To see a snapshot of what an African country will look like in 20 years, sit in a college class here today. Africa’s future progress, or the lack of it, is inextricably linked to what is happening in African universities. Let me explain with a statistic. Less than 10% of the young people in sub-Saharan Africa attend college. This percentage is so small that you can be sure that those few Africans in college will, by definition, be running the show in 20 or 30 years. The upcoming leaders in business and government—the professionals, engineers, and managers who will be responsible for tomorrow’s infrastructure, education, health care, and other sectors—are sitting in a college classroom today.
Consider then, in the near future, whether this influential group will play a positive role in creating a healthier, more productive, and more just future for Africa. Will they have strong ethics and a concern for the greater good, regardless of ethnicity, religion, gender, or class? Will they be innovative thinkers, ready to develop creative solutions? Will they have an entrepreneurial mindset, ready to work hard and help Africa’s private sector thrive? How can Africa’s future leaders possibly learn to think and behave differently if we don’t educate them in a different way? If we want different results, we must try something different.
That was the motivation with which we set out to start Ashesi nearly 15 years ago. Our mission: to educate a new generation of ethical, entrepreneurial leaders