The great generational African thinker

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· Fred Swaniker’s commencement address at Macalester College

Fred Swaniker at Macalester College Commencement

Serving as chairman of the 2016 graduation ceremony at Faith Montessori School, Accra, the word “wise” was the adjective I found most suitable to define the guest speaker, Fred Swaniker. In the fashion of Patrick Awuah of Ashesi University, their concerns for exemplary education and leadership in Africa are unprecedented.

I recall a breakfast meeting with Fred in Mauritius where he detailed his vision on how tertiary education had to be re-imagined for Africa’s youth. Afterwards, driving from the hotel to the temporary premises of the African Leadership University – ALU [then at the Beau Plan Business Park, Pamplemousses], Fred stopped the car at a site and said to me, “This is where the construction will begin for the permanent site of ALU, Mauritius.” That was an unforgettable moment! His grand mission was to produce 3 million young African leaders over the next 50 years. True to plan, the ALU in Kigali Heights, Rwanda, was inaugurated in 2017.

Of the commencement speeches I’ve heard, Fred’s (at his alma mater Macalester College, St Paul, Minnesota, in May 2018) was by far one of the most advanced and evolutionary. The following are extracts from the speech:

A sense of purpose.

“From my research [in my final year at Stanford], I could see that Africa was beginning to change—it was getting more peaceful and finally had the chance to become prosperous. I knew I had to go and play a role in making that change happen. It was that thesis that sowed the seed for the work I would later go on to do—using education as a means of developing Africa’s future leaders.

“I first did this by launching African Leadership Academy (ALA) —a special boarding high school that would train the future leaders of Africa. Later came African Leadership Network and African Leadership University. These institutions have already developed thousands of leaders. One unique aspect about African Leadership University is that we ask our students not to choose an academic major from a pre-determined menu.”

A mission for solving Africa’s problems

“Instead, we ask them to declare a mission for their lives. They structure their learning not around academic disciplines, but instead around big problems they want to solve. These problems could be in healthcare, climate change, governance, education, gender inequality etc. They then design their own tailored learning experiences around solving these problems. We are rolling out these universities and our aim is to develop 3 million passionate problem-solvers who will transform Africa.

“Those of us who are privileged to get education, to be healthy, to have lived to this age, should not be solving small problems.  We should be solving big problems for the world: that’s the only way we can justify our privilege.”

Horizons and Perseverance

“During the MBA, I had written the business plan for the African Leadership Academy—an institution that would develop leaders to drive prosperity and peace on the continent of Africa. To kick off the project, I raised seed funding from a few friends and family. But the money soon ran out, and for the next 2 years, I had no salary …

“I remember looking at the sky scrapers on Wall Street [New York], and imagining my classmates from Stanford Business School making hundreds of thousands of dollars in those buildings. And here I was and I didn’t even have train fare to cross the [Hudson] river …

“Standing on the other side of the river that day, with no train fare, I could not have imagined that I would go on to raise $200m just 12 years later, launch 6 ventures, collectively employ 500 people, and establish an unconventional university system that is poised to develop 3 million leaders for Africa.”

Play the long game

“Bill Gates once said ‘most people over-estimate what they can achieve in one year and under-estimate what they can achieve in 10 years’. As you leave here today, my wish for you is to have perseverance. Things won’t always be easy. But that’s the point—do hard things—and stick with them until you succeed. Play the long game and you will succeed beyond your wildest dreams.

“Many studies show that over 40% of jobs that exist today may be eliminated by automation. There is a massive shortage of computer and data scientists. So you may be wondering—does my liberal arts degree … still matter in the world of artificial intelligence and robotics?—Well, just two weeks ago, it became clear to me why it matters.

“I was at a dinner in Silicon Valley. I sat at a table with some of the most prominent people in the tech industry. One guy had visited Ghana 25 years ago; he proceeded to tell me about the immense poverty he had seen in that village and that he knew I’d come from that background and he was sorry for all the difficulties I’d had in my life.”

Envision global perspectives

“First of all, I didn’t come from that village, and while I didn’t come from wealth, my life definitely wasn’t as bad as he imagined it; not everyone in Africa is starving and lacks education. On the contrary, we’re building the educational institutions of the future and creating some technologies that will leapfrog the west. Did you know that Mobile money—things like Apple Pay etc – were first created in Africa?

“Secondly, that village today has mobile phones etc. … It made me realize that many of the people who are coding the algorithms, who will determine the biases and decision-making of robots have no clue about the world. In the era of artificial intelligence, those who will be intelligent in the future will be those who have traits that computers cannot easily copy—traits like curiosity, humility, passion, a sense of fairness, a mission for a higher purpose, global awareness. So resist the temptation to go with the herd … Instead, use your ability to make the right choices, your sense of mission, and your global perspective to help ensure that as computers take over the world, that we don’t lose our soul.” Amen!


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