African Leadership Academy celebrates 10-year milestone

“When you leave here the idea is not that you will get a job, but that you will create a job,” said 19-year-old James Sloane from Cape Town, a first-year student at the African Leadership Academy in Johannesburg, South Africa. What he says perfectly encapsulates the entrepreneurial spirit that the academy seeks to develop and send forth into Africa.

The African Leadership Academy (ALA), currently celebrating its 10th birthday since opening its doors in 2008, embodies the vision of its co-founder and executive chairperson, Fred Swaniker, who admits to having never been interested in education for education’s sake but wanting to address leadership issues in Africa. “Education was a means to an end; I wanted a different school that would create CEOs and presidents,” he told University World News in 2016.

A vision shared by ALA co-founder and CEO Chris Bradford who was fascinated by the role of educational institutions in transforming societies. “That defined our mission – to impact on Africa; to create a different kind of school,” he told University World News in 2016.

ALA’s prime offering is a two-year Pre-University Diploma Program aimed at 16- to 19-year-old students and comprising courses on entrepreneurial leadership (which involves creating and running an enterprise), African studies, writing and rhetoric, and the Cambridge A levels.

To date, ALA, the continent’s only pan-African secondary school, has admitted nearly 1,000 students from 46 African countries and has an annual student body of around 200 with 50:50 gender parity. Students are selected on a needs-blind basis and almost all ALA students require some degree of financial support.

Ninety percent of ALA alumni go on to study at universities, mainly in the United States and Europe, and of those 70% return to Africa or have worked full-time in Africa after completing their studies, while 90% are actively engaged in work or projects in Africa.

10-year anniversary

To mark its 10-year milestone ALA held a two-day decennial celebration on 23 and 24 February. The second day was devoted to a symposium, “Reimagining Africa’s Future”, fielding an impressive array of speakers including Muhammad Sanusi II, Emir of Kano; Trevor Manuel, South African politician and chairperson of Old Mutual; Reeta Roy, president and CEO of the MasterCard Foundation; and Graça Machel, humanitarian and widow of Nelson Mandela.

The previous day the ALA campus opened its doors for donors and guests to experience a “Day in the Life at ALA”, shadowing students through their classes and learning how ALA cultivates young leaders such as Tino Chinamora from Zimbabwe and Jesse Solomon from Kenya, both 18-year-old second-year students who created Fund.Ed as their entrepreneurial project in the Student Enterprise Program.

Chinamora and Solomon identified students from low-income backgrounds as the ultimate recipients of their student enterprise.

“Even if you are sponsored financially, either partially or fully, to come to ALA there are still sundry extra expenses and you have to come up with more than you can afford,” said Chinamora. “You find there is more than you bargained for – A level entry fees, registration fees; small things, but they all add up. So we came up with a student enterprise to assist those students who can’t make ends meet.”

Their proposed enterprise was then scrutinised to assess its practicality. Among other things, a student enterprise should take on a life of its own so it can be handed on to others to run after the originators have graduated. Once an enterprise is greenlighted, the next step is to test its viability with a pilot project.

Chinamora and Solomon planned to raise R10,000 with their pilot project and the ALA student government allocated them R3,000, of which they invested R1,500 to earn interest while the rest went on start-up costs. They connected with a local fashion company to import colourful Maasai shuka blankets from Kenya to sell in the ALA campus shop. They made a 50% profit resulting in a first payment of R4,500 to Fund.Ed, in turn passed on to the ALA finance department for distribution.

“We are now looking for investors and reaching out to other donors,” said Solomon.

The leadership and entrepreneurial emphasis at ALA can be intense. “This place really challenges you,” said Solomon. “But it also teaches you to be you. To be authentically yourself.”

Solomon will be going on to university to study either economics or engineering and thereafter would like to create an entity addressing social issues such as domestic violence. Chinamora has been accepted to study aerospace engineering at Princeton University in the United States.

Anzisha Prize

Partnering with the MasterCard Foundation, ALA has extended its entrepreneurial vision with the creation of the annual Anzisha Prize. Initiated in 2011, it is now Africa’s premier award for young entrepreneurs aged between 15 and 22.

“The prize was born out of ALA and is part of ALA’s long-term vision to address Africa’s economic crisis,” said Sihle Magubane, Anzisha Prize Program Ecosystem Engagement Associate. “It’s time for young leaders to start making an impact. The prize provides a supporting ecosystem and a support network of fellows.”

Each year 15 Anzisha Prize finalists become lifelong Anzisha fellows and receive ongoing business-consulting support and access to experts and networking opportunities to grow their business. The prize also includes an all-expenses paid trip to South Africa to attend a 10-day accelerator camp and conference at ALA. Competition is fierce for the 15 prize-winning positions; last year there were 800 applicants.

To be eligible for the award, Anzisha Prize applicants must be running an existing business. At the time of winning the prize in 2013 at the age of 22, Kolawole Olajide headed up Funda, an online learning management system used by several universities in South Africa.

A Nigerian based in Johannesburg and now 26, Olajide has since founded Clock Education, which offers ‘holistic’ learning experiences via an online platform, enabling students to access course content, monitor their performance, get feedback from their teachers and interact with their peers. “It’s been going for three years now and has a global footprint,” said Olajide.

Winning an Anzisha Prize was a game changer. “It opened everything up,” said Olajide. “I was partnered with people willing to guide me. I was able to tap into support programmes that grew the business, as well as receive training in how to speak to potential investors, how to prepare for business sessions and how to make pitches.”

Lifelong learning and support

“As a fellow you can tap into this all the time – it provides lifelong learning and support. The Anzisha fellowship feels like you’ve joined a family.”

Twenty-one year-old Mayemu Lambani from Makhado in South Africa’s Limpopo province, an Anzisha Prize winner in 2017, runs her own digital marketing agency, Fearless Trendz, aimed at growing local businesses using social media.

Lambani’s first client was a soft drink and mineral water company in Makhado who were successfully selling their products into the Johannesburg market but had poor sales penetration locally. Lambani said she could turn this around and was given a mere R600 and a three-month contract. It proved to be her breakthrough opportunity.

“I looked at their existing marketing and realised the product was not seen as a classy one. I changed that perception and designed a campaign that connected with local people using local languages, such as Venda, Tsonga and Afrikaans. Sales went up 40%.”

Lambani has since built up her client base and after becoming an Anzisha fellow has moved to Johannesburg, South Africa’s economic hub. “Winning the fellowship and coming to Johannesburg have exposed me to people in the right space and to bigger paying clients. But I’ll never let my first client go.”

One of ALA’s founding beliefs is to “create lasting positive change”, and to do so it created a leadership development model seeking “to transform Africa by identifying, developing and connecting its future leaders”, combing the continent “for youth who have shown the spark of initiative, who see what can be and strive to make it so.”

These beliefs have been successfully applied, tried and tested over the last 10 years.