Pit Stop #45: African Leadership University

I have worked in Higher Education for more than thirty years and have been exposed to hundreds of colleges, but I can honestly say I’ve never witnessed anything like the African Leadership University (ALU) in Kigali, Rwanda. (You’ll read in the next blog post about the African Leadership College (ALC) in Mauritius, and while the two institutions operate under the umbrella of the same foundation and are alike in many ways, each is deserving of its own story.) 

The impressive campus of African Leadership University.

I was recently able to spend two days on each campus and count myself incredibly fortunate to witness what’s happening there, as both institutions jointly embark on their path to NECHE accreditation. (In fact, the beginning of their eligibility phase starts with a visiting team that is scheduled to return in early Spring, 2023.) 

First, some Rwandan history to help set the stage. The Republic of Rwanda is a landlocked country located in the Great Rift Valley of Central Africa, a relatively tiny country about the size of Maryland. It is quite mountainous, hence its motto: “Land of a Thousand Hills,” and its population is over 12.6 million, making Rwanda the most densely populated country in mainland Africa. The two major ethnic majorities of Rwanda are the Tutsi and the Hutu. 

(Alvaro 1984)

Germany colonized Rwanda in 1897, then Belgium took control in 1916 during World War I. Both European nations ruled through the Rwandan king and perpetuated a pro-Tutsi policy while introducing a strict racially-based system of discrimination that set the stage for the tragedy that followed. The oppressed Hutu population revolted in 1959 and massacred numerous Tutsi, ultimately establishing an independent, Hutu-dominated republic led by President Kayibanda in 1962. In 1973, a military coup overthrew Kayibanda and brought Juvenal Habyarimana to power, who also retained the pro-Hutu government policy. Many Tutsis fled to Uganda and formed the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), which launched an uprising in 1990. President Habyarimana was assassinated in April 1994 and social tensions exploded in the genocide that followed. Over the span of one hundred bloody days, Hutu extremists killed an estimated 500,000–1,000,000 Tutsi. The RPF ended the genocide with a military victory in July 1994, and for almost thirty years since, under the leadership of President Paul Kagame, Rwanda has been stable and relatively peaceful.

A full 60% of Africa’s population is under the age of 25 – and eager to succeed.

By 2035, Africa will have the largest workforce in the world and by the end of the century, it will hold 40% of the world’s population. The future of the planet depends on a healthy, educated Africa — and that is why the potential of the African Leadership University matters so much. Its mission, set out at its origin in 2015, is to educate the next generation of African leaders and its ambitious goal is to enroll over 20,000 students by the end of this decade. 

When you visit ALU and its beautiful campus in Kigali (designed by the Mass Design Group), it’s difficult to believe this start-up university is a mere seven years old. Yet when you meet its leadership, (I was fortunate to be led around campus by the visionary Provost Nhlanhla Thwala, who oversees all academics on both campuses) you begin to understand how this is possible, and why foundations like MasterCard have invested well over one hundred million dollars in the future of the university. 

The recently adopted ALU strategic plan is titled “Excellence at Scale” and to achieve its goal of educating a new generation of ethical and entrepreneurial leaders for the continent, it has upended the typical roadmaps in higher education.

Here’s how ALU describes its plan forward in its strategic plan: Excellence in higher education is traditionally associated with exclusivity: prestige is tied directly to low acceptance rates or the number of students an institution declines to educate. Simply put, the definition of quality is based on inputs (buildings, faculty, number of majors)  rather than outcomes. ALU chooses to embrace inclusive excellence and defines success by the number of students it admits and by the impact these students have on the communities they lead. 

Inspirational African heroes are quoted and painted on murals everywhere across campus.

Its mission is both excellence and impact at scale, made possible because of what the institution discovered during the pandemic. That experience led this young institution to harness the power of technology and commit fully to how students actually learn: through doing and through challenging experiences and assignments. After spending one trimester on campus, students will study in rural and urban hubs across Africa, in close proximity to the problems they will need to solve and to the communities they will need to serve. 

The plan for the evolution of ALU (and from what I witnessed, rapid but thoughtful change is omnipresent) rests on three pillars:

  • Accessibility that will require a low-cost model with an average tuition of $2000, a student-to-faculty ratio of at least 100 to 1, and a limited number of degree fields; 
  • Student-chosen “missions” rather than faculty-designed majors that will animate and organize each student’s education; 
  • A model of education focused on Learning through Doing: with 10% taking place in the classroom;  20% in developmental relationships with peers, coaches, and mentors; and the remaining 70% in field-based experiential work centered in one or more hubs that are being developed across the African continent (although currently there are also foundation-supported hubs in Silicon Valley and Toronto). 
The cool ALU hub in Kigali

I’m sure all of this sounds quite theoretical. I know it did to me (even with Provost Thwala’s tutelage) until I had the chance to spend time with ALU students. There was certainly nothing theoretical or insubstantial about these young leaders on fire. Students come from all across the continent and have chosen ALU and worked to develop their missions because each feels compelled to make a difference not just to the future of their local community, but also to the future of Africa.

ALU seniors celebrating after their brilliant capstone presentations.

Their senior capstone projects (a half-dozen of which I was invited to attend) are like an American honors thesis and bore testimony to the students’ wildly creative and professional endeavors: from gaming technology that fosters wildlife conservation, to a published young-adult adventure book based on an ancient African advanced civilization, to a sociological study of how sex education is impacted by the internet. Very impressive! 

I, for one, could not be more excited to witness ALU’s journey. And it is tremendously rewarding to know that ALU believes NECHE’s commitment to continuous institutional improvement can play an important role in helping this ambitious university achieve its mission. 

Stay tuned!! 

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