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Dayo Odunfa of Nigeria is taking an MBA at Ivey Business School in London, Ont., and has already landed a job with a bank in Toronto. He says he chose to study in Canada partly because of its friendliness to immigrants and postgraduation work opportunities.

Glenn Lowson

In Lagos, Nigeria, Dayo Odunfa grew up watching Bloomberg TV with his father, listening to interviews with global corporate executives.

“I would Google the names of the chief executives and chief financial officers and a lot of them had MBAs [master of business administration],” says Mr. Odunfa. “I saw the value that the MBA was adding to those leaders of Fortune 500 companies and made the decision to pursue [the degree] eventually.”

In 2018, awarded a $50,000 scholarship from Ivey Business School at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ont., Mr. Odunfa was one of six Nigerian-born applicants selected for the one-year MBA program, with 130 students from 26 countries. He is to graduate this year. For its recently-arrived class of 2020, Ivey recruited eight African candidates – five from Nigeria, two from Kenya and one from Tanzania.

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Increasingly, Africa is a source of top candidates for Canadian business schools, which deploy recruitment strategies ranging from an on-the-ground presence and attendance at regional MBA fairs to social media, scholarships and word-of-mouth referrals.

In Africa, home to numerous fast-growing economies, Canadian schools look for academically strong candidates whose background and experiences add diversity, a much-desired component, to the overall profile of a class.

“Diversity is a critical element in thinking about the constitution of our cohort,” says Larry Menor, faculty director for Ivey’s MBA program. “In the end it comes down to identifying those individuals who have a diversity of experiences and backgrounds, but also have the chops to be able to persevere in a demanding program.”

Mr. Odunfa, for example, is the son of small-business entrepreneurs who worked for his parents in summers, earned an economics degree from the University of Lagos and spent the first seven years of his career with PricewaterhouseCoopers management consultants in his home city.

In 2017, after concluding that his preferred destination of the United States had become unfriendly from an immigration and postgraduation work perspective, Mr. Odunfa explored his options in Canada.

LinkedIn, a social media site for professionals, became a crucial source of advice from business school alumni.

“A lot of Ivey [alumni] took the time to answer me,” he says, with both Canadian and international graduates offering insights. In early 2018, he enrolled at Ivey. He is now a permanent resident of Canada and, even before graduation this spring, he has landed a full-time job with a major Canadian bank in Toronto.

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Among Canadian schools, recruitment strategies in Africa vary widely.

At Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, the total number of African students – largely from Kenya, Zimbabwe and Nigeria – climbed to 500 in 2018-19, up from 400 a year earlier. In TRU’s school of business and economics, African student enrolment in MBA and related graduate programs rose to 95 in 2018-19, up from 58 in the previous academic year.

School dean Michael Henry ties the enrolment growth to several factors: university-employed “marketing service representatives” who screen potential candidates in key countries; trusted in-country agents; and all-important word-of-mouth referrals.

“Africa has been a top priority for us,” says Dr. Henry. Recently, the school began to work with universities in Turkey, Kenya and Malaysia that attract a “significant number” of undergraduate African students with the relevant academic credentials – and desire – to pursue graduate business studies at TRU.

Even schools with only a few African students plan to expand recruitment efforts.

At McGill University’s Desautels Faculty of Management, the Montreal school’s annual class of about 65 or so participants generally has three students at most from Africa. “We would like to step up our efforts; there is much more potential there,” says Al Jaeger, MBA program director at Desautels.

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Like others, he says class diversity is an asset, noting students from emerging-market economies in Africa “provide a different perspective.”

One of the biggest players in attracting African students is the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.

With a total of 334 students from almost 40 countries, the school’s full-time MBA program has more than tripled enrolment from Africa recently – from five students in the graduating class of 2017 to 17 students (of whom 12 are Nigerians) in the cohort that graduates next year.

“We made a decision we wanted to see more candidates from the [Africa] region,” says Leigh Gauthier, Rotman’s assistant director of admissions, with responsibility for recruitment in Africa, Southeast Asia and the Middle East. In Africa, she says, “the talent is phenomenal" and adds to class diversity.

As an intentional strategy, Ms. Gauthier travels to key destinations, often with African MBA alumni, to hold dinners and events for prospective candidates. As well, the school hires Canadian immigration experts to assist international students with study visa applications. “It is a lengthy process from Nigeria and there is no room for error,” she says.

Typically, Rotman organizes one recruiting trip a year to Africa but now may add a second visit.

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“We have an emerging market there that is talented and hungry for an MBA,” says Ms. Gauthier. “They are looking to grow their own skill sets and their own network in a more mature market.”

That was the rationale for Lagos-born Desola Oladipupo, a chartered financial analyst who spent her early career in her hometown with a Nigerian bank, an international consulting firm and a Nigerian pension fund until she applied to Rotman in late 2017.

“Business school had always been a plan because I knew I wanted to see how developed markets approached [issues of] investment,” says Ms. Oladipupo. “I need to see how things are done in other places, in developed markets, so I can bring that knowledge back and help in terms of financial markets in Nigeria.”

She considered business schools in the United States and Spain, but her choice of Canada (and Rotman) was deliberate.

“I wanted to go somewhere where I was comfortable, that was culturally diverse, and would accept my culture,” she says. In a safe environment, she adds, “that is the only time you can learn.”

At Rotman, where her chartered financial analyst credentials excused her from writing the typical MBA entrance exam, Ms. Oladipupo received a $50,000 scholarship. This summer, she joins a major Canadian bank as a summer intern before graduating next year.

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She plans to work in Canada after graduation, but does not rule out long-term plans to return home.

“I want to get some level of experience and learn as much as I can and hopefully take all of that learning and help the Nigerian [financial] markets develop,” she says.

A similar sentiment is shared by Ivey’s Mr. Odunfa.

“I want to learn as much about the Canadian work environment as I can,” he says. But in the long-term, he says, “I am excited about the opportunity to go back to Africa and give back and have impact.”

Healthy perspectives

At some Canadian business schools, specialty graduate degrees and executive learning programs with a global focus find success in attracting participants from Africa.

Since 2006, McGill University’s Desautels Faculty of Management has offered an international master for health leadership and management, designed for working professionals in health care. The 15-month program, which consists of five 12-day modules and a master’s paper that leads to a master of management degree, draws participants from more than 13 countries, including those from Africa.

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“We intentionally recruit out of Africa,” says Desautels associate dean of executive education Corey Phelps, of enrolment in the health leadership program. “We see it as a growing market opportunity like so many industries do around the world.”

He says African health systems are growing but face challenges, with the health leadership program designed to share best practices for managers and organizations.

Wondwosen Gebeyaw, who previously worked for seven years as a health policy analyst for the ministry of health in Ethiopia, graduated from the Desautels program last November and now plans to pursue a PhD in global health policy in Canada.

“The program is very special because people come to the program from different disciplines and apply their managerial experience from different health sectors,” he says. “That is a good platform to learn, including how they solve problems and what kind of [strategy] tools they use.”

After his PhD, he eventually hopes to contribute to solving health issues in Ethiopia. “The experience I get from this country is very important for me to work on my country’s issues,” he says.

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