Africa has seen too many failed leaders. Its widespread poverty, ethnic strife, civil wars, and chronic health problems often seem intractable.
But Fred Swaniker doesn't agree: The right kind of leadership can solve any problem, he thinks, and he's set out to break down the barriers of this negative mind-set among young Africans.
Set on an acre or so of land in Johannesburg's leafy northern suburbs, his international high school – the African Leadership Academy – aims to cultivate a kind of African maverick, a problem solver who can embrace a new leadership attitude. Mr. Swaniker has identified four main attributes that leaders – at the grass-roots level all the way up to heads of state – should display: "Courage to change things, perseverance in the face of obstacles, passion, and the right values." He's conveying this ethic to 200 carefully chosen students – from 33 African nations – at the ALA.
He points to 17-year-old Linda Rebeiz from an upper-middle-class family on the island of Goree in Senegal: She was shocked as she began to understand the repercussions of illiteracy among the domestic workers in her neighborhood. "They couldn't send a text message," Linda says. "So their phone bills were expensive because they had to talk."
The teenager started teaching her domestic worker at home to read and write, and then she started a small school to teach five other people in her neighborhood. She has gone on to found an entrepreneurship academy in a rural area in Senegal, says Swaniker.
By African standards Linda has a privileged life, but she has learned to see the continent's problems in a new way: "I didn't know how to apply my ideas because my education back home was very theoretical. Our education system makes us less independent.... But what I learned at the ALA has helped me."
Linda believes Africa requires more than entrepreneurship to solve its problems: "We need to start at the lowest level of school to understand core values. You have to see the bigger picture; it's not just about you. You have to ask, if you are hungry, is it still OK to steal?"
Veda Sunassee, a Mauritian facilitator at ALA, suggests that these core values have been lost by some leaders who brought Africa out of colonialism: "Africa has many opportunities now and some of the fastest growing economies in the world, but we have a problem where leaders who started as heroes have lost their morals and ethics and their leadership has become toxic."
The key to the ALA model for teaching ways to break this cycle is an ongoing commitment to tangible actions. Students must launch a social venture in poor communities in Johannesburg or start a business on campus. African role models such as Desmond Tutu, Graca Machel, or Lamido Sanusi, the corruption-busting governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, are brought in to speak to the students.
Francis Ekii, a Ugandan teen who grew up in a one-room house in the capital, Kampala, and started a mushroom farm at his school to help raise funding for books and pens, takes the point further: "We have problems in Africa with greed and selfishness; we need a balance between entrepreneurial and other values. Above all, we need integrity, transparency, and accountability. Democracy in Africa has become a business."
"We can point to a number of successes," Swaniker says, even though the academy only opened in 2008. "Our graduates are making a difference already."
He points to examples such as William Kamkwamba, who built a windmill to bring electricity to his village in Malawi and wrote a bestselling book about it. Joseph Munyanbanza is building a school in a refugee camp in northern Uganda; Julius Shirima from Tanzania has started a consulting business for small shops in Dar es Salaam.
"We teach them that they should think of building a cathedral [because] the transformation of Africa is a 50-to-100-year project," says Swaniker. "Their work won't be finished, but they need to begin, and leave the continent in a better state than they found it. They must leave it to another generation to build further."