Fred Swaniker.
Fred Swaniker.
Image: Manelisi Dabata

Down a crackly line from Nairobi, Fred Swaniker is being diplomatic.

“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that Africa’s leaders have, by and large, failed the continent,” Swaniker says.

“There’s no reason why we should be so poor; no reason why we should be so undeveloped. We have so much potential.”

Swaniker is certainly not the only one frustrated by the calibre of African leaders. But he is one of the few people doing something about it.

Swaniker was born in Ghana in 1976, and has lived and worked in 10 African countries. But today it’s the city of Port Louis, Mauritius, that he and his American wife Amanda call home. His elder sister is the acclaimed Ghanaian sculptor Constance Swaniker.

His CV ticks all the “corporate success” boxes: a college education in the US, a corporate career in Johannesburg, and an MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business in California. But it’s in education — and leadership — where his real passion lies.

In 2004, Swaniker launched the African Leadership Academy, a residential high school in Johannesburg aimed at fostering entrepreneurial and leadership skills. It earned him and business partner Chris Bradford an Echoing Green Fellowship, and an audience with then US president Barack Obama at the President’s Forum for Young African Leaders.

In 2015, Swaniker founded the African Leadership University (ALU), with its first campus in Mauritius. A second campus in Kigali, Rwanda, followed in 2017, and to date the ALU has enrolled more than 800 students from 40 African countries.

But the ALU isn’t just another private university filling a gap in the market. While the educational offering at the ALU campuses ranges from computing to commerce to social sciences, fostering good leadership is the thread binding them together.

“Leaders drive change; they lead people to a new future,” says Swaniker, hitting his stride. “Look at Rwanda. Twenty-four years ago it was in far worse condition than any other country in Africa. Yet go there today and it’s one of the most advanced countries on the continent. That’s down to leadership. Societies the world over are made or broken by the quality of their leaders.”

That rings particularly true in Africa, where state institutions are often too weak — or beset by cronyism — to stand up to wayward leaders.

“In Africa, good leaders make more of a difference than in the rest of the world. We need leaders who are ethical, leaders who are entrepreneurial, leaders who are hard working,” Swaniker says. “And we need leaders who realise that their role is not to enrich themselves.”

The ALU’s approach is to seek out leadership potential in the selection process, provide the opportunity for leadership in practice throughout the academic programme, and create leadership networks along the way via internships and mentorship.

“It’s potential, plus practice, plus opportunity,” Swaniker says. “When you do those things and put them together, great leaders can emerge. We don’t believe you can teach someone to be a leader. But we do believe leadership can be learned.”


So is there a leader on whom students should model themselves? What qualities of leadership have been distilled into ALU lore?

We need leaders who realise that their role is not to enrich themselves

The first lesson is that everyone has their flaws, Swaniker says, while name-dropping the usual suspects, such as Nelson Mandela and Graça Machel. “One of the things we teach our young leaders is that nobody is perfect,” he notes. “There are always some aspects of a great leader that you should leave behind.”

ALU’s educational approach also steers clear of offering conventional academic disciplines, and is instead built around what Swaniker bills as Africa’s seven Grand Challenges — everything from climate change to governance to education — and its seven Great Opportunities. “These are the sectors where Africa has been blessed,” says Swaniker, identifying the likes of agriculture, tourism, wildlife, and natural resources as areas “where we have unusual competitive advantage that we haven’t yet capitalised on.”

At the ALU students don’t declare an academic major; they declare an academic mission. “Which of these problems do you want to solve?” muses Swaniker “We’re saying, align your learning with a purpose.”

ALU’s focus on fostering leadership extends far beyond the predictable world of politics and government. In 2018, with seed funding from the late philanthropist and conservationist Jennifer Ward Oppenheimer, the ALU launched its first school of study dedicated to one of those Great Opportunities: the ALU School of Wildlife Conservation.

“Africa hasn’t yet brought a business lens to conservation,” Swaniker says. “Poverty levels in Africa are so high, that you can’t conserve wildlife just for the benefit of tourists to come and look at. If communities don’t get jobs and income from conservation, they’ll continue to destroy habitats. We want to change that approach.”

And Swaniker is just getting started, with ambitious plans for up to 200 ALU micro-campuses — one in every major city across Africa — and a goal of developing three-million leaders by 2060.

“Do Hard Things,” reads the signageat the ALU campus in Kigali. It’s aimed at the students — perhaps our future leaders — but Swaniker might just as well be speaking to himself.

• From the April edition of Wanted 2019.

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