Grooming leaders to change a continent
ALA reflects the long-term mission of Fred Swaniker, ALA co-founder and executive chairman. “I developed a deep feeling for Africa growing up,” he said.
Born in Ghana, Swaniker’s father was a lawyer and his mother a teacher. “We moved to a different country every four years – Gambia, Zimbabwe and Botswana.”
Swaniker’s own schooling took place in Zimbabwe, at Chaplin School in Gweru and Christian Brothers College in Bulawayo from where he went to Macelester College, Minnesota, in the United States. He subsequently moved to Johannesburg where his work with global management consultant McKinsey and Company saw him travelling again in Africa.
“By the time I was 24 I had an identity as an African,” said Swaniker, “and I had developed a love for the continent.”
Love wasn’t blind. “I saw there was a need for better leaders and I was aware of the role of education in generating those leaders.”
From the outset Swaniker knew he wasn’t interested in education for education’s sake. “I was interested in addressing leadership issues in Africa – education was a means to an end; I wanted a different school that would create CEOs and presidents.”
After three years with McKinsey plus starting up his own biotech company, Swaniker went to Stanford Graduate School of Business in the US. “There I redeveloped my philosophy of what makes a leader. I looked at the things that had influenced me, the things I wished I had access to earlier on; the things I learned at McKinsey and Stanford.”
“I had begun working on an idea for what became ALA when I heard about Chris Bradford who was also at Stanford. ‘You'd better meet this guy,’ I was told.”
It proved a meeting of minds. “Like Fred, I was interested in promoting Africa and had a belief in human capital as the engine,” said Bradford, co-founder and CEO of ALA. “I was interested in building educational institutions and their role in transforming societies.”
Born in the US, Bradford had worked in business and had also taught economics and physics at the English independent school, Oundle. “There were a significant number of African pupils at independent schools in the UK who were placed to play a transformation role back in their home countries. But most of them didn’t go back: by sending them out of the country for their education they had been conditioned to leave. These amazing students were lost to Africa,” he said.
“That defined our mission – to impact on Africa; to create a different kind of school.”
An initial six-year programme model met with resistance from parents, said Swaniker. “We found they weren’t keen on sending a child of twelve to a new school for six years, and there were issues around boarding, the separation of sexes and religious education.”
Consequently they examined other models, including United World Colleges which offer shorter education programmes, “and we borrowed ideas that suited our aim to develop leaders”.
ALA opened its doors in 2008, its prime offering the two-year Pre-University Program aimed at 16 to 19 year-old students.
Three courses are offered in the programme: writing and rhetoric, African studies and entrepreneurial leadership – which involves building and running an enterprise – while many students also do Cambridge A-levels.
“Sixty per cent of our courses are internally developed and designed,” said Bradford. “We found that simply doing A-levels didn’t necessarily prepare students for university so rather than rely on external auditing, we created our own courses.”
“As well as our three ALA courses, students are expected to take maths and two electives – that’s the A-levels. Some don’t and that can be a problem for entry with some universities but many US universities deem our internal courses to be university preparatory.”
The African studies course has one key goal according to Swaniker: “You have to understand Africa if you are going to live and work here. Previously at school you learned the history of your home country and that of the colonial power. I remember being taught about the Franco-Prussian war and the British parliament, but at ALA you get African history and politics. It opens people’s minds. They learn about the mistakes and challenges for the future.”
African studies achieves two things, said Bradford, “firstly an understanding and knowledge of the continent the students live in and, secondly, the question of their own identity as Africans: what does it mean to be an African? Who is an African?”
Thandie Ramme from Botswana, now in her second year at ALA, remembers the topic vividly. “On the subject ‘Who is an African’ I found myself in the most heated argument I’ve ever been in!”
“There were many different points of view – ‘Africans are of the blood’, ‘Africans are of the soil’ – but it boiled down to when is it okay to say ‘I’m African’? Personally, I think someone can call themselves African even if they were not born here, if they have lived here and done good things for the love of Africa, then they are African for reasons of the heart.”
