Stepping into Africa's future

Nozipho Dlamini was lucky enough to land a spot at a technical college, studying marketing, after she graduated from high school. It was always a struggle, though. She couldn't afford books and tuition fees. Finally, she had to drop out.

It is a common problem among bright students living in the sprawling urban townships and impoverished rural areas of South Africa. With few job prospects, Ms. Dlamini could have gone home to languish in her impoverished town in the KwaZulu-Natal Province, as many youths do. Instead, she ended up at the CIDA University.

Now a first-year student, surrounded by a group of friends in the university canteen, Dlamini sounds almost grateful for her previous misfortunes. "I don't have to buy books, I don't have to pay for anything," she says. "I enjoy being here to the fullest. It's a home."

To its supporters, the Community and Individual Development Association (CIDA) University represents nothing less than a revolution - a grand experiment in higher education. Founded in 1999 by four Johannesburg businessmen, it is a virtually free university that operates on a shoestring, largely through corporate support. The goal is to mold motivated students from the country's poorest and most marginalized communities into a new generation of African business leaders and high-powered entrepreneurs who will spread knowledge and prosperity across the continent.

In short, it is an institution created for students just like Dlamini.

In the mid-1990s, CIDA's four co-founders were teaching meditation skills to high school students in the township of Alexandra. The students, who worked hard to graduate, often couldn't find jobs or afford university after leaving school, says CEO and co-founder Taddy Blecher.

It is a dilemma heightened by the legacy of apartheid in South Africa. While decades of deliberately inferior education once barred most blacks from all but menial, low-paying jobs, many young South Africans still find themselves trapped in poverty, held back by poor education and lack of opportunity. South Africa's unemployment rate is more than 40 percent.

Only about 9 percent of South Africans attend university. Of those that do, 85 percent either drop out or fail, often because of financial problems.

"If we want to create meaning- ful economic improvement in South Africa and Africa as a whole, there is no way other than developing our people with all aspects of knowledge," Mr. Blecher says. "We wanted to create a university that could get education to everybody everywhere."

Back in 1999, Blecher and his colleagues, Conrad Mhlongo, Mburu Gitonga, and Richard Peycke, had no textbooks, no professors, and no computers. Not even a building or a phone. Nevertheless, Blecher, an energetic 36-year-old who had been working as an international management consultant, set to work, contacting rural schools around the country to recruit students, and persuading previous employers and colleagues to donate buildings, equipment, and their own time.

Today 1,600 students, all of them from disadvantaged backgrounds, are earning business degrees at a fraction of the normal cost. All are supported by scholarships, often financed by top South African corporations. Many have also landed internships with these companies. The benefit is mutual: While students gain valuable connections and work experience, corporations needing to transform their demographics gain access to a pool of emerging black talent.

"We see it as sort of an incubator for the talented leaders of the future," says Galia Durbach, an executive with First National Bank of South Africa, which donated a building to CIDA and also gives $500,000 per year.

On a continent where only 3 percent of people have a degree, CIDA offers a low-cost, innovative model for spurring economic development, Blecher says. "We could have hundreds of these institutions throughout Africa educating people," he says.

Indeed, the concept has drawn accolades from South African President Thabo Mbeki, and from business gurus like Suze Orman and Tom Peters. CIDA was designated by the Commonwealth Secretariat as a Regional Center of Excellence in Higher Education. And last year, Blecher received a Global Leader for Tomorrow Award from the World Economic Forum for his work to establish the university. Among CIDA students, the desire to learn and succeed has so far proved strong. At least three-quarters of students are passing their coursework. Those enrolled in an advanced special investments and asset management course recently performed three times better than average on a national qualifying exam, Blecher says. Others have won music competitions, cycling races, and soccer championships.

Many students come from illiterate families where nobody has ever held a bank account, let alone a university degree. From the time they arrive in Africa's teeming commercial hub, however, they are expected to step into the roles of young entrepreneurs and executives.

CIDA's campus is a gleaming corporate high-rise in the heart of Johannesburg's reviving downtown, which was donated by Investec Limited. The lecturers are all business experts who volunteer their time. Students spend nine hours each day in class, and as another cost-cutting measure, they are also the ones responsible for running the campus. They sweep floors, answer phones, maintain computer equipment, and staff the canteen.

There are other unique elements to student life at CIDA as well. Students are all taught transcendental meditation to relieve stress and improve focus. Men and women are educated separately. Business attire is mandatory.

It all has to do with creating an environment of professionalism, Blecher says. On Fridays, students unable to afford more formal clothes can rummage through bags of secondhand clothing donated by corporate sponsors. They can also receive driving lessons. To raise extra cash, many have launched small on-campus business, braiding hair, fixing computers, and selling coffee. Administrators are currently planning to convert another recently donated building into an entrepreneurial hub.

Still, many struggle to afford food and housing. In the early days, students sometimes passed out from hunger. Now, about 900 of the neediest students eat free in the canteen. The university has also begun to provide some housing, and recently arranged to make interest-free loans available.

"Students share food, and let each other stay on the floor," Blecher says. "We had one guy who was walking two hours each way to campus. His class put the money together to buy him a good pair of shoes."

This type of community spirit is called "ubuntu" in South Africa, and is another key aspect of life at CIDA. Students are divided into small groups of six people, who help and support one another, academically and otherwise, says Hudson Ngwira. The second-year student sings opera, is passionate about meditation, and wants to start his own business. "We all sit down, and then one of us stands up and says he is having problems about his girlfriend, or even financially, and we all come up with ideas to help sort these things out," Mr. Ngwira says.

Beyond the campus, students have organized soup kitchens for the homeless and mentoring programs for orphans. They have helped street hawkers and garment workers come up with business plans. During holidays, students return to share their skills in their home communities. They go to schools, churches, and community centers to teach courses in banking, microenterprise, and AIDS awareness. The program has reached almost 1 million South Africans so far, Blecher says.

"I taught at my former high school," says Dlamini, the first-year student. "Some of the teachers were having money problems, and said it was very beneficial because they didn't know how to budget."

Mxolisi Msibi, a third-year student from Swaziland, says that it was only when he returned to his village that he realized how far he has come. He was able to help people run small businesses from their homes, he says.

"At CIDA, it's not just ourselves we are concentrating on," he says. "We are totally concerned about the economy of our country. We try to come up with innovations, to bring about more creativity and more intelligence in everything we do."

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