Why Africa's young thinkers are headed to prestigious US colleges

One academy is helping talented young Africans go to colleges like Harvard with the hope that the students will return to help drive Africa’s political and economic development.

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    William Kamkwamba built a windmill at the age of 14 to provide energy for his family in Malawi. He graduated from the African Leadership Academy in Johannesburg in June.
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Among the students at America's prestigious colleges this fall are young Africans who have had a hand in changing national legislation in Kenya, synthesizing fuel from natural waste, and building a windmill to generate electricity in Malawi.

They're the first graduates of the African Leadership Academy (ALA) in Johannesburg, which has drawn students from more than 30 African nations and sent its graduates to study all over Europe and North America – all with an eye, ultimately, to bolstering the ranks of professionals who can drive Africa's political and economic development.

For 19-year-old Joseph Munyanbanza, the contrast could scarcely be greater between the crowded refugee camp in Uganda where he grew up and the rolling lawns framing the brick buildings in Johannesburg where he studied for the past two years as a member of the Academy's first class of some 100 students.

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At age 6, he fled to the camp with his older brother to escape civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo – then Zaire – eventually reuniting with his parents. He had no shoes, and read by a fire at night to augment his makeshift studies.

Mr. Munyanbanza says the two primary schools in the camp were ill-equipped, and the teachers underpaid and unmotivated. So he tutored younger children and obtained funding to build a primary school. "The success created another big problem," he says, "because they wanted to go to high school – but there wasn't one in the camp."

Munyanbanza discovered a secondary school in a neighboring town that didn't charge fees, and rented a house for the kids so they could continue studying. He points out with pride that they have since come out with some of the highest test results in the area.

Africa's young thinkers

The students at ALA were recruited for demonstrating extraordinary leadership at a young age in science, social activism, and politics.

As a member of the Children's Parliament in Kenya, for example, Tabitha Tongoi helped lobby the government to provide designated train carriages for children traveling to school, to prevent them from being squeezed out by adults. They would no longer be forced to sit on the roof or walk miles to school.

William Kamkwamba built a windmill at the age of 14 to provide energy for his family in Malawi. Last year, he appeared on the US comedy program The Daily Show after his memoir, "The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind," became an international bestseller.

The school hopes to build on this talent and create 6,000 leaders over the next 50 years, teaching them courses in ethics, politics, and entrepreneurship as well as offering college preparatory courses.

Last June, during the graduation ceremony, students mounted the stage in the large auditorium to unveil projects to the excited applause of friends and family. Graduates have developed a student online banking system, a math program on DVD, and a face cream that repels mosquitoes, to combat malaria.

Spencer Horne, a 19-year-old South African, explains what he's working on: a digester – a kind of compost machine – for a school kitchen. "It breaks down waste and turns it into methane gas, along with other by-products which can be used as fertilizer afterwards," he says. "Once it's complete we'd like to see [the school] cutting down the cost they're currently spending on gas for cooking."

With the ALA in its third year, donations – and the number of applicants – are on the rise. Most students are on a scholarship, which puts the $25,000 tuition within reach of the majority of Africans who earn less than $2 a day. Alumni who fail to return to work in Africa for 10 years or more after university must repay the scholarship.

Stemming 'brain drain'

The academy hopes to stem "brain drain," where thousands of professionals leave the continent for job opportunities and higher pay every year. Large numbers of African doctors and nurses work in Europe, the United States, and Canada.

But Mr. Horne, who is now studying engineering at Harvard University, doesn't imagine he'll be tempted to stay away from Africa any longer than necessary.

"It's true, I could probably walk into an easy job after graduating and make lots of money immediately," he says, displaying no lack of confidence. "But I think I'd derive a lot more satisfaction from being involved directly [working in Africa], from innovation and helping out."

It's hoped these "future leaders" will maintain the momentum of Africa's development over the past decade, where economies have grown on average by more than 5 percent – far outpacing advanced economies. And with some infamous exceptions, more free and fair elections are being held on a continent that is increasingly politically stable.

Improvements in Africa will remain patchy however, says Mr. Swaniker, unless donors and investors shift from short-term aid to training and education.

"We can spend millions of dollars treating the refugees that come out of a war, but that won't stop until we have leaders who don't go to war in the first place," he says.

"The investments we're asking people to make in these leaders is to stop these problems once and for all."

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