Set in a leafy suburb amid the sprawl of Johannesburg, South Africa, the African Leadership Academy hosts roughly 200 students from across the continent, in a setting reminiscent of the tony boarding schools of America’s East Coast. The interior culture, however, is quite different. Ninety percent of the kids are on financial aid. Many of them come from difficult neighborhoods — yet as the school’s name suggests, all of them are being trained to sit at the top of Africa’s future hierarchies, private and public.
“Some will be central bank governors, some will be running their own nonprofits, some will be university professors,” says Fred Swaniker, a spry Ghanaian who cofounded the school in 2008. “It’s crucial that we nurture and develop young people so they can become leaders ten, fifteen, twenty years from now.”
But how? ALA teaches everything you might learn in an American high school — Rwandan first-year Janine Muganza is taking physics, math, history, geography, and English. Where ALA departs dramatically from the curriculum at virtually every other school in the world is a focus on entrepreneurship and leadership.
The educators who designed the curriculum follow Anders Ericsson’s pedagogy of “deliberate practice.” For their first semester at ALA, students are required to keep a diary of their every waking moment — designed to instill time management skills. Over the next two years at ALA, students are required to commit a long-term social service venture, an “original idea” that is developed by students and nurtured throughout the year, or a student-run business. They learn accounting. They face audits. They get out into the world and test their ideas. “The best way to develop as an entrepreneur is through practice and experience, not through theory,” says Swaniker.
On some level, ALA offers vocational training, but the vocation is independent thinking and enterprise development. Akan Nelson, a second-year student from Lagos, knows “these are things that I’m going to be encountering in my future life and that’s really what makes it different. You can be taught about how to do a balance sheet or a profit-loss account in any other high school. Very few schools give you the opportunity to make it where it counts — not for a grade, but for your own credibility.”
The practical framework and self-designed curriculum not only keeps kids from being bored, but prepares them for a society that needs both hard skills and soft skills — not least working within and leading teams. The model should be standardized for the rest of the world.
Interventions in American education are notoriously fraught — private school parents will go ten rounds over whether language offerings are modern enough, while less well off schools struggle to keep textbooks and other learning materials up to date. But true pedagogical innovations are long overdue.
Why reserve leadership and business training for budding MBAs, and leave team building exercises the domain of annual workplace retreats? By starting young, the ALA incorporates inspiration, motivation, and self-improvement into a more organic growth trajectory. In American schools, “deliberate practice” could also integrate practical training in relevant disciplines from computer science to photography — perhaps rescuing shop and home economics from the academic dustbin.
America would have global company. Alongside the ALA and other incubators in Africa, Singapore has begun to emphasize entrepreneurial education. China is notably deficient in the proportion of its booming population that builds new and innovative businesses. America has a strong entrepreneurial history, embodied in its legendary tech clusters — but to keep the advantage, there’s no harm in offering refresher courses to its next generation. Students and society will benefit from empowering kids in the ALA model.
ALA’s ambition is to correct the disappointing weakness in leadership and employment opportunities across the African continent. In America, the same instincts will better prepare students for a 21st century in which they’ll be competing with Africa’s finest.
Dayo Olopade is a journalist covering global politics and development policy. She is the author of The Bright Continent: Breaking Rules & Making Change in Modern Africa.
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