Fred Swaniker: The thinking behind ‘audacious’ African Leadership University, and how Africa can design its future

Africa is rising, and so are its fortunes. We should seize this opportunity to plan for our future. Rethinking education must be at the heart of this.

TWO years ago, when I began building the African Leadership University (ALU)  and was wondering where I could set up a flagship campus, an acquaintance mentioned that I should look no further than Mauritius. The government’s commitment to creating a world-class hub for scientific and academic pursuits there was reflected clearly in policy decisions and I saw, in this trailblazing intent, an opportunity to join a growing revolution.

A campus in Rwanda now follows. We’ve recently received accreditation from the country’s Higher Education Council  (HEC) to set up in Kigali. Rwanda will also be the site of our first pan-African professional school, the ALU School of Business, institutional home of our first postgraduate course, ALU MBA, in addition to a number of undergraduate programmes already offered in Mauritius. We have an audacious ambition, to train three million African leaders by the year 2066, via a network of 25 campuses across Africa each with at least 10,000 students actively enrolled.

A great number of collaborations must occur to see this vision to reality. From students and their families, headmasters all the way up to policymakers and decision-takers at every level. Grand ambition requires adequate machinery to support it with ample synergy in between. In that way, powerful and impactful institutions breed even stronger institutions.

Our experience in Rwanda and Mauritius echo this, where an efficient bureaucracy in each along with forward-thinking policy on higher education has allowed us to set up what, I believe, are branches of the university of the future.  For example, the HEC in Rwanda is committed, in its own words, to “facilitate a culture which supports the production of scholarship, research, innovation and knowledge transfer to meet the social and economic needs of the country”. Mauritius, a small country with big ambition, has a national strategy to “transform into a knowledge hub and a centre of higher learning”.

‘Revolutionary position’

That, in and of itself, is a revolutionary stance for any government to take on education. Positioning national strategy with education is the way of the future. African governments need to follow suit, if they are to take advantage of the enthusiasm of the African century. Demography is destiny. A considerably young population will take over the reins of the economy resulting in trends of greater prosperity; high incomes, more savings coupled with economic and political stability.

Africa, the numbers predict, will host the world’s workforce by 2030. Already the continent is in the midst of a population boom which is expected to rise to 2.5 billion by the year 2050. Analysts studying these trends predict a demographic dividend that, only if certain investments in policy and education are made, will change the tides of the continent making the African Century possible.

This where our work at the African Leadership University will be most prominent. As an organisation we can only touch a segment of this young and promising population but we can do so efficiently and at scale.  We want to multiply the consequences of a highly educated, highly productive and dynamic workforce who will add tremendous value not only in the companies where they’ll work for but the continent’s economy as a whole. They will be the leaders of the coming generation and they will guarantee the African century. We just have to give them the tools to succeed.

Idea seemed far-fetched

The tiny Gulf nation of Qatar provides a noteworthy allegory. In the 1990s, there was a major discovery of crude oil offshore in Al Rayyan, in the arid north. The country’s leadership decided to do something extraordinary with the profits - they started building universities. The entire country sits on a peninsula jutting out on to the Arabian Gulf, surrounded by wealthier, more influential neighbours: Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates - the idea of reinventing themselves as a globally respected hub for culture and academia seemed far-fetched and, at the time, unheard of in the region.


Qatar used its petro-dollars to transform its educational landscape, attracting top-tier universities. Map/Google

Across the Gulf, investment traditionally flowed from the oil industry into real estate and banking eventually trickling down to other parts of the economy. The Qataris wanted to break this cycle of dependency and, at the same time, they wanted to invest in people, who would, in time, invest in them.

Hence, the Qatar Foundation was established in the capital, Doha, in 1995. Then the first of its kind in the Gulf, the 2,400 acre, multi-campus complex has made a mark on the scholastic and economic life of the country. Top-tier universities from around the world have opened shop there: Carnegie Mellon, Cornell, Georgetown University and University College London. In just under two decades, Doha established itself as a scientific and cultural capital with an international reputation.

However, the greatest triumph of the Qatar Foundation is that it attracted of some of the world’s most capable minds to its gates. Students, academics and researchers from a number of fields and specialisations have found a space to grow and create in Qatar. International students within the country average around 6,000 per year  and come from close to 85 countries. Over 58% of them are women, in proportion, that is one of the highest female enrollment rates in the world.

Creating the climate and infrastructure that make an education hub possible, as Qatar has done, is the challenge Africa now faces. The consequences, as I have highlighted, are far-reaching both in terms of geography and demography. Inaction on this front, might lead to a dismal future, one in which our young people are disempowered and unequipped to take the continent forward.

The pertinence of this moment in history is huge. We must begin the African Century today, there is no time to lose.

Fred Swaniker is the Founder of African Leadership University (ALU), based in Mauritius. ALU aims to train 3 million African leaders over the next five decades, and will offer African students a unique opportunity to study in multiple countries across the continent.

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