Through his African Leadership Academy, entrepreneur Fred Swaniker is determined to develop the next generation of leaders for the continent.
VENTURES AFRICA – Just like the great American civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. dreamt of equal social existence, so did Ghanaian-born entrepreneur, Fred Swaniker dream of building a Pan-African school that would position the new generation of African youth for prosperity.
Swaniker’s dream in reality is today known as the African Leadership Academy (ALA), a prestigious school in Johannesburg, South Africa, that educates some of the most talented African youngsters from all African nations.
Nurturing relationships with over 2,500 educational institutions across the continent to identify the most suitable candidates to fulfil these roles, students of the ALA are hand selected for attendance at the school. This rigorous selection process is designed to single out not only the brightest students from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds but also those who have demonstrated entrepreneurial leadership and a strong passion and commitment for Africa.
Swaniker conceptualised his dream of building the leadership academy while working on a microfinance project in Nigeria during 2003. He contemplated that parents can spend as much as $50,000 sending their children to top schools in the United Kingdom. Why should this money not stay in Africa, and why should this level of education not be readily available on the continent?
While narrating his vision of the ALA institution, Swaniker asked himself what it would take to make Africa prosper. He found that in societies where people enjoyed peace and prosperity it was because they had developed important new ideas – some of them simple, some of them revolutionary – and implemented them. He believes that for Africa to sustain and accelerate development, the continent should be more systematic about identifying, cultivating and developing these people, these leaders. He also feels we should be doing more to increase the number of such people.
Swaniker founded ALA in 2004, together with Chris Bradford, Peter Mombaur and Acha Leke, though the institution was only officially opened in September 2008. The school had an initial class of just 97 students.
Before launching ALA, Swaniker worked with various organisations and attended several institutions from which he gleaned an understanding of the inner workings of such institutions, and what it would take to establish one of his own.
In 2003, he established Global Leadership Adventures, a leadership development programme for youth across the globe. Prior to this, he was involved in the launch of Mount Pleasant English Medium School, one of the top-performing private elementary schools in Botswana. He also served as a director here. Swaniker worked as the founding COO of Synexa Life Sciences, a biotechnology company in Cape Town which today employs 30 South African scientists. He also worked at McKinsey & Company, where he provided strategic advice to the management teams of large companies in Ghana, Nigeria, Tanzania, and South Africa.
It was during his time at Stanford University that Swaniker finally decided to launch the ALA. But he had a problem, his then employer, McKinsey, had paid his $124,000 tuition on condition that he return to work after graduating. Swaniker took a nine-month leave of absence from McKinsey, with the intention of hiring someone else to launch his school. Instead, in October 2004, he quit McKinsey and was committed to reimbursing the full, $124,000 tuition to his former employer. “I realised I couldn’t outsource my dream,” he said.
Coincidentally, his first backers were two managers from McKinsey. He used their funds, in part, to pay off his debts to the company. Swaniker launched the ALA with donations from key Nigerian supporters including Tunde Folawiyo, Gbenga Oyebode, Hakeem Belo-Osagie and the late Osaze Osifo. Early international supporters included Carly Fiorina (formerly of Hewlett-Packard), Intuit co-founder Scott Cook, former Cisco Systems CEO John Morgridge, Stanford professor, Irv Grousbeck, and Derek Schrier of hedge fund Farallon Capital, among others. He purchased a 20-acre former printing plant, which became the site of the institution in Johannesburg, SA. Finally, he hired 20 teachers from top schools around the globe.
In its first year alone, ALA received an astonishing 1,700 applications for 104 spots, making Swaniker’s school more competitive than Harvard or Stanford. Every year, the ALA receives approximately 3,000 applications and admits only about 100 students. The largest number of applications come from Nigeria, numbering around 700.
The ALA aims to create leaders fit for all segments, including science and technology, business and politics, as well as entrepreneurs who can create the millions of jobs needed on the continent. “Africa won’t come out of poverty unless we become entrepreneurs. But we still cling to our colonial legacy,” Swaniker says.
As part of the curriculum at the ALA, students are tasked with starting their own businesses and working closely with local communities situated near and around the school. They are also taught the roles and general responsibilities of CEOs and CFOs, as well as other senior positions within business, politics and industry. According to Swankier, this helps prepare them for a future at the very top of business society, while equipping them with the skills “to do something much bigger for the continent” in the future.
To achieve this, the ALA teaches a two-year curriculum in African studies, leadership and entrepreneurship, as well as the usual core academic subjects. All its faculty members are graduates from universities, most notably Harvard, Yale, Cambridge and Stanford, and have previously taught at leading institutions. The Academy’s Board of Advisors comprises African and global luminaries in business, leadership development, secondary education, and social entrepreneurship.
In 2006, Swaniker, together with ALA co-founder, Chris Bradford, was recognised by Echoing Green, a global non-profit organisation operating in the area of early-stage social sector investing, as one of the 15 best emerging social entrepreneurs in the world. In 2009, he was selected as one of 25 TED Fellows. He was one of 115 young leaders selected to meet President Obama at the first-ever President’s Forum for Young African Leaders in 2010. In 2012, Swankier was recognised by the World Economic Forum as a Young Global Leader.
He was alsolauded by President Obama during the latter’s visit to Africa just last week.
Surely, with Fred, African youths have a mentor and teacher to nurture them in the art of innovative, effective and people-focused leadership the continent seems to be short of.