- ALU is a chapter in the story of Mr Fred Swaniker, a 39-year-old Ghanaian who is on a mission to change Africa — one student at a time.
- Listed by Forbes Magazine in 2011 as one of the 10 youngest powermen in Africa, Mr Swaniker is the founder of the Johannesburg-based African Leadership Academy – a co-educational high school which recruits outstanding students from across the continent and prepares them for a future in leadership.
- “The launch of African Leadership University is an opportunity for Africa as a whole to revisit its curricula, the relationship between lectures and students, and that between training institutions and productive systems,” Dr Machel said.
Fred Swaniker founded the African Leadership University in Mauritius and hopes to have a network of 25 world-class universities with 10,000 students each.
Two years ago, Seketo Sophia, 21, was attending lectures at Maasai Mara University in Narok County. A student of Forestry and an environmental enthusiast, she was also running the “Tree for School” project in which she got friends and family to plant a tree and donate money to education institutions.
Today, she is one of 31 Kenyans out of the 176 students on the founding campus of the African Leadership University (ALU) in Mauritius — the first of a network of 25 world-class universities which the founder believes will provide answers to Africa’s challenges.
They were selected out of 6,000 applications that came from across the continent, making ALU one of the most competitive universities in the world.
“The process of waiting to know if you have been selected took long days and nights. They wanted us to display our ability to clearly put out our thoughts while observing time. We got to explore a lot fields, from education to history,” Sophia told Lifestyle in an interview at the Beau Plan campus just outside the capital Port Louis.
ALU is a chapter in the story of Mr Fred Swaniker, a 39-year-old Ghanaian who is on a mission to change Africa — one student at a time.
Listed by Forbes Magazine in 2011 as one of the 10 youngest powermen in Africa, Mr Swaniker is the founder of the Johannesburg-based African Leadership Academy – a co-educational high school which recruits outstanding students from across the continent and prepares them for a future in leadership.
Always ahead of his time, at the age of 18, Mr Swaniker was the principal of a school run by his mother in Botswana. By then he had lived in three other African countries – Ghana, the Gambia, and Zimbabwe. Just like his mother, his father, a lawyer, was always ready to apply his professional skills wherever he was called upon.
When US President Barack Obama visited South Africa in 2013, he showered praise on Mr Swaniker for using his expertise to help other young Africans develop their leadership skills “so that they can come back and put those skills to use serving their communities, starting businesses, creating jobs”.
With hundreds of students, most of them from poor backgrounds, having emerged from the leadership academy to enter the hallowed halls of top universities in the world – including America’s Stanford, Harvard, Massachusetts Institute of Technology – and graduated to work globally, Mr Swaniker’s place as one of the continent’s most influential people was perhaps already cemented by the success of the leadership academy.
Yet last month, school administrators, leaders and journalists from across the world descended on the Indian Ocean Island of Mauritius to witness, yet again, an unveiling of another of Mr Swaniker’s grand plans – this special model of a university.
“We cannot fix Africa unless we fix its leadership,” he told Lifestyle on the sidelines of the assembly – a weekly two-hour session in which the students showcase and hone their creativity with activities such as skits, speeches and dances.
Mr Swaniker says Africa’s problems are too enormous and their solutions too urgent for things to be done the usual way.
“Our evolution of universities could take between 25 and 40 years. Our hope is that our graduates will go to form governments. We want to create exceptional leaderships, you know, filling the public sector with world class leaders. Others will be entrepreneurs building large-scale enterprises,” Mr Swaniker says.
An admirer of former US President J.F. Kennedy, Mr Swaniker considers his vision to build 25 universities in Africa, each admitting 10,000 students, a daunting, yet achievable, feat.
“Just like President Kennedy dreamt of landing the first American on the moon, our mission might seem impossible now. But like Kennedy’s America, we are taking radical measures because Africa needs moon shot thinking,” he says.
The college is not modelled on traditional university teaching and research. It focuses not on majors, but on the grand challenges Africa is facing.
“Educators are not the traditional professor; they are facilitators, who include retired executives, recent university grads (graduates), and mid-career professionals,” he says.
But how does beginning with 176 students fit into the grand scheme of rolling out 25 campuses each carrying 10,000 students?
“Once the foundation is well established, the roll-out in other countries will be faster. We shall have campuses all over Africa including Kenya. I mean across the continent where need is the greatest and where the environment is friendly. The innovation we bring requires visionary governments that are not threatened by our innovation,” he says.
Mauritius, known more for its vibrant leisure and sugar industry, was chosen to host the founding campus for its friendly regulations and working systems. The country recently opened its doors to African visitors, who don’t require a visa for up to a 90-day visit. Mr Swaniker also says he was able to secure work permits for all his 70 staff in record time.
“If you are thinking about pan-African institutions you do as Mauritius has done. Why is it easier for a Chinese or a US citizen to come to an African country than it is for an African? We talk of a population of one billion people but that is meaningless if we don’t integrate. The Sh2 trillion dollars we (Africa) jointly command will be meaningless if we have no synergy.”
During the opening ceremony of the college, Mauritius President Ameenah Gurib-Fakim called on African countries to build a culture of good governance and entrepreneurship, and invest in science and technology.
“Africa’s research output is only one per cent of the world, yet its population is 12 per cent. We welcome ALU as we have a shared vision,” said the former University of Mauritius professor of organic chemistry.
When more ALU campuses are up and running, a prospective student will apply to the system with choices and they will be allocated a college. And while they are selected on the basis of their academic excellence in their secondary school examinations, the greater emphasis is on their leadership potential.
