Amy McLellan reports on the benefits of studying abroad

When Jessica Zhu, an official in the Chinese Ministry of Education, was given the opportunity to study for a Masters abroad, she jumped at the chance to do an MBA in the UK.

"I wanted to do an MBA to build a more solid foundation for my future career," says the English and international finance graduate of Tianjin Foreign Studies University. "An MBA is highly valued by employers in China and qualified MBAs have great opportunities in the job market."

She picked the University of Portsmouth Business School and started her MBA in 2006, keen to make the most of this opportunity to gain an international business qualification. On graduation, Zhu returned to China, working in the higher education sector.

"I do some teaching as a lecturer and I have some important managerial responsibilities, where I find my MBA experiences very helpful," she says.

She believes it's important that Chinese managers gain international business qualifications in order to compete effectively in world markets. "It is an urgent need that Chinese people, especially those taking managerial jobs, learn good experiences and skills from foreign countries," says Zhu. "It is important for China to change its conservative mind into more internationalised mindset to accustom itself to the new international environment."

It's a similar story in Russia, where the country has been through tumultuous times adjusting to new economic and social realities following the demise of the USSR.

"We are living in a totally different environment and political and economic system only for the last 15 years and it's clear that we need more time to become really competitive," says Roman Stepantsev, general manager of Nilfisk-Advance in Moscow, who is doing a distance learning MBA at Henley. "We need to gain more experience and funds and then our managers will be communicating with the West in the same 'language'."

He believes an international MBA has an important role to play in this process, bringing back the latest international thinking and experiences to help transform the country and the challenges and opportunities it faces.

Ghanaian Nana Ghansah echoes this. These are exciting times to live and work in Ghana. The country saw the return of multi-party democracy 16 years ago, has a stable economy and recently discovered major oil resources offshore. Oil has the potential to transform the fortunes of this country but, as has been the case elsewhere in West Africa, it could also bring the blight of corruption and the threat of civil division.

"Ghana needs highly skilled people to manage these resources and harness the opportunities for future generations," says Nana, a chemical engineering graduate who joined the 2007 MBA class at the University of Edinburgh Management School. Nana was making good progress in her banking career, landing a relationship manager role within six months of completing the two-year associate programme at Standard Chartered Bank, when she decided to do an MBA.

"I wanted to bridge the gap between my academic background and chosen career path and gain a structured formal perspective to the world of business," she says. "For a woman in a highly competitive environment, I believed I needed to improve my delivery and hone my skills to equip me for the challenges of senior management positions."

She picked a UK business school because of the availability of scholarships and the length of the programme. "Most MBAs in the UK are one year programmes compared to two years in the US, and I couldn't afford to stay away from work for too long," she says.

At the time, she contemplated a move into consulting or the finance sector in the UK but come graduation she decided to return to Ghana, even though she knew salary levels would be lower.

"I knew I could make greater impact back home with my newly acquired skills and knowledge and my career progression would be quicker than in the UK," she says.

She now works as business development manager for small and medium enterprise banking at Standard Chartered Bank in Ghana. "SMEs make a significant contribution, almost 50 per cent, to Ghana's GDP," says Nana. "However, the country is also faced with a large informal sector, about 60 per cent of all businesses. Given the right infrastructure, investment and environment, SMEs will be the key drivers for Ghana's development."

Working with SMEs is a step above microfinance, which is becoming a popular career destination for MBA graduates with a social conscience. Microfinance, which lends small amounts of money (as little as US$50/£26) to the very poorest people, is becoming big business. Institutional and individual investments in microfinance more than doubled between 2004 and 2006, to US$4.4bn(£2.3bn), and the total volume of loans made has risen to US$25bn (£13.2bn).

There are critics of microfinance: some point to the high interest rates, claiming the movement is a debt-trap for the poor; others say it may help individuals but has done little to help poor countries become richer. And microfinance is no longer just about microlending: there's microinsurance, microsavings and it's all backed by increasingly sophisticated capital structures.

This growing sophistication needs better managers. A recent report by CGAP, a consortium of leading development agencies and microfinance practitioners, found many microfinance institutions were missing a trick when it comes to assessing the best value funding options. This is where an MBA graduate, schooled in the latest financial thinking and comparative funding analyses, could make a real difference. CGAP is running a pilot with six management schools to include microfinance in their MBA programmes. International MBA graduates, it seems, are in demand, both with the captains of capitalism and the poorest of the poor.

'I intend to go back to Africa to set up my own business'

Former Capgemini consultant Patrick Taleng from Cameroon is studying an MBA at HEC in Paris.

I wanted to do an MBA because I wanted to gain strong finance skills and change direction, to work in capital markets specialising in commodities. It's my plan to work internationally in capital markets for the next five years to gain experience and build my network and reputation. I then intend to go back to Africa to set up my own business, to act as a bridge between Africa and international investors. At the moment, Africa could gain a lot from highly skilled MBAs because there's a real need to help Africa governments do business better. This is particularly important in commodities. These are the main assets of many African countries and prices are increasing sharply at the same time as rapidly growing economies like India and China are investing heavily in Africa, hungry for these commodities. There's a need for people with the right skills and experiences to help Africa take advantage of these trends. There will be many opportunities in Africa in the coming years and I would like to be part of that.