Meet The Man Who’s Shaping Africa’s Future – Fred Swaniker

Fred Swaniker

VENTURES AFRICA – Just like the great American civil right activist Martin Luther King Jnr. had a dream of an equal social existence, so did Ghanaian-born entrepreneur, Fred Swaniker, dream to build a Pan-African school that will position the new generation of African youth towards prosperity in future years. His mission was to give the African child a network of successful peers to tap for job opportunities, mentoring and career guidance.

Fred’s dream in reality is what is today known as African Leadership Academy (ALA), a prestigious school in Johannesburg, South Africa, that equip some of the most talented African youngsters from all African nations.

Nurturing relationships with over 2,500 educational institutions across the continent to identify the most suitable candidates to fulfil these roles, students of the school are handpicked while the U.N helps to locate individuals of high potential from various refugee camps. This rigorous selection process is designed to single out not only the brightest students from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds, but also those who have shown strong tendencies towards initiative, communication and leadership.

With the vision of creating up to 6,000 new leaders for Africa through the ALA’s leadership program in the next 50 years, Swaniker’s dream to build African Leadership Academy (ALA) was conceptualised while he was working and living in Nigeria on a microfinance project in 2003. He contemplated that parents spend as much as $50,000 to send their kids to top schools in the United Kingdom.

While he was narrating his vision on the ALA institution, Swaniker said he asked the question “what will it take to make Africa prosper?” and according to him, he realised that “those societies (that) had come to enjoy widespread peace and prosperity… had come to prosper because people in those societies had developed important new ideas – (some of them simple, some of them revolutionary) – and implemented these ideas.” He believes that for Africa to sustain and accelerate development, it must be more systematic about cultivating these leaders.

“We must be proactive about increasing the number of individuals who can conceive important new ideas and implement them.”

He later founded ALA alongside Chris Bradford, Peter Mombaur, and Acha Leke, in 2004 but the institution was officially opened in September 2008 with an initial class of ninety-seven students.

However, before ALA was launched, Swaniker had worked with various organisations and has attended several institutions which nurtured him to create ALA.

Swaniker has lived in four countries in Africa before the age of 18 including Gambia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe. As an adult, he has worked in Nigeria, Ghana, Tanzania and South Africa. At just 17 years old, and on a gap year before beginning university, he was appointed headmaster of a school in Botswana. He says the practical knowledge he gained in his time there gave him the confidence necessary to achieve success later on in his career and in setting up ALA.

He had established Global Leadership Adventures, a leadership development program for youth throughout the world which has about five campuses around the globe (Ghana, South Africa, India, Brazil, and Costa Rica). He also helped to launch Mount Pleasant English Medium School, one of the top-performing private elementary schools in Botswana where he served as a director.

Swaniker has worked as the founding Chief Operating Officer of Synexa Life Sciences, a biotechnology company in Cape Town that today employs 30 South African scientists. He also worked in McKinsey & Company, where he advised management teams of large companies across Africa. To gain more knowledge, he went to a business school at Stanford University; there, he was named an Arjay Miller Scholar, a distinction awarded to the top ten percent of each graduating class. Swaniker also holds a BA degree magna cum laude from Macalester College.

It was during his stay at Stanford that he decided to launch ALA. But he had a challenge – his current employer then, McKinsey, paid his $124,000 tuition with the condition that he return to work after graduating.

To achieve his dream, Swaniker decided to delegate his idea of starting a school by taking nine-month leave of absence from McKinsey with the intention of hiring someone else to launch his school. Instead, in October 2004 he ended up quitting McKinsey and was committed to pay back the full $124,000 tuition credit to his former employer. “I realised I couldn’t outsource my dream,” he said.

Coincidentally, his first backers were two managers from McKinsey. He used their funds, in part, to pay off his debts to the company.

He later sought the help of his mum, Edna Wilhermina Swaniker, an educator for 29 years, who had started a school in Botswana. But his mum was not as pleased with the idea as he thought. She didn’t speak to Fred for nine months after he told her of his plans. But in the summer of 2005, his mother relented and began giving him pieces of what would total a $100,000 donation to help employ workers.

Swaniker launched ALA with $4 million in donations from Cisco Systems, former Hewlett-Packard Chief, Carly Fiorina, Intuit co-founder Scott Cook, former Cisco Systems CEO John Morgridge, Stanford professor Irv Grousbeck and Derek Schrier of San Francisco hedge fund Farallon, among others. He later purchased a 20-acre former printing plant, which would become the site of ALA, and hired 20 teachers from top schools around the globe.

In its first year alone, ALA received an astonishing 1,700 applications for 104 spots, making his school more competitive than Harvard or Stanford, which has 7.1 percent and 9.5 percent admission rates, respectively. Every year, the school gets about 3000 applications, the largest group comes from Nigeria with about 700 applications.

The serial entrepreneur explained that ALA tasks students with starting their own businesses and working closely with the local communities situated around the school. They are also taught about the roles of CEOs and CFOs as well as other senior positions within business, politics and industry. This, he says, helps prepare them for a future at the very top of the society, whilst equipping them with the skills “to do something much bigger for the continent” in the future.

To achieve this goal, ALA teaches a two-year curriculum in African studies, leadership and entrepreneurship, as well as the usual academic core subjects. All its faculty members are graduates from universities; most notably Harvard, Yale, Cambridge and Stanford; and have previously taught at leading institutions. The Academy’s Board of Advisors is composed of African and global luminaries in business, leadership development, secondary education, and social entrepreneurship.

ALA is trying to create leaders in all segments of the society; including leaders in science and technology, business, politics and entrepreneurs who can create the millions of jobs that is needed on the continent.

“Africa won’t come out of poverty unless we become entrepreneurs. But we still cling to our colonial legacy, where you aspire to (a) comfortable, secure civil job,” says Swaniker.

In 2006, Swaniker was recognised alongside ALA co-founder, Bradford, as one of the 15 best emerging social entrepreneurs in the world, by Echoing Green. He has also been recognised by the World Economic Forum (WEF) as a Young Global Leader, and was listed on Forbes’ list of top ten young ‘power men’ in Africa in 2011.

Swaniker was chosen as one of 25 TED Fellows in 2009 and is a Fellow of the Aspen Institute’s Global Leadership Network. He was one of 115 young leaders selected to meet President Obama at the first-ever President’s Forum for Young African Leaders in 2010.