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Developing Africa’s Leadership

Developing Africa’s Leadership
  • PublishedDecember 2, 2011

Fred Swaniker was always destined to end up in education. His grandmother founded a school in her native Ghana, his mother followed in these footsteps by founding her own school in her adopted Botswana and when he reached the tender age of 18 she gave Fred his first taste of running a school by making him the principal for a short while. A few years back this entrepreneur’s dream project finally took shape as the African Leadership Academy, a world-class, pan-African secondary college, opened its doors. He talked to New African about his visionary initiative – to train the continent’s next generation of leaders.

Fred Swaniker represents the new breed of Africans; he is well-travelled, well-educated and impatient to change the fate of the continent. He also strongly believes that one of the biggest problems in Africa is a lack of quality in our leaders. And so 9 years ago he embarked on putting together a mechanism to remedy this problem by identifying and shaping the future leaders of Africa. He started off by insisting that his approach is not one of revolutionising education but rather, strengthening the pool of highly talented individuals who can one day lead the continent in business, the public sector and civil society: “The Academy is not about solving educational problems but about addressing the issue of leadership – we want our leaders to be educated, but we go far beyond the realm of education, we like to develop other skills.

“The project has been going for nine years now. We spent five years conceptualising it, raising finance, running pilot programmes and developing the curriculum to learn and prepare for the second phase, which began four years ago – opening the doors of the academy. And now we are in phase three, which entails building and supporting a growing network of leaders that keeps them connected to each other and finding opportunities for them to develop as leaders. We are in the ninth year of a 50-year project, because the transformation of Africa is not a short-term project. African Leadership Academy is a 50-100 year project.”

Speaking to people close to the programme and some of those who have visited the academy, located in the outskirts of Johannesburg, South Africa, the students selected are truly inspirational. In fact, this seems to be the standard response. “The students blow you away,” said one visitor. “You start questioning what you have achieved in your life and it really makes you want to roll back the years and go back to school. They’re another breed; truly inspirational young Africans, confident, outgoing, driven and focused,” added another.

The brains behind the project are Fred and his colleague and co-founder Chris Bradford. It is apparent that they have a clearly defined long-term vision and that they have thought about every aspect of this venture. “We borrowed ideas from different places, and also did things no one had ever done before. For example, the idea of a two-year programme comes from the United World Colleges Programme. [This was a programme launched during the Cold War to bring together young people from around the world and offer an educational experience based on shared learning, collaboration and understanding, so that the students would act as champions of peace. Today, it looks at helping students to discover the possibility of change through courageous action, personal example and selfless leadership.]

“We borrowed ideas from Stanford Business School, from the Aspen Institute, and looked at how other international institutions operate. Furthermore, we developed ideas ourselves that no one else that we know of is doing, like the focus not just on education but on leadership.”

The concept is relatively straightforward. Every year they select from over 3,000 applications an intake of what they consider are the best 100 students from around Africa. It’s a rigorous process. The academy has a (growing) network of 4,000 organisations across Africa, such as high schools and other organisations working with youth in rural areas. These nominate people between the age of 16-19 that they believe have the potential to transform Africa. The students are chosen on more than just academic ability. “We shortlist the applicants to about 400 finalists, and then we look at the [community] projects they have undertaken and their impact. We are looking for doers not talkers. So they have potential as well as a track record.

“We invite them to a selection weekend where we submit them to interviews, entrance exams and different activities that allow to us to evaluate their personalities, how they lead in person, to understand their values and how they think. Over that weekend we invite local leaders from different countries and from both the public and private sector to form the selection panel to observe and give us input into who they consider will have the most impact on their community. We gather all that data, from independent observers, from our own interaction, communicate all that information to the council, from which we select the final 100.”

The students spend two years at the Academy taking the equivalent of an international baccalaureate. But it is much more than this: “The curriculum is structured around entrepreneurship, leadership and African studies. But simultaneously they also study the more traditional, academic subjects such as maths, English, history, sciences, languages etc, and all of this comes together in cognitive projects where they have to apply the leadership theories that we teach them to put into practice a project that will have an impact in the community around the school or a business. These ventures are aimed at giving them hands-on practice in leadership. We believe that leadership is not something theoretical, it needs to be practical. You learn how to lead by being a leader in practice.”

A values-based approach

The Academy also has a strong emphasis on a values-based education. “The six values we instill are displayed on the campus walls: humility, integrity, passion, excellence, diversity, compassion. We reward people who demonstrate these values on a yearly basis at an awards ceremony, and also on a weekly basis.

“Values are something which are demonstrated in their day-to-day behaviour, leading by example. And values are something which we look at and identify from various activities. Also, in assembly, we read excerpts from different religious texts, like the Bible or Koran, which talk about these values and relate to what we’re doing in the academy. And we also invite leaders to the campus to give talks and lectures to our students and we try and identify leaders who embody those values we are looking to promote. A strong value system is integral to any great leader.”

Fred is quite keen to develop his own tailor-made curriculum in the medium term. “Parts of the curriculum have been specially written for the academy, such as the African studies, and instilling leadership and entrepreneurship values. We wanted to start off with a core academic curriculum, to have something that was recognised internationally. Eventually we want to move away and develop our own pan-African curriculum.”

Asked about the state of education in Africa, he is highly critical about an outdated approach to the current methodology generally being adapted in the continent: “I don’t think it’s adequate. Much of the learning is rote memorisation and that will not solve the problems and challenges we have in Africa today. We need independent critical thinkers who know how to solve problems, not simply memorise facts. Education systems need to create problem-solvers.

“You need to radically rewrite the rule-books as much of the education system is based on the remnants of the colonial era. We need to focus on problem solving and make it relevant to Africa and the world we live in, so its not simply learning about French or British or Portuguese history. How can we solve our own problems if we don’t know our own history or understand our own economies? For example, I was looking at the economics class from the university of Cambridge syllabus that examines post-WW1 Germany to explain the problem of hyperinflation, when we have a perfect example in Zimbabwe a few years back. So we need to ensure the syllabus is much more relevant.”

Most of the students come from disadvantaged backgrounds so 85% of them are on significant scholarship support for the annual cost of educating them at the academy. The running costs of the Academy amount to $6m annually. The founders are working hard to raise an endowment fund which will make it self-sustainable for the long-term. So far they have relied on philanthropic donations. Sadly, the majority of these have come from abroad:

“We’ve raised about $15m – about 30% from Africa and 70% from overseas. Our overseas supporters have in general been high net worth individuals, many are Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who can relate to what we’re doing. We’ve also had support from some multinationals that operate in Africa, such as Coca Cola and ABSA bank in South Africa, and some international corporations like McKinsey and Credit Suisse.”

Throughout our conversation Fred emphasises and reiterates the long-term aspect of the project: “You never leave the academy as such, it’s a lifetime thing. We know that you don’t develop a leader in two years, so we follow their progress after they leave the programme.

“We have partnerships with the leading universities we work with, into which we feed the young leaders we’re developing for the next stage in their lives and we are building a robust network of corporations that operate in Africa. When they go to university, we continue working with them, help them find internships, help them develop mentors and other leadership programmes. When our students graduate from college we help them find their first careers on the continent. We’re constantly engaged in their lives, and helping develop them as leaders, connecting them with each other and with other powerful networks.

“We want to build a network of 6,000 leaders for Africa over a 50-year period and we are going to work with these people from the age of 16 and engage with them throughout their lives until we’ve got a really effective network of leaders who are going to collaborate to bring change to Africa.”

They have also taken all the necessary steps to make sure the majority of their students will remain in Africa. “The brain drain is not a big worry. We have put mechanisms in place to minimise this. And the most powerful tool is changing the mindsets. If you think like an entrepreneur, then Africa is a paradise. There is so much to do and the entrepreneurial mindset will seize these opportunities. And with a focus on Africa studies, once you understand and become passionate about Africa you are more likely to stay on the continent.

“Secondly, when our students leave the academy and go on to university we stay engaged with them. For example, out of the first year of graduates 70 went to go to college in the US. After their first year we brought almost 40 of them back for internships in Africa. And after they graduate we are not going to leave it to the Harvard career service to find them a job! Harvard has got very few links with positions in Africa. So we will facilitate, with our networks and partnerships with corporations and governments, our graduates’ return to Africa. We will match them to opportunities.

“And if all these mechanisms don’t work, we have a ‘legal obligation’ that stipulates that the academy’s scholarships are not grants but a ‘forgivable’ loan, and it accrues interest. By the age of 25 they need to return to Africa and contribute to the continent for at least 10 years. After 10 years we write off the debt. This is a model that has been used in Singapore and Thailand, and they have experienced a 99% return rate amongst their graduates. We are fortunate to be doing this at a time when Africa is a much more attractive place to return to. If we had done this 20 years ago – when most countries were experiencing some form of conflict or unrest, or command economies were still in place – it would have been a much less attractive place to return to. Today, the opportunities in Africa are arguably much brighter than they are in Europe or the US. Look at it this way, we’re building this warehouse of the best leadership talent in Africa, and we need to keep this talent in Africa.”

Fred’s vision and philosophy is truly pan-African. Even if he thinks political union is still a long way away, economic integration is an imperative to harness the potential of a population of 1bn people and a GDP of $2tn. His Academy is also proof that this is happening. ”Since we began this programme four years ago we’ve had just under 10,000 applications from 48 countries. They come together, they live on campus for two years, they get to understand each other, to build relationships, to celebrate Africa. And you can see the transformation from the first time they meet each other, and from when they start to interact and study African studies.

“Most of them, for example, had never studied African history. They were learning about European history, American geography, reading Chaucer. You watch the transformation over the two years, from being a Ugandan or a Nigerian to becoming proud Africans who understand each other’s cultures and have deep personal relationships with people from different countries. It’s a reality, it’s not a vision.”

And central to this pan-African vision is of course education. Asked about the lack of leadership and its causes, Fred attributed this to education, education, education. “There was a problem as a lot of the leaders we had at independence found themselves in a very difficult situation in terms of the effects of colonialism.

“When Ghana got its independence in 1957 and other nations soon after, across Africa there were 19,000 university graduates if you exclude South Africans, and of those, 15,000 came from two countries, Ghana and Nigeria. In the DR Congo, for example, there were only 19 university graduates. Think of a nation and you need to form a cabinet. You must select a minister of finance, a minister of education, yet they themselves had not been properly educated.

“Also, the leaders we have had were the remnants of the liberation movement and the skills you require to liberate a country are not necessarily the same as the ones you need to govern a country, so we were not adequately prepared, so we didn’t always have the right guys. And unfortunately in many cases they were more concerned with holding on to power and acquiring resources for themselves and that’s where we stumbled in the post-independence era.

“We also blindly followed foreign ideologies without really thinking through whether they suited our own circumstances. We weren’t thinking about home-grown solutions to our own problems. We can borrow ideas from different places, but we need to adapt them so that they suit our local conditions.”

These are the issues the academy is trying to rectify. Building a large pool of of future leaders with a deep cultural and intellectual understanding of the continent, doers rather than talkers, and with a passion and values to bring about transformational change. Fred and his peers are the bright future this continent has been yearning for. And you better look out. This new breed of young Africans is just about to get better.

Written By
New African

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