SPECIAL REPORT: Inside Fred Swaniker’s bold 25-country venture to nurture 3 million new African leaders

Ambitious entrepreneur says he is reimagining—and disrupting—African education. Many will have sat up.

African Leadership College students perform at the weekly assembly on March 17, 2016, one of the university's traditions that was showcased at is grand opening. (Photo/ALU/Facebook)

African Leadership College students perform at the weekly assembly on March 17, 2016, one of the university's traditions that was showcased at is grand opening. (Photo/ALU/Facebook)

HIS rangy legs slung loosely over a blue bean bag, Sipho Twala furrows his brow in concentration, which momentarily dims his infectious smile. “All these thousands of students graduating with nowhere to go? It’s a killer,” he says.

Sipho is speaking of  the scramble for limited university places in Swaziland, from where he hails. And even when one gets in, he says, the learning can be rote, with little opportunity for interaction with tutors, the acute discomfiture with which led to his decision to apply to the African Leadership University.

Sipho’s delight at securing admission to the inaugural class—as one of 176 students selected from more than 6,000 applicants—permeates our discussion over lunch; a picnic basket affair where the learners are each paired with the hundreds of visitors invited for the institution’s official launch last week—a mix of both high celebration and mock learning spread over two days on the serene island of Mauritius.

Sipho, 19, aspires to be an economist, and his grasp of the Swazi economy is impressive, delivered through nuggets about the kingdom’s reliance on agriculture, its priorities gleaned from its budgetary allocation, and absorbing analogies of the monarchy’s struggling middle class.

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“Let’s all count down….3,2,1…launch! Off to the moon we go!” the voice of the man who started it all, Ghanaian-born Fred Swaniker, booms through the warm night as large screens show the launch of Apollo 11, the spacecraft that in 1969 first put man on the moon.

The collation is clear: to pull off a project the size of the  ALU requires one to set their sights on the cosmos.

READ: Bold: Plan for 3 million new African leaders launches, and how it could change the continent as we know it

Swaniker’s vocal pyrotechnics thrill the audience at the gala who include Mauritius president Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, and which is set in historical grounds that add to the feeling of a changing epoch in Africa. It gets emotional too, from when he proudly introduces his mother, a renowned educationist, to the narration by students of the difficulties they faced in getting here, and the liberating triumph of making it.

Everyone involved in the ALU project; funders, “staffulty” as the faculty are referred to here, the students and those in the boiler-room, are all described in astronautic terms.  

There is little doubt Swaniker’s ALU mission is aiming for the moon, but can it meet the challenge of its own lofty ideals? 

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“For me, ALU is not necessarily about addressing Africa’s education challenges,” Swaniker, widely recognised for his successful  African Leadership Academy (ALA) set in Honeydew, western Johannesburg, tells us. “We are going after a much bigger prize, which is what we think is really at the root of our future prosperity and progress as a continent—the question of leadership.”

He goes on. “For me, ALU and what we’ve done with the ALA , the end is to create a generation of leaders who are going to transform Africa—so we are about the transformation of Africa and education simply is the vehicle for achieving that to help address Africa’s great [recurring] challenges.”

“We think continuing to do education the way its been done before will not address those problems, so we are saying, how do we actually start with the problems we need to address as a continent, and then work backwards from that, designing an educational system that helps to address them?”

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In a typical ALU classroom on a humid morning, instructor Tofik Saad gently guides the day’s learning, with 21 students clustered in seven groups discussing previously communicated assignments. The class, Communicating for Impact, is one of four foundational courses that every first year must take.

The questions call for an examination of articles on among other topics bridging Africa’s digital gap and what it means to be a woman on the continent, and includes discussions on tone and audience.


ALU instructor Tofik Saad in a typical class. (Photo/M&G Africa)

At the end, Tofik, who is from Saudi Arabia and also teaches in the United Kingdom, lets on that they are all authored by Africans, drawing murmurs of delight from his audience.

But perhaps what is more striking is the relaxed environment the class is tackled in, with light background music by South Africa’s Brenda Fassie bridging the interludes. It is also hard to miss the style of delivery: the emphasis is on the lessons learnt, a “failing forward” kind of learning, with learners urged to be proactive rather than reacting. The students’ enthusiasm is apparent.

