty high. These days, everybody seems to be singing from the same hymn book.

"What is lacking in countries that are just embarking on or which are already in their economic restructuring programmes, is a bridging of the gap between the management theory and practice. That's primarily what I was trying to do with the Finhold Group - providing them with some basic tools that I learned over the course of the last year, and then letting them apply those tools to arrive at a workable plan."

"In the recent past," says Mr Cright, "we have seen almost unimaginable political and economic changes on a world-wide scale. The ABDC can serve as an important vehicle in providing our students with skills and experience necessary to effectively compete in this new, increasingly competitive environment."
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Title Annotation:African Business Development Corps of the University of Michigan Business School
Author:Nevin, Tom
Publication:African Business
Date:Nov 1, 1996
Words:607
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