Spiritual mortar for the young generation

Fred Swaniker is working building a new era of leaders. And what about agriculture? ‘It needs to be more sexy!’

Ich bin ein Alternativtext
´Africa should stop importing food and instead feed itself and the world´, says Fred Swaniker. © MarkIrungu /AGRA

Jan Rübel

Jan Rübel is author at Zeitenspiegel Reportagen, a columnist at Yahoo and writes for national newspapers and magazines. He studied History and Middle Eastern Studies.

When Fred Swaniker travelled to Nigeria in the early noughties, he was mesmerised. So many families with gifted children looking desperately for proper education. So many who studied abroad. And so many families bending over backwards for it. I asked myself why there were no good schools here’, he recalls. At that time, he was still studying at Stanford Business School, but he sat down and began to write down his ideas.

 

In the end, Fred Swaniker, then 28 years old, had created a business plan for a pan-African school – the African Leadership Academy. Today it is attended by about 1000 future thought leaders and visionaries. ‘This is how we fill the gap’, says Swaniker, 42, grinning and pushing his back out of a deep armchair in the Scandic Hotel in Berlin. He has come to the German capital for the AGRA board meeting, the ‘Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa’. Why is an operations manager, business consultant and university founder dabbling in agriculture? ‘That’, Swaniker replies no longer smiling, ‘is a matter of simple math’.

 

Swaniker considers himself to be on a mission. ‘By 2050, Africa will have the world's largest labour force potential. So we need jobs. Agriculture is the strongest economic sector. However, while the average African smallholder is 60 years old, the average African citizen is only 19.5 years. Something isn’t adding up.’

 

So while Africa is the youngest continent, its smallholders are dying out. ‘We need to open up more prospects for young people in agriculture to make it look attractive, more sexy.’ After all, it’s true that no country in human history has evolved without improving the productivity of its agriculture. Swaniker is convinced: ‘We have perfect soil and conditions for cultivation. Africa should stop importing food and instead feed itself and the world.’

 

Swaniker considers himself to be on a mission 

 

He might think big, but during his tenure as a business consultant, he learned how to divide problems and tackle them piece by piece. That makes them more solvable. Over the years, his passion for Africa has grown. Swaniker was four years old when his family had to flee Ghana after a military coup. By the time he celebrated his 18th birthday, he had lived in four African countries, and his parents had to restart their lives again and again because of ‘unsafe conditions’. Swaniker recognised a pattern. ‘There was a lack of solid structures and good leaders everywhere’, he says. ‘We have to start developing it now.’

 

He considers the academy founded by him a great way to accomplish this. In 1957, when many African countries became independent, there were about 20,000 university graduates in the sub-Saharan region. ‘The nations had to be organised and built up’, he concludes. ‘Many African leaders were not prepared for their tasks at all.’ This first generation of founders was succeeded by a second generation that brought war, corruption and human rights violations. ‘The third generation around leaders like Nelson Mandela cleaned up. Now it's time for the fourth generation to get ready.’

 

 

At Swaniker's Academy, ‘leadership skills’ are not formally taught. ‘Our students should acquire this knowledge on their own, through much practice.’ He prefers putting them in teams and projects, letting them build organisations and inviting them to collect ideas for the small Venture Capital Fund on campus. Of course, half of the study places are intended for women. ‘We just need strong leaders’, he says. ‘Structures and institutions are often weak in African countries, and that’s why good leaders are even more necessary than in the West.’ And what would someone like Donald Trump do in Africa? Swaniker rolls his eyes. ‘In Washington D.C., Trump is controlled by parliament, by the central bank and by the courts. In Africa, he would be a destructive force.’

 

Swanikers school was referred to as the ‘Harvard of Africa’

 

Time is short. Swaniker looks at his smartphone; the next meeting is about to begin. ‘We generally have very little time’, he says. The fact that his school was once referred to as the ‘Harvard of Africa’ makes him smile. ‘Harvard took 400 years to get where it is today. In contrast, our approach is overshadowed by all these challenges, be it urbanisation, crumbling health care, lack of education, weak government structure, youth unemployment, and infrastructure.’ Harvard is an exclusive place, intended for a small elite. We, however, try to be as inclusive as possible.’ There are no tuition fees. We are focused on talents. The key criterion for admission is one question for the applicants: ‘What potential do you contribute to participate in the transformation of Africa?’

 

Swaniker jumps up. Is he a good leader himself? ‘I am an imperfect leader. Too impatient. Too optimistic. And too driven by results, which sometimes leads me to be harsh with people.’ But sometimes things simply have to move at a fast pace. In 2006, the non-governmental organisation ‘Echoing Green’ named him one of the 15 ‘best emerging social entrepreneurs in the world.’ In 2011, Forbes Magazine listed him as one of the ‘Top Ten Young Power Men in Africa’. Swaniker rushes to the lift. He takes it up to the top.

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