A second class, with visitors as students, is conducted by Senegal’s Fatoumata Fall an ALA alumni from Harvard, and who was involved in its design. Known as Data and Decisions, it is more deductive: how can one intelligently estimate—intelligently—the number of post-it notes needed to cover Africa’s surface area? Or how many dodos—long extinct—would go all round the island? It is both engaging and a stump, especially as search engines are proscribed for the exercise duration. 

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The university’s model focuses on a four-stage learning cycle that encourages a student to discover their own gaps in knowledge and skills and learn from both peers and facilitators on how to redress and apply them in the real world, chief operating officer Khurram Masood, says.

This is combined with a leadership component aligned to both the needs of entrepreneurship, and of current employers.

Learning content from leading global institutions is curated onto a central e-portal, with the learners’ progress and natural proclivities carefully tracked and adapted to their strengths. 

The university says this is all meant to prepare students for jobs and opportunities that do not currently exist in today’s fast-changing world, with its degrees eventually awarded by the Glasgow Caledonian University, which says it was the first British university to open a campus in New York.

The goal is also to bridge the wide gap employers say they find between graduates of many African universities, and the skills they are looking for. Many are suitably impressed—several multinationals from McKinsey, PwC and Coca Cola to IBM and Tiger Brands are backing the project, by providing internships for students. At a recent “open-day” where executives from these firms came in to interview prospective interns, nearly all ALU students were snapped up.

The instructors are sourced from all over the world, after being rigorously interviewed—a process that is designed to tilt in favour of those who feel they still have much to learn, and not set-in-their-way experts—“servants, not masters”, Khurram says.

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Its first chancellor is Graça Machel, the renowned educationist and African thought leader. She says she only agreed to Swaniker’s request to take up the new responsibility because she feels “there is a child in me who is still eager to learn and reinvent myself”. But it is also in admiration of Swaniker’s “courage to innovate and not fear risks”—a frequent criticism of African entrepreneurs who are seen as too risk averse on a continent hungry for internally driven growth.

Machel is also a fervent believer in the ALU’s mission—which she says is about what has not been done before: “building a new identity of what it means to be pan-African”, part of an exciting cog of the “great things happening on this continent.”

 “ALU takes tested knowledge which has been consolidated elsewhere but with a completely different approach grounded in aspirations of Africans, for Africans, breaking new ground with its vision to help build new approaches,” the former South African First Lady, and independent Mozambique’s first education minister, says. 

Former African Development Bank president Donald Kaberuka will chair the university’s Global Advisory Council.

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The African Leadership Academy, co-founded in 2004 with three others, was hugely successful, Swaniker says, raising $100 million for hundreds of pre-university African students, many who are now dotted around the world including in many an Ivy League institution.

While their exit to other regions party informed his decision to take the initiative further, he says the idea for ALU came almost by accident. A computer class at the Academy was struggling for direction, partly due to a lack of teaching staff, when students asked to take it over.


ALU founder and CEO Fred Swaniker with some of the institution’s students during its grand launch. (Photo/ALU)

He was taken aback when many were soon citing it as their best class, and took time to watch them go at it.  “I realised I had been thinking about the problem in the wrong way,” he says. “Instead of trying to build a university system around a limited resource—professors and PhDs, I flipped it and thought, what resource do we have in abundance? Brilliant students all over Africa.”

Under its approach, when the students go to class, it is to interrogate some of the best learning materials widely available from institutions such as Yale, MIT, Oxford and the University of Cape Town, and under the guidance of dynamic instructors look to apply the knowledge to regional realities and real-life problems.

“You have then created a scalable, high quality education system that you can enroll across Africa. This is what we can do, and because we don’t have the legacy in Africa, we can then create our own model,” says Swaniker, who has lived and worked in at least 10 African countries.

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This would appear to answer the key question of how to scale it, as a vice chancellor of a top university in Botswana poses to me. ALU’s Beau Park campus in Pamplemousses district, just north-east of the capital Port Louis, feels more like an incubation lab to perfect the model as it builds its own $20 million campus, but there is little doubt its students believe passionately in it. 

