Growing The Next Generation Of African Entrepreneurs

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Written by Steven J. Smith

Ghanaian-born Fred Swaniker, co-founder and CEO of the African Leadership Academy, believes educating Africa’s children is the key to meeting the continent’s myriad challenges.

Opened in 2008 on the grounds of a former printing training college in Johannesburg, South Africa, the leadership academy offers two-year programs in entrepreneurial leadership and African studies to students age 15 to 19. A full 85 percent of the academy’s students come from disadvantaged backgrounds across the continent.

The academy’s goal is to ensure that every graduate attains the skills necessary to succeed as a leader on the African continent. The school does this by identifying young leaders with potential, enabling them to practice leadership, and connecting them with transformative opportunities.

“There are about 400 million Africans below the age of 15 that have not been educated properly,” Swaniker said. “That’s a ticking timebomb.”

Swaniker, 34, left Ghana at the tender age of 4. His father was a lawyer and his mother, an educator. Every four years the family moved to a new African country — Gambia, Botswana, Zimbabwe — and he says he realized a lack of competent, ethical leadership was the main reason the continent was so poor.

“When I was 18 years old, I took a gap year before university, and during this time I was asked to step up and take on the role of headmaster of the school where my mother taught,” he said. “This experience instilled in me the importance of having the opportunity to put leadership into practice at a young age. I believe that leaders learn by doing.”

Swaniker studied economics at Macalester College, a private liberal arts college in St. Paul, Minn., before earning his MBA at Stanford University. It was there he decided to launch his African academy, which he co-founded with Chris Bradford.

“Chris and I set our mission as an organization to develop the next generation of entrepreneurial African leaders for Africa,” Swaniker said. “We work towards this goal by identifying leaders from across the continent who have demonstrated academic achievement, leadership potential, entrepreneurial spirit, passion for Africa, and commitment to service.”

Initial funding for the academy came from friends and family, but that lasted only few months.

Swaniker never stopped believing in his dream, however, and little by little began receiving funding from acquaintances who introduced him into more well-heeled networks across Africa — and the world.

To date, he said he has secured more than $40 million from nearly 3,000 donors consisting of individuals, family foundations and corporations, primarily from the U.S. and across Africa. That money has gone into the purchase of the academy’s campus and to provide scholarships for young leaders groomed at the academy.

The investment is paying off.

“We have countless success stories of our young leaders,” Swaniker said. “In broad statistics, the total scholarships to attend university granted to our three graduating cohorts exceeds $30 million. ALA’s third cohort of young leaders accepted $15 million in scholarship funding in 2012. ALA students attend every Ivy League university across the U.S.”

Swaniker believes the best is yet to come for his school. He said his team has just finished putting together a strategic plan to flesh out how ALA will look in five years, identifying three key priorities: establishing financial stability from sources other than donors, refining the program to ensure graduates provide a lifetime of leadership on the African continent, and placing special emphasis on attracting, retaining, and developing academic staff while improving facilities, information technology, and financial systems.

“It is crucial to remember that ALA is more than a school,” he said. “We are a leadership institution with a lifelong commitment to our young leaders.”