Building An Ivy League in Africa with Fred Swaniker

I recently had the difficult task of introducing Fred Swaniker to a room full of Wharton faculty and staff.

Difficult because, even for this fast-talker, condensing his accomplishments into just a few minutes was impossible. What should I take the liberty of removing in the interest of time: That his work as an educational entrepreneur has been praised by President Obama? That he has been named a TED Fellow? A World Economic Forum Young Global Leader?

But I guess I shouldn’t have worried so much about the introduction, because what was most impressive wasn’t what he has done to date, it’s what he is doing now: building an Ivy League in Africa.


Expanding on the successes of African Leadership Network (the best and brightest up-and-coming leaders in the nation) and African Leadership Academy (the best-in-class secondary school for shaping those leaders), Fred is now undertaking the build out of the African Leadership Universities (ALU). ALU will be a network of 25 post-secondary institutions created to train Africa’s future leaders, entrepreneurs, managers, and more.

The Wharton Social Impact Initiative’s Vice Dean, Katherine Klein, and I have been working over the past year to identify projects that leverage Wharton’s strengths to make the greatest social impact in Africa. On a trip to Rwanda last fall, Katherine had the chance to attend the African Leadership Network’s Annual Gathering and knew that there was something powerful and effective about the work Fred is doing in Africa — and that Wharton needed to get involved. As we explored possibilities for Wharton to assist the African Leadership groups, we realized – as we so often do – that we would be wise to bring together a diverse group from across the school to think about how to best do so.

Last month, Fred Swaniker joined us on campus to do just that: meet with groups including WSII, Knowledge at Wharton, Wharton Innovation, the Lauder Institute and the Wharton African Students Association to discuss where mutually beneficial opportunities for collaboration, knowledge sharing, and more, might exist.

Over lunch, Fred painted a clear picture of the need for ALU in combating some of Africa’s greatest challenges:

  • The need for a skilled management workforce:The ideas are there, the capital is growing. The people who can execute are scarce.”
  • The need for jobs: “Creating jobs trumps anything to me.”
  • The need for action now: “You can’t wait until corruption is figured out to work on development. You can’t wait until Africa is perfect to get involved.”
  • The need for sustainability: “We need to get away from unsustainable projects. We’re great at starting projects in Africa! [But] we need to stop relying on programs that require handouts; they must be able to do it on their own.”

And how to build ALU to combat those challenges:

  • With evolution in university structure: “We’re creating schools that are focused, not on majors, but on 7 grand challenges Africa is facing. Like the school of urbanization, school of healthcare, etc. We’re taking a fresh look at how universities should operate.”
  • With innovation in student engagement: “The way we’re going to solve Africa’s education problem is by thinking about the resources we have in abundance: brilliant students. So build the solution around the students!”
  • With a focus on practical teaching: “Instructors will include retired executives, recent university grads, and mid-career professionals. We’re looking for people who are excellent teachers first, not researchers.”
  • With approachable costs: “We’re decoupling research from teaching to deliver this education for $5,000 per year.”

As Fred noted welcomingly over lunch, “To pull off the ALU concept, we need many brains, many ideas, many hands.” We hope we provided a few of those on his visit.

This summer, WSII is funding several MBA Fellows to take on summer internships with Fred’s team in Africa. Stay tuned to our blog to read about their experiences later this summer.

We are excited to help, and eager to watch, ALU launch and grow! Follow ALU’s development on their website, and stay up to date on all of WSII’s Impact Africa efforts on our website and through our newsletter.

Sandi HuntSandra Maro Hunt is the Senior Manager of Social Impact at WSII, where she works with the WSII team and stakeholders to manage and develop existing and new initiatives. Sandi is passionate about exploring the tools that Wharton, and the Penn community as a whole – students, alum, faculty, the university – bring to bear in creating social impact, and about building out best practices and programs with those learnings.