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What happened to African Theories?

Fundamental flaws in education that keep Africa behind


Having taught and worked with hundreds doctoral students all over Africa, I’m always amazed at the lack of critical application of theories and the scarcity of original African theories in the education system. While many have theorised about why so many African nations are unable to be competitive after their independence, not many have looked at the systemic issues embedded in the education system that produce the leaders in those nations. On the surface, issues such as corruption, policies, or politics are commonly discussed. All these surface issues are driven by how we perceived the world and our thought processes, which are derived from our education. Left over from colonialization, the education systems in many African nations have 2 primary challenges. First is the lack of critical application of theories; second is the lack of knowledge and skill in research methodologies. These two issues drive a thought process that greatly limit competitiveness and prevent advancement of nations.

Flaw in African researches

In a recent dissertation defence, a Kenyan doctoral student presented his findings on the relationship between leadership behaviours and small and medium sized enterprise (SME) performance. The individual was a well-established business executive with many years of experience. He conducted the research based on the established theory of transformational leadership along with its standard survey, which is quite common. After he presented his research, the dissertation committee began to ask questions about the research. “How did the survey reflect the cultural values in your city?” The doctoral student was stuck; he simply never thought about how the standard survey was created based on American cultural values and that it did not contain any African based statements. As the discussion went on, he began to realise that the transformational leadership survey being used lacked cultural considerations. For example, one of the dimensions for transformational leadership is inspirational motivation. How Americans are inspired in an individualistic society is quite different from how Africans are inspired. We continued the discussion to explore how an African theory of leadership is lacking. This incident is not the first. After having hundreds of doctoral dissertation defences with African students, the lack of critical thought for theories continues to dominate. The idea that many theories are not built based on African values or society doesn’t seem to appear on students’ thought processes. 

Lack of research methodology mastery

In the last five years, we’ve partnered with several African universities and institutions to help them with research methodology. In these partnerships, we’ve seen many PhDs with high positions, such as professors and lecturers, not having the correct knowledge in research methodology. Worse yet, they continue to teach the incorrect research methodology to their students. I have personally reviewed dozens of articles submitted by African academics for journal publication. Well over 92 per cent of these have flaws in the research methods, which invalidates the findings.

Another critical issue is the lack of knowledge and/or courses in qualitative research using a grounded theory approach. If one seeks to create new theories, the grounded theory approach is required. This may be passed over by colonial design or simply forgotten, but the graduate level education should offer modules in the grounded theory approach. Without this expertise, it becomes nearly impossible to create new theories.

The combination of a lack of critical application and a lack of research methodology mastery leaves most African universities no choice but to continue to use western theories and textbooks. Regardless of the discipline, most governments and businesses use western theories in every day decisions. Such decisions have built-in flaws, which prevent long-term success. 

Systemic improvements

Higher education in Africa needs major systemic enhancements. Regardless of where you come from, a PhD holder should be able to think systemically and critically. They should be creating new theories that are meant for the people of the same cultural values and the current global environment. They should know the difference between the context of education and the content of education. Only when we have such scholars leading education will African nations advance and, perhaps, even get ahead of some of the developing nations. 

Solutions to this problem is two-fold. First, aspiring scholars should find opportunities to study PhD programs built for critical thinking, systems thinking, and theory creation. Within which, students go through a long-term development process to think systemically while building the skills for grounded theory research. They also learn to master various cultural environments through the effective use of their multiple intelligence. These programs, in most cases, are designed specifically to address the needs of developing nations, such as Kenya.

Secondly, innovative universities should partner with leading institutions like Transcontinental Institution of Higher Education to transform their educational processes into the 21st century. Rather than continue to use band-aids to patch up major problems in colonial education systems that are rigid and out of date, partner universities can transform themselves into a regional powerhouses of innovative theory creation. Through this process, university professors can gain the knowledge needed for theory creation and understand a system to create numerous new theories that drive innovation in Africa. 

Dr2 Ted Sun is the Chief Innovations Officer at Transcontinental Institution of Higher Education, Author of ‘Survival Tactics’ and ‘Inside the Chinese Business Mind’ and a Chief Dream Maker, Organisational Psychologist & International Professor at Executive Balance. Email:

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