Super-rich Africans – A source of university funding?

The latest Africa Wealth Report highlights the fact that Africa is home to a growing number of super-rich individuals who have the potential to make their mark as African philanthropists. But how close are we to an African equivalent of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation focused on higher education, scientific research and innovation?

According to figures unveiled in the April 2017 Africa Wealth Report prepared by AfrAsia Bank in Mauritius, Africa has approximately 145,000 high net worth individuals, or HNWIs, with combined wealth holdings of approximately US$800 billion. This number of HNWIs is expected to rise by 36% over the next 10 years, reaching approximately 198,000 by 2026.

According to the report there are 7,010 multimillionaires living in Africa with a total individual wealth amounting to US$2.2 trillion. The African countries with the highest number of wealthiest individuals are South Africa, Egypt, Nigeria, Kenya, Angola, Morocco, Algeria, Mauritius, Namibia and Ethiopia.

Conducive environments

While official figures relating to philanthropic support for higher education are difficult to find, the first global study to measure and compare the incentives and barriers to giving, the 2015 Index of Philanthropic Freedom, indicates that countries in North Africa have some of the least conducive environments for philanthropy and the region of Sub-Saharan Africa as a whole scores in the lower half of all regions surveyed because of restrictive environments for giving.

Recent figures from the 2016 Annual Survey of Philanthropy in Higher Education produced by the South African Institute for Advancement indicate that in 2015 trusts and foundations account for 58% of all donor income, 17% came from private sector, 8% from individual donors, including bequests, and 18% came from various agencies such as civil society and religious organisations. The report also highlighted the heavy dependence of South African universities on philanthropic income from abroad.

However, according to Mosun Layode, executive director of the African Philanthropy Forum in Nigeria, there are a growing number of HNWIs who are committed to supporting African university development, given the pivotal role of education.

"Some HNWIs are building universities that are committed to raising ethical leaders who will transform Africa, while others invest in existing universities in the areas of infrastructure development and strengthening systems to deliver higher quality education," Layode told University World News.

Individual examples of North African supporters of education include Othman Benjelloun from Morocco and Sudanese philanthropist Mo Ibrahim who supports higher education scholarships through his Foundation.

Higher education – An attractive cause

Heba Abou Shnief, research advisor at the John D Gerhart Center for Philanthropy and Civic Engagement of the School of Business at the American University in Cairo, said higher education was an attractive cause for wealthy Arabs, many of whom supported endowed chairs, fellowships, scholarships for underprivileged youth, and specific programmes.

"While there are no quantitative research studies on the trends of HNWIs’ contribution to higher education in North Africa, we can detect from media reports that prominent businessmen are either making mega-gifts or donating a sizable proportion of their fortune towards education," said Abou Shnief, who is also co-author of a 2016 report entitled Family Legacies: Wealth and philanthropy in the Arab World which reveals that the education sector in North Africa is one of the popular causes for ‘strategic philanthropy’.

African philanthropy may be growing, but the study of philanthropy at African universities is only recently gaining traction.

The Wits Business School at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, in cooperation with the Southern Africa Trust, has established the continent’s first academic Chair in African Philanthropy “as a pioneering move to take forward the study of gifting in Africa at research, education and public awareness levels”.

The initiative “aims to apply a pan-African perspective on the practice and epistemology of gifting, acquiring knowledge and developing theories, models and tools appropriate to the continent’s experience, contemporary context and needs”.

Growing philanthropy

Ideas about how to build philanthropy in Africa are many and varied.

Juma Shabani, former director of development, coordination and monitoring of UNESCO programmes with a special focus on Africa, suggested the establishment of an African scholarship fund which could be placed under the administrative supervision of the Association of African Universities located in Ghana.

"The fund should provide a mechanism for recognising the billionaires who will have contributed to it and for assessing its impact on individual beneficiaries' careers and their contributions to sustainable development in their respective countries," Shabani told University World News.

Layode said it was important to include donors in the activities of the institution because philanthropists “want to do more than write cheques”.

"It is also important to measure the impact of past and ongoing investments in an effort to tell compelling stories of how the contributions of HNWIs are transforming lives and communities as these will serve as motivation for greater commitment," Layode said.


Pointing to the importance of a conducive environment for giving, Anouar Majid, Moroccan higher education expert and vice-president for global affairs at the University of New England in the United States, said governments needed to look at tax structures and offer incentives to donors.

"African nations need to build a culture of trust, encourage patriotism, and design tax systems that encourage giving," Majid said.

"It is, however, important for universities to retain their autonomy, whether from state intrusion or from the whims of donors.

"Some major European universities are beginning to adopt the US philanthropic model which allows not-for-profit corporations, including universities and colleges, to receive tax-exempt donations," Majid said.

According to Abou Shnief, universities also need to recognise the value of donations that are not monetary.

"Beyond philanthropic funding, universities also need to tap into what we recognise in the philanthropic field as the three Ts (time, talent and treasure) as the knowledge and expertise that HNWIs can bring to higher education can be invaluable," Shnief said.


For Hilmi Salem, research professor and higher education expert, it is important for leading African universities to form an African billionaires universities' alliance in order to nurture and enhance a culture of local giving and resource mobilisation with the aim of promoting philanthropy that benefits African universities and the higher education community.

Salem said an African billionaires universities' alliance should cooperate with like-minded national, regional and global organisations such as Ghana's SDG Philanthropy Platform, the Africa Philanthropy Network, the Africa Philanthropy Support Organizations Initiative, the Arab University Alliance for Civic Engagement and Global Philanthropy Alliance along with the UK-based Centre for Philanthropy and the Australian Centre for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Studies.

Role of government

While philanthropy is obviously important for universities, it is no substitute for a vibrant, relevant and sustainable higher education ecosystem supported by national governments.

"Billionaires could play an important role in expanding higher education opportunities in Africa," said Calestous Juma, co-chair of the High Level African Panel on Emerging Technologies and director of the Science, Technology and Globalization Project at Harvard University in the United States. "But they can't be a substitute for government commitment to reforming and funding a university system that is more suited to contemporary Africa."

"Governments make policies and laws which define the path billionaires follow. But they can't abdicate their role by thinking that advancing higher education is all about the amount of funding available," Juma said.

"Billionaires won't put money in propping up outmoded educational systems but they will invest in forward-looking environments. They didn't become billionaires by being unaware of the best places to invest."