Fred Swaniker, Founder & CEO, African Leadership Group.

“Unlike startups across the globe, African entrepreneurs have to focus on solving real problems impacting the continent.”

Interview with Fred Swaniker, Founder & CEO, African Leadership Group, Johannesburg, South Africa

Developing entrepreneurial skills in motivated young adults is one way to boost prosperity. But Fred Swaniker, Founder and CEO of the African Leadership Group, which includes the African Leadership University, said in an interview with IFC that what makes startups thrive in one region of the world might not in another. The first step towards cultivating a generation of successful entrepreneurs is knowing what challenges they will face and providing them with strategies to overcome them, he explained.


You founded the university in 2015 — what made you decide to do this?

Before creating the university, we founded the African Leadership Academy in 2004. This is our preuniversity program for high school students to prepare them to be leaders, entrepreneurs, and to get them ready for college. We found that 80 percent of our graduates from the Academy were leaving Africa to continue their studies, primarily in the U.S. At any given time, we had about 400 of our graduates attending college overseas, and this felt problematic. Also, considering that Africa is going to be 40 percent of the world population by the end of the century, cultivating the leadership skills of only 125 students per year—amid tens of thousands of applicants to the academy—was not going to allow us to make the impact we had hoped to achieve. We thought, why don’t we have our own world-class university so that the talent can continue developing skills in Africa? We started work on the African Leadership University [ALU] in late 2013.

Many universities now focus on building students’ entrepreneurial skills and employability. What makes ALU’s approach different?

There are several things that I believe make us different. First, the main degree that we offer is the Bachelor of Science in Entrepreneur Leadership, whereas other universities give you a menu of academic disciplines. At ALU, our students select a discipline around a core challenge facing the African continent, such as healthcare, education, climate change, and issues like that. Then they declare a mission, not a major, and curate a learning experience around how to solve that problem. Second is the mode of learning. We follow the 10-20-70 rule. Ten percent of instruction comes from the classroom; 20 percent from peers, mentors, and coaches; and 70 percent from experience. Deep experiential learning, like internships, launching ventures, and doing projects with organizations, happens from day one. Third, most students come to ALU for several months before transitioning to one of our remote learning hubs. The goal is to stimulate thinking, promote creativity and imagination through first-hand, relevant experiences so they are able to solve real-world problems with innovative solutions.

Can you elaborate on ALU’s “hub” approach and how this contributes to student learning and later success?

Prepandemic, even from inception, we designed a learning model that leveraged technology and was blended even though students were spending the full three years at either our Mauritius or Rwanda campuses. We allowed students to take classes at other universities and other sources so they could really craft their own learning experience to support their passions. When the pandemic happened, we took advantage of the disruption to take our blended model one step further. Instead of spending three years at one of our campuses, students live, socialize, and study at one of our six hubs, and faculty and industry experts give lectures and seminars, and investors and employers come to connect with promising young entrepreneurs.

Hubs are also essential to helping students build networks, because when you’re out in the world looking to build a business, you need capital, customers, government permissions, and board members. All of this depends on connections. The data show that on average, each one of our graduates creates 14 jobs for others. We even had one graduate from two years ago who today employs 20,000 people. This is what we are striving to achieve. We plan to have 20 to 25 hubs by the end of next year.

What makes launching a start-up across Africa different than in other parts of the world? How can higher education better prepare young entrepreneurs?

Unlike start-ups across the globe, African entrepreneurs have to focus on solving real problems impacting the continent. Goods and services that don’t elevate the quality of life for African communities in meaningful ways are less likely to experience long-lasting success. Higher education institutions need to develop rich and interesting hands-on programs around solving these issues while cultivating strong social-emotional skills like empathy, thinking creatively, and inspiring and motivating others.

ALU is planning to cut its tuition over the next five years from $15,000 to $3,000 and expand the student body from less than 2,000 to 20,000. What explains this big shift and how will it impact ALU’s approach?

A significant benefit to creating hubs is that they make the university more accessible from a cost perspective. Prior to the hubs, the campus experience ran $15,000 per student per year. Three thousand dollars for food, $3,000 for housing, $2,000 for a flight, $1,000 for health insurance and another thousand for pocket money, and the remaining $5,000 for tuition. Before the student even reaches the classroom, they have spent $10,000. The middle class in Africa can only afford to pay about $1,500 per year. So, our model of $15,000 was not accessible to most middle-class families. The hubs strip out all those costs because the students still come to Mauritius or Rwanda for the first four months of orientation, then they can return home, save on those living expenses, and go to one of our local hubs for their education. We subsidize the remaining $1,500 above what most families can afford.

What do universities need to do to attract and retain female students?

Most importantly, universities need to make a sincere commitment to providing women with equal opportunities. That commitment needs to be made from the top down and be part of the success metrics of the school.

We do several things to attract women to ALU. One is that we have a scholarship program just for women through the Mastercard Foundation, where 70 percent of the beneficiaries are women. Higher education becomes more affordable, which may make it easier for families to let their daughters go to college. We have special marketing programs targeting young women and expose them to women role models at the university. We also partner with youth organizations that already work with young women. Once they are at ALU, we make a concerted effort to make women feel safe and secure when they are on campus. I think our student body is currently 50/50, but the scholarship program is obviously going to push us closer to 60 or 70 percent women.

If someone came to you today and told you they wanted to found a university, what are the three things you would tell them they need to do to succeed?

First, I would say don’t copy the model of global institutions. What works elsewhere is less effective in Africa. Second, as we have discussed, Africa is a continent whose challenges and opportunities are not the same as in other places around the world. Future university leaders need to reimagine education that meets the unique needs of the continent. Lastly, I would say to never be afraid to do hard things. Creating opportunities for young people to elevate their communities and better society is worth the struggle to get them there.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Published in September 2022


Fred Swaniker is on a mission to bring better leadership to Africa and the world. He is the founder and CEO of the African Leadership Group, an ecosystem of organizations that are catalyzing a new era of ethical, entrepreneurial African leaders. Over the past 15 years, he has founded and led the preuniversity African Leadership Academy, the African Leadership University, the African Leadership Network, and The Room—a community of global leaders committed to unlocking opportunities for undiscovered talent, starting in Africa. Collectively, these endeavors aim to transform Africa by developing three million African leaders by 2035.

Fred previously worked as a McKinsey & Company consultant before earning an MBA from Stanford University and becoming an entrepreneur. He has been recognized as one of the top 15 emerging social entrepreneurs in the world by Echoing Green; as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum; as a TED Fellow; and as an Aspen Institute Fellow.