“We are recruiting leaders in their own right, some of these students had started their own non-governmental organisations at 17. Up to 40 per cent of our inaugural class dropped out of colleges back home. One young man from Morocco had graduated and started his masters, but he dropped out to come here,” says Swaniker.
So from where does he draw the inspiration to push these grand ideas to fruition every day when there are many comfortable jobs beckoning him?
“I am passionately in love with Africa. I grew up when the ‘African rising’ conversation had not come. I used to think all of Africa was a basket case. But when I went to Botswana I saw fibre optic and a working government, I fell in love with Africa,” he says.
Mr Swaniker attended Stanford Business School where he was named an Arjay Miller Scholar of Stanford University, an honour bestowed on students graduating top of class.
“I came back to Africa against my mother’s advice. In Africa you don’t have to give a reason why you go to work. You see impact every day,” he says.
To found the Africa Leadership Academy, whose inaugural dean was former Alliance High School principal Christopher Khaemba, who now works for the Nairobi County government, Mr Swaniker mobilised resources using networks which he built while working for Mckinsey, the consulting firm that advises most of the world’s most influential organisations.
“It has exceeded all my wildest imagination,” he says.
But this success was also his frustration. “About 80 per cent of the graduates have been leaving Africa. So I said we need an MIT here. And here we are,” he says.
The Johannesburg-based African Leadership Academy – a co-educational high school which recruits outstanding students from across the continent and prepares them for a future in leadership. PHOTO | COURTESY
But the speed of the realisation of Mr Swaniker’s dream is also dependent on the reception by governments, some of which are wary of the young people coming out of the universities.
“It is not easy communicating the vision of what we are trying to do because it is really away from convention. Many regulatory regimes in Africa want to see a given number of things first before issuing accreditation. We believe there is a need to balance between meeting these standards and the need to move with the world,” Mr Swaniker says.
The college works with corporate sponsors to meet the cost of the programmes. Students are required to do internship in the companies and work thereafter for a period to be agreed on.
“We are also exploring many ways including having those who can pay enough to subsidise those who can’t. These include students from outside Africa who will pay more. We are also developing a loan scheme to build a sustainable system,” Mr Swaniker says.
The ALU model also relies heavily on technology with students being taught via hi-tech e-learning material and peer-to-peer interaction which cuts down the need for faculty staff.
“What makes great education is not the buildings or fancy facilities. What makes a great institution is great students, a great curriculum and great teachers,” he says.
Arjuna Costa, a partner at Omidyar Network, founders of eBay and the largest investors at ALU, says the company’s interest in the college is in the lack of ethical leadership both in the public and private spheres across Africa.
“The present graduates might have the book learning and the certificate, but they don’t have the requisite skills and overall requirement to fit into jobs,” says Mr Costa.
Coca-Cola, IBM, Boston Consulting Group and Standard Chartered Bank are also involved.
Mr Thomas Mbajjwe, 18, a student from central Uganda, told Lifestyle that the institution had exposed him to a wide range of possibilities.
“I am choosing between business and computer science,” he says.
Mr Mbajjwe recalls the rigorous selection process, including interviews with representatives of the corporates involved that wanted to select students. This is in line with the ALU model under which each year a student spends eight months on campus and four months in the work place.
“We design our curriculum with employers. We break barriers between universities and the world. Solving real problems for real organisations begins from day one,” said Khurram Masood, the head of college.
A class at ALU involves students sitting in small groups with their laptops, some of them with music on, perhaps to emphasise the informality of it all. The students are expected to discover their problem and work with others towards solving it.
They first go through a four-week induction programme meant to disabuse them of what Ronald Dore labelled, in 1976, the “diploma disease” – the obsession and the excessive value attached to the certificates acquired from college.
Other students in the pioneering class include Mr Jeremy Kisorio, a victim of the 2007/2008 post-election violence in Eldoret, and Piet Motaloata from the Limpopo Province of South who had been an actuarial science student at the University of the Free State when he heard of Mr Swaniker and his dream for the continent.
“The traditional training model just wasn’t for me as I hope to start my own companies after this,” he told Lifestyle.
The college, whose chancellor is former South African President Nelson Mandela’s widow Graca Machel, collaborates with Glasgow Caledonian University. The university will, for the first few years, issue ALU graduates with degrees.
In a fireside interview with Glasgow Caledonian University vice-chancellor Pamela Gillies, Dr Machel allayed fears that the youth being trained would be a catalyst for social instability on the continent.
She said the reason many graduates in Africa do not find employment is because of the divorce between the academic institutions and requirements in the work place.
“The launch of African Leadership University is an opportunity for Africa as a whole to revisit its curricula, the relationship between lectures and students, and that between training institutions and productive systems,” Dr Machel said.
So what if the graduates of this grand vision in whom the college and the partner companies have invested heavily leave the continent?
“What we are inculcating in these young people is a sense of opportunity, not obligation. But we selected them in the first place because of their passion for Africa. We are reinforcing that passion. A truly entrepreneurial person will see the great business opportunity here in Africa,” Mr Swaniker says.
He adds that the challenge with brain drain in Africa is a problem of numbers. “That is why we are aiming so high that even if a few leave the continent, we shall have enough to go around and build enough positive force to change Africa,” says Mr Swaniker, who lives with his wife Amanda Johnson, an entrepreneur, on the island.
For now, as Mr Swaniker envisions an Africa that will be transformed by young graduates of a holistic education, Sophia is already thinking of her contribution.
“I look forward to be in a position to formulate policies and create awareness about issues affecting our communities. These issues include taking care of our environment and embracing positive cultural values,” she says.