Fred Swaniker has been on a roll over these last two months.  Last week he was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Important People in the World.  And last month, the organization he founded, African Leadership University, was named one of the 50 Most Innovative Companies in the world by Fast Company Magazine.

Fred Swaniker
Fred Swaniker. Photo by Andile Buka

Swaniker, a graduate of Macalester College and Stanford University in the USA, is on a mission to help Africa fulfill the potential that comes with being the most youthful continent in the world (over half of the population is under age 25) combined with possessing a significant portion of the world’s most valuable natural resources.

Swaniker successfully launched the African Leadership Academy eleven years ago. This pan-African high school located in South Africa attracts the best and the brightest from across the continent, and its college placement record reads like every parent’s dream: Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Yale, Princeton, etc. Despite the global recognition of the fine work he does in recruiting and educating Africa’s “talented tenth,” Swaniker was not happy that these brilliant young minds were leaving the continent behind to pursue their higher education.  Swaniker’s response? Build the Harvard, Oxford and Cambridge of Africa. Sound ambitious? If anyone can do it, it is Swaniker.

Over the last four years he has launched three African Leadership Universities in Mauritius, Rwanda and Kenya.  The universities have reinvented tertiary education for the new millennium. They have also reinvested the university concept for a uniquely African context.  For example, African Leadership Universities are focused not on broad subjects such as arts and culture, or even STEM, but on the high level skills required for success in the twenty-first century, such as leadership skills, critical thinking, problem solving, and understanding global cultures.  

alu logo

African Leadership Universities have disrupted the traditional balance of power in the university upside down by making the experience student-centric instead of professor-centric.  Swaniker has examined what has changed over the last several hundred years in university development, and designed a university that takes advantage of technology and the proliferation of information that was not so readily available in the past.  With the internet making straight factual information so accessible, the role of the professor and the traditional text book is diminished. Hence, Swaniker’s educational philosophy involves self-directed student learning and students learning from one another, a cornerstone of Stanford University’s MBA programme from which Swaniker graduated.

Instead of presenting students with a backwards focused menu of subject areas from which to choose, students define the global challenge that they wish to address in the future.  One student is looking at urbanization, and the challenges that Africa’s rapid urbanization will create over the next few decades. This means that the student must master concepts in housing, education, public health, resource management, etc.  Students are also then required to intern within an organization that addresses their area of concern, which provides a pragmatic validation of the academic area of interest. Students then return to the classroom with real world understanding of their area of interest, and can re-calibrate their understanding of the subject matter accordingly, including the effectiveness of their approach to solving this challenge.

Photo: ALU

Swaniker says of the ALU approach,

“We live in a world where information is ubiquitous. Students can curate their own learning experiences. They decide what online courses they want to take related to [their mission]. They go out and interview experts, build prototypes, do experiments, shadow professionals, read books, and publish a thesis.”

One of the critical values embraced by ALU and its students is the concept of ownership.  ALU students must own their education and own their opportunities. The university teaches students that in life, no one is going to provide opportunities to them on a silver platter.  They must learn to create a world in which they seek to live.

Among the benefits of an ALU education is that graduates are highly employable. Employment is top of mind to ALU, and hence the curriculum encompasses internships, job shadowing, and a focus on skills such as leadership which all contribute to making its graduates competitive within the African labor force.  It’s not hard to imagine how an employer would respond to an ALU graduate compared to the graduate of a more traditional institution: the ALU graduate already has practical work experience, as well as a set of skills valued highly in the workplace, such as critical thinking and problem solving.

“We don’t have to replicate what’s not working in other parts of the world.”

Swaniker sums up the ALU approach nicely with this quote: “We don’t have to replicate what’s not working in other parts of the world.”   And indeed, ALU is not replicating anything, but creating, and creating an educational model which is being designed for Africa and Africa’s unique opportunities and challenges.  And it is for these reasons that ALU was named one of the 50 most innovative organizations in the world, and Swaniker was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world.

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