Returnee Spotlight: Fred Swaniker Wants To Groom 3 Million African Leaders By 2060

Fred Swaniker Photo By TED

Across Africa, there is no short supply of brilliant minds who are at the forefront of the quest for development. Perhaps one of Africa’s greatest embodiment of this drive is Fred Swaniker. After living in the diaspora for several years, Fred Swaniker returned to Africa to contribute to the African Dream.

Despite the shortcomings of the African continent in terms of development, many individuals are contributing their quota towards improving the continent. However, due to the negative media portrayal, it often seems that these efforts are futile. Fred Swaniker’s story shows the importance of developing Africa’s human capital—and what is possible if Africa invests in her people. Read on for his background, the reason for return, and what he thinks about Africa’s human potential.

Fred Swaniker’s Background

Fred Swaniker image
Swaniker is shaping up Africa’s future leaders. [Photo Credit:]
Fred Swaniker was born in 1976 in Ghana to a lawyer father and a teacher mother. His family fled Ghana when he was 4, shortly after the military coup. By the time he was 18 years old, he had lived in four countries in Africa. While in the United States, he attended Macalester College in Minnesota.

He attended the Stanford Graduate School of Business in California, where he received an MBA and became an Arjay Miller Scholar, a distinction awarded to the top 10% of each graduating class at Stanford.

Fred Swaniker is a leadership development expert who has launched four organizations with the purpose of developing African leaders. He is the founder of the African Leadership Academy, an institution that aims to train is aiming to develop 6,000 innovative leaders for Africa. He is also the founder of African Leadership Network and African Leadership University which is opening multiple universities across Africa to groom 3 million leaders by 2060.

Foray Into the Western World

At the heat of the 1980 military coup in Ghana, Fred Swaniker and his family fled Ghana in the middle of the night. Six months later, the same woe befell them as they had to flee the Gambia due to another military coup. This forced the Swanikers to seek refuge in Zimbabwe where Fred attended high school. After Fred completed high school, his parents decided to relocate to Minnesota.

While at Stanford, Swaniker wrote the business plan for African Leadership Academy, a special pan-African school that would groom the future leaders of Africa. This was based on his belief that the single largest impediment to Africa’s progress was the lack of good leadership. To find financial backing for his project, Fred Swaniker sought help from the friends and acquaintances he made in Silicon Valley. He launched the Academy immediately after graduating in 2004.

What is The African Leadership Academy?

The African Leadership Academy is an institution that seeks to transform Africa by developing a network of over 6,000 leaders. According to the Academy, these leaders are “individuals who will work together to address Africa’s greatest challenges, achieve extraordinary social impact and accelerate the continent’s growth trajectory.”

The African Leadership Academy identifies resourceful Africans between the ages of 16-19 who demonstrate leadership potential, a passion for Africa, an entrepreneurial spirit, and a track record of community service.

These potential leaders then undergo a rigorous two-year pre-university program on Entrepreneurial Leadership and African Studies curriculum in Johannesburg, South Africa. The Academy was co-founded by Fred Swaniker in 2004 and officially opened in 2008 with 97 students. Today, the Academy boasts over 2,000 students in Rwanda, Mauritius, and South Africa.

Fred Swaniker’s Vision for Leadership in Africa

While explaining his vision for starting the African Leadership Academy, Fred Swaniker said at a TED speech,

“Everywhere I went I experienced the wonderful beauty of our continent and saw the resilience and the spirit of our people. At that time, I realized that I wanted to dedicate the rest of my life to making this continent great. By 2030, Africa will have a larger workforce than China, and by 2050, it will have the largest workforce in the world. One billion people will need jobs in Africa. So, if we don’t grow our economies fast enough, we’re sitting on a ticking time bomb, not just for Africa, but for the entire world.”

He believes that Africa’s problems are squarely down to a failure of leadership. Hence, if all African countries have breeding grounds for leaders, the continent can reverse its current negative trajectory. In the interview below, Fred talks about everything, from his vision to the Academy’s expansion plans.

5 Important Lessons From Fred Swaniker About Human Capital Development

Fred Swaniker’s speeches usually contain some of the most valuable pieces of advice to Africans who have access to better living conditions. Some of these lessons are detailed below.

#1. Never Run from Challenges

As Fred Swaniker loves to believe, challenges are opportunities. When privileged Africans are faced with the challenge of improving the lives of millions in the slums and ghettos, they must take this challenge as an opportunity to groom useful members of society.

#2. Do Hard Things

On the poster sign in front of the African Leadership Academy campus is the sentence ‘Do Hard Things’. Fred Swaniker not only admonishes Africans not to shy away from challenges, but he also wants them to actively take the hardest routes. While speaking at a Time 100 Gala, he said,

“The first thing you notice when you walk onto any of my campuses at the African Leadership University, there’s a big sign that says, ‘Do hard things’. This is a reminder to all the young leaders that we’re developing at this academy, that all of us who are privileged enough to be healthy, to be alive, to have education, and to have influence, our role is not to do small things and to solve small problems. The only way that we can justify privilege is by solving the world’s biggest problems, and by doing hard things.”

 #3. Development is a Function of Human Capital Investment

Simply put, no society goes beyond the sum total of its human capabilities. That is, a society of well-educated, healthy citizens is likely to be far more developed than one whose members are poor, uneducated, and unrefined. In an interview with Africa Report, Fred Swaniker explains that “development in Africa will be driven by the total of the skills, knowledge, and experience that Africans possess”.

#4. Complaining alone will not Solve Africa’s Leadership Problems

Fred Swaniker identified a shortfall in a key area in Africa and solved it. Africa’s leadership problems have been around for a long time. Until every citizen plays their part, these problems are going nowhere. For Swaniker, his own contribution to solving the problem was the African Leadership Academy. For you, it could be your work as an activist or trying to make a difference in your field.

#5. The Next Big Solution is around You

Lastly, one hallmark of the world’s greatest and most impactful entrepreneurship is their ability to look around them and envision solutions to problems. For Fred Swaniker, it was the human capital shortfall, and for you, it could be the problem next door. Problems abound in Africa and the continent can only move forward if we stay committed to finding solutions.


Fred Swaniker is a living testament to the fact that Africa is indeed a friendly home for returnees. It is a place where Africans can realize their full potential and achieve their dreams. Part of claiming that heritage is returning mentally, then physically. Do you agree with Fred that Africa’s problems are due to a failure of leadership? Let us know what you think.

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