Ramme welcomed the exposure to other viewpoints on offer at ALA. “You get a perspective on the continent as a whole; a feeling and understanding you get from mixing with people of other countries. I never thought about other countries before, except as maybe places to go on holiday.”
“Now I have the identity of an African. Before it was ‘me, me, me’ – I’d study overseas and come back if the price was right. Now I’ll definitely come back and with a definite plan for my country.”
“You get a sense of responsibility from coming here. The mission of the school goes beyond you.”
These sentiments were echoed by South African ALA alumnus Lillian Maboya. “ALA enabled me to identify myself as an African. And the real plus was to develop a sense of Pan-Africanism, to look beyond your own country.”
Maboya graduated from ALA in 2011 and is now working in renewable energies for General Electric in Johannesburg. “ALA gave me courage. At school the smart kids were expected to go into engineering or medicine. But I was interested in environmental sciences, but environmental stuff was considered average – for the C stream kids.
“ALA gave me the courage to follow a different career; follow your passion and you get work.”
ALA also helped Maboya develop her entrepreneurial mind-set. “ALA taught me to apply entrepreneurial thinking to any scenario. As a practical exercise we did a ‘Grow Green’ agricultural project. I led 10 people from different countries, of different religions, and each with their own idea of what a leader was. But we produced results. Now I have the confidence to be part of an organisation or start a business on my own.”
From ALA Maboya went on to the University of Cape Town to do a BSc in environmental and geographical sciences and in her first year got an internship thanks to ALA support networks.
Networking is a vital component to leadership, said Swaniker. “No matter whether you have the skills, you’ll get nowhere unless you have access to networks, capital, mentors and collaborators.”
Several programmes at ALA are focused on this, including the Global Scholars Program, the Model African Union and the Africa Careers Network.
Competition for entry to ALA is fierce, with thousands of applicants from all over the continent for the 130 places available annually.
“Success in getting here is not a reward for past performance,” said Bradford, “but an investment for future potential. The students we identify are those with the most promise; not those ranked the highest in their schools. We are looking for students who step beyond the status quo and are prepared to author their own future.”
Applicants are selected regardless of socio-economic background and purely on their leadership potential, commitment to Africa and academic excellence. But if they need financial support it is offered in the form of a forgivable loan conditional on them committing to working on the African continent for 10 years.
“It’s not a gift, they pay it back by working on the continent in some capacity and then the loan is written off or forgiven. If they don’t then an arrangement is made for them to pay back the loan,” said Faith Abiodun, ALA communications associate.
There are also a number of donors who provide assistance, including the WK Kellogg Foundation, The MasterCard Foundation – which favours underprivileged students from Africa and also has a focus on leadership development on the continent – and the Robertson Foundation.
To date ALA remains the continent’s only pan-African secondary school and has admitted more than 700 students from over 45 African countries with an annual student body of around 200.
It has built strong relationships and partnerships with universities, particularly in the US, and this has paid off in its students getting scholarships, according to Abiodun. “Among these universities are Yale, Tufts and Stanford. Rochester and Notre Dame are probably among our strongest partners and they are both committed to developing leadership in Africa,” she said.
Swaniker has gone on to extend the ALA vision by founding the African Leadership University in Mauritius, which opened in 2015, and is about to open a second campus in Rwanda, the second of an envisaged 25 campuses.
This is evidence that eight years on “ALA has evolved in ways we would never have imagined”, said Bradford. “There are so many programmes, much richer courses. As to ALA’s impact? That’s difficult to gauge – it’s a 100-year project.”
According to Swaniker, one indicator of ALA’s impact is that 70% of ALA students who have finished university overseas are returning to Africa.
Adds Bradford: “Most of those who didn’t are in graduate programmes so, when it comes to our mission to contribute to Africa, we’ve got that right.”