An Academy for All Africa

In Johannesburg, a school aims to inspire a generation of change.

November/December 2009

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Joseph Munyambanza of Democratic Republic of Congo is 18 years old, an aspiring doctor, and one of the best students on the African continent. A member of the first class at the African Leadership Academy, an elite preparatory school on the outskirts of Johannesburg, he will likely have his pick of the world's top universities when he graduates in 2010. His dreams include medical school and a career in human rights.

No matter where those opportunities take him, he knows this much for sure?his career will be in Africa, the place that needs him most.

"If you take a fish out of water, it's not happy," Munyambanza says. "I am not happy unless I am in my country."

Founded and staffed in large part by Stanford alumni, the African Leadership Academy is importing Stanford's brand of entrepreneurship and optimism to a continent seriously lacking both. The founders envision a school whose motivated graduates will form a network of leaders across Africa. They imagine alumni who will reach out to fellow schoolmates across borders, industries and disciplines to tackle complicated problems, and in doing so change Africa's future.

"The vision that we have for this school is that it will impact Africa in the way that Stanford has impacted the world," says co-founder and CEO Fred Swaniker, MBA '04.

Besides, says Beryl Obiero, a business-minded 19-year-old Kenyan student in hip rectangular glasses, "Africa is going to be the new China." Opportunity, the academy has taught her, is there for the taking.

The academy's message of hope stands in marked contrast to the many tragedies that dominate Africa's global image. "If you Google my country, you will find more pictures of war" than anything else, says Julio Maniratunga, 17, of Burundi, who fled two wars as a child.

In addition to poverty, AIDS, war and corruption, one of the most serious threats to African development is brain drain. An estimated 20,000 educated professionals leave Africa every year, according to the International Organization for Migration. Few homegrown leaders remain to give the continent the help it needs.

The problem was apparent to Swaniker and co-founder Chris Bradford, MBA '05, MA '06, when they met at Stanford Business School in 2003. Born in Ghana and raised around Africa, Swaniker was planning a career in private industry when he accepted an internship in Nigeria for the summer after his first year at Stanford. He was shocked to learn that wealthy families there all sent their children (and tens of thousands of tuition dollars) to schools overseas.

Bradford arrived at Stanford after having taught at an English boarding school where wealthy African families sent their children. He had noticed many African students' sense of cultural identity slip away with every term they spent in Europe, to the point that some refused to participate when he tried to recruit them for a service project in Kenya.

Back at Stanford, Swaniker and Bradford began working on an entrepreneurial solution to what they saw as Africa's most serious problem.

"The biggest challenge Africa faced is a lack of leadership," says Swaniker. "Unless we faced that root cause, we could never achieve our full potential as a continent."

The Academy was founded on a shoestring in 2004, and Swaniker and Bradford worked without compensation for the first two years. A third Stanford alum, Acha Leke, MS '96, MS '99, PhD '99, served as one of four original backers. The team reached out to the Stanford community for support, tapping alums for advice, faculty positions and seats on the Academy's board of directors. (For the record, while many Academy students have the Farm on their list of potential colleges, alumni on staff try to resist pro-Stanford bias and encourage them to look at universities around the world.) The Academy welcomed its first students in September 2008.

The two-year curriculum has three primary components: rigorous, A-level preparatory academics; an entrepreneurial core, to spark students' interest in market-based solutions; and African studies, to instill in students a sense of continental pride that will compel them to return.

There is also a financial incentive for students to come back to their home continent. Ninety-five percent receive financial aid in the form of forgivable loans. Their debt is canceled if they return to Africa by their 25th birthdays, unless they are enrolled full-time at an educational institution overseas.

The first class of 96 students was selected from an applicant pool of 1,700 for a 6.2 percent admission rate. The student body hails from 29 countries and a variety of races and religions.

The students' backgrounds are as diverse as Africa's population. Some come from well-to-do families and urban private schools; others grew up in rural villages without school funds or electricity (unless, as in the case of one enterprising student, you build your own power-generating windmill). A few even came from refugee camps.

Boarding school life is a challenge at first, say students. Teenagers who had never been outside of their hometowns suddenly found themselves sharing dorms and classes with peers from completely different cultures. Some struggled to bring their language skills up to speed for classes, which are all taught in English.

Living in such close quarters smashed whatever prejudices students may have brought to campus, they say. Now, students enthusiastically join celebrations for fellow classmates' cultural and religious holidays, as well as the very popular campus food fairs.

"I feel a huge connection between all of us," says 17-year-old Fatoumata Fall, who started studying Swahili?a language spoken by more than 50 million people in sub-Saharan Africa, but not in her native Senegal?in order to chat with friends in their native tongue.

The sprawling 37-acre campus boasts brick buildings, grassy fields and the occasional peacock strolling about the grounds. Students scurry between classes and activities clad in maroon-and-black uniforms. After-school sports include soccer, tennis, basketball, and?because there are Stanford alums involved here?Ultimate Frisbee. Students have found unique ways to unite their diverse backgrounds on the playing field. When language barriers tripped up the soccer team at the start of the season, the players unanimously chose Swahili as their common language, says Eugene Adogla, '08, an African studies teacher and soccer coach.

For this driven group of students, however, academics are definitely the primary focus. "I'm a first-year teacher and I'm getting utterly spoiled," says biology teacher David Scudder, '07.

It takes barely a nudge to get students engaged in an issue. During a recent classroom discussion of sickle cell anemia?a blood disorder that affects people of African descent?Scudder's students began brainstorming potential treatments. Out of curiosity, Scudder emailed a friend at the National Institutes of Health to see if the students' idea?a chemical "cap" that would cover a problematic spot on the hemoglobin proteins of sickle-cell sufferers?had any traction. His friend confirmed that their proposal was indeed similar to one presented by professional scientists at a recent NIH conference on the disease.

Like its students, the Academy's leaders have big dreams. The class of 2011?admitted in late April from an even larger applicant pool of 2,500?includes students from Rwanda, Angola and other nations represented for the first time.

Like all non-profits, the Academy has taken a hit during the current global economic downturn. Fundraising has been a challenge, Bradford says. But as the Academy has taught its students, the future is what you make of it.

"Here, you have no excuses. You have to reach the goals you set for yourself. You have the responsibility to make your life what you want it to be," says Mehdi Oulmakki, 17, of Morocco. Then he brightened. "But I like challenges."

CORINNE PURTILL, '02, is a freelance writer based in New York City.

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