Their weekly assembly is full of creativity and with nearly 30 nationalities represented, homilies to Africa’s cultural diversity and its future, with performances applauded in a distinctive snap of the fingers that feels very like ALU.

“It is a very good idea,” David Kariuki, the principal of Kenya’s top secondary school Alliance High and one of the invited guests and who has ex-students here, tells me. His predecessor, Christopher Khaemba, was the inaugural dean at the ALA, and  is now setting up secondary schools back in Nairobi that borrow their ethos heavily from the same system.

Swaniker says he was surprised that a full 40% of his students dropped out of existing universities to join the African Leadership College, as the inaugural Mauritius campus is known. “That tells you how students are excited about a new way of learning where they are at the centre of and take control of their learning and destiny,” he says.

ALU is aware that it may ruffle some feathers among older institutions, but is at pains to note that its “disruptor” model is only one approach to tackling the question of education quality on the continent.   

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But how does the funding stack up? The first class is fully-financed, but as the institution grows and fans out across the continent, this will be adjusted to take into consideration student needs. 

One third would remain fully funded, while a second third would pay fees on a graduated scale. The remaining [international] students will pay more than  the estimated $15,000 cost of studying at the ALU annually for an African student—still cheaper than fees on many other continents; university fees in the US can reach up to $60,000 annually. The premise is that its standards will attract students from outside the continent—already, it has some in its first class.


ALU students listen to McKinsey director Acha Leke explain the difficulties of travelling in Africa during their weekly assembly.

The institution has also attracted deep-pocketed investors with little pressure for an immediate return. “We are taking the long-term view on our engagement with the ALU,” says Arjuna Costa, an Investment Partner at Omidyar Network—the philanthropy and investment firm founded by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and his wife Pam.

“We will be here at the ALU as long as it makes sense for us.”

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The location of Mauritius for the first campus is not accidental. The island nation, looking to diversify into services, has one of the most liberalised permit regimes for investors—50 of 54 African countries do not for example require a visa to enter.

Because the ALU needed to work with skilled staff from all over the world, the issue of work permits has been core for it—precluding “difficult” countries such as South Africa.

Swaniker says it took just two months to secure permits for its 40 starting staff, who have now grown to 70. “If that is not efficiency, tell me what is,” he asks.

Intra-African trade is often stymied by such internal red-tape, and he is hoping that some of his graduates go into the public sector to help provide leadership on breaking down the barriers that hold back the continent and consequently help create durable institutions.

Swaniker says his phone has been ringing off the hook as governments reach out for him to set up one of the 25 campuses planned over the next decade in their country, in a push to develop three million exceptional leaders by 2060. Some 52 African cities have a population of more than 1 million residents, and the idea is to set up close to them, but dependent on need.

 But the choice of host cities will depend on the kind of environment the ALU is accorded, from accreditation to permits. “The innovation we bring today requires visionary governments that are not threatened by the calibre of talents that we want to develop and the leaders and innovators we want to nurture, and who will create an enabling environment for us to establish the institution,” he says.

Towards this he reserves special praise for Rwanda, which already hosts ALU’s second campus, from which its only current postgraduate programme, the MBA, is offered. “Rwanda has given us full accreditation, they see the vision of what we are doing and are seriously on board with us; they see the impact of the new model—offering world class education at an affordable level to millions of people in Africa.”

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But why does he even do it, beyond the realisation that too few ALA students are graduating to form the sea-change in leadership Africa needs?

 “My motivation is that I am a proud African. I love this continent and I am sick and tired of flying into a European airport and being treated as a second-class human being.

“Unless we take development into our own hands and create our own wealth we will never get the respect we deserve as Africans. We develop ourselves not by continuing to dig up our resources but by developing our brains. 

His thesis at university was, perhaps prophetically, titled ‘The African Lions Emerge’.

“For me, this is about being able to hold my head high as an African—anywhere in the world.”

You instinctively know hundreds of millions Africans will be rooting for him, deeply willing the ALU to succeed, and wildly.


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