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By Daisy Serem

As the world grapples with COVID-19’s effects on health and the economy, another crisis is evolving—an education crisis—that threatens the future of young people. With higher education institutions converted into online learning platforms, the digital divide, especially in Africa, could result in many young people being left behind. But Patrick Awuah, founder and president of Ghana’s Ashesi University, an IFC investee, is committed to cultivating a new generation of African leaders to transform the continent and build on its potential. Here, he shares the pandemic-related challenges faced by Africa’s educational institutions and details how Ashesi University aims to integrate students’ access to technology into its business model. This interview was edited for clarity and length.

Q: What inspired you to establish Ashesi University?

A: Well, my original inspiration for starting Ashesi was that I felt that it was really important for me to return from the U.S. to help with development in some way. And I had come to this realization after my son was born. We were in Seattle and I was working at Microsoft. My son was born in 1995, shortly after the crises in Rwanda and Somalia. And I felt that the negative news coming out of Africa would be a problem for all people of African descent wherever they were, and that people like me in the diaspora who had had opportunities, have a duty to help turn the story around.

Patrick Awuah. Photo courtesy: Ashesi University College
Patrick Awuah. Photo: Courtesy of John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Q: We’ll get back to Ashesi in a minute, but with your history in the United States, what’s your view on the protests on racism there, and what that means to Africans?

A: If you look at what's happening with the Black Lives Matter movement and cases of police brutality that the world has been seeing for quite a few years now, it's very clear that a lot of work needs to be done to remove systemic racism from the United States and from the world. While there's a lot of work that needs to be done in the United States, of course, there's also work that needs to be done on the African continent to lift up the dreams and aspirations of young Africans, young Black people, and to demonstrate to the world a very different future for everybody.

Q: One of the ways to do that, of course, is through education. Many students are just now starting school. How should educational institutions prepare them for studies that have been altered by the pandemic?

A: There are no easy answers. We've made the decision to remain online. We will have a new class of students entering who would not have had an on-campus meeting with us and will not have connected with each other in person before going online. We are now, for the first time, having to enroll students and take them through orientation and get them set up for classes, all virtually. There are institutions that don't have the same capabilities that we have with regard to online learning. So, there will be kids that will not get the full year of education this next academic year. It’s going to be difficult and as a region, we need to make sure that they don't slip too far behind. One of the things that this, I think, teaches all of us, is that we should prioritize the use of technology to supplement what we're doing in the future so that we're better prepared.

Q. With all these challenges, how can the education sector in Africa work to safeguard the future of its youth?

A: I think the biggest problem facing education is the long interruption of it. And the quickest solution is to get improved treatments and vaccinations [for COVID-19] as quickly as possible so we can reopen safely. Longer term, there's the whole question of digital infrastructure so that people can learn from home, they can learn from many different sources, that the school room is not the only place where people go to get educated. That's a longer-term project.

For us at Ashesi we know that moving forward, some things that we've done in response to this, we're going to [be stronger]. We're going to strengthen our institution, getting access to technology to everybody, and sort of build that into our business model.

Q. What lessons can other African educators learn from Ashesi University’s experience?

A: I will tell you that when we stood up to support our students that had difficulty with digital learning, the challenge was quite broad. There's a challenge of whether you have a laptop, there’s a challenge of whether you can get a data connection in your area, whether there's actually a 4G service and if it’s affordable. If you're in a family that has eight members living in one small room, taking a class online in that room is very difficult. There's a challenge if the income of your family has been disrupted by this pandemic. Do you even have enough funding for basic necessities like food?

In meeting the challenge, we had to address it in many different ways. We had to provide laptops, we had to provide data bundles, we had to give stipends for just basic living expenses. In a few cases, we even had to provide rent so that students could move to a different space where they could actually work in a quieter environment. So that's why I said there are no easy answers. And ultimately, this is a lot about economic development broadly, we need to stand up our economies. The stronger an economy is, the more it is able to deal with these kinds of unexpected shocks.

If we conduct ourselves with determination, we're going to be OK, Patrick Awuah said.
"If we conduct ourselves with determination, we're going to be OK,” Patrick Awuah said. Photo: Courtesy of Ashesi University

Q. What role do educational institutions have in shaping the future of Africa?

A: I think that the role that educational institutions have in shaping the future of Africa [includes] two things. One is developing ethical leaders who are going to create an enabling environment for everyone, and the second is developing a productive workforce. Those are the two fundamental things that educational institutions are doing.

We also have a responsibility in helping to shape the future that young people imagine for themselves. The stories that are running in their minds about what they're going to do and who they're going to be. And if we do all of those things right, then the changing demographics of Africa will be a big economic opportunity for the continent—because increasing population, increasing productivity, providing goods and services to that booming population presents great economic opportunity for everybody.

Q. How can stakeholders work together to achieve theses aspirations?

A: We need to really build strong resilient economies. And this involves science and technology, and innovation of course, but it also involves culture, and the arts. We need to project an African aesthetic that is beautiful and inspiring to the world. We need to address the problems that we have with poverty and disease, and insecurity in some parts of the continent. We need to minimize the negative news coming out of the continent by doing things right. And then we need to get our young people to have very high aspirations about what they're going to achieve for themselves and for their continent, and give them the tools and the skills, so they can actually go achieve those aspirations.

Q. What message are you passing on to your students and young people to build up their resilience and hope for the future?

A: We need to remember that this will pass—we will all rise up to the crest again. The pandemic will be resolved because the world will react in providing the right treatments, vaccines, and so on. So do not lose hope. Do not despair in the face of this emergency. We're going to come out of the other end and if we conduct ourselves with determination, we're going to be OK.

For more information about Ashesi University’s mission, its offerings, and how the use of IFC’s Employability Tool has helped its graduates find jobs, please see this IFC case study, “Ashesi University: Creating a Center of Excellence in Ghana.”

Published in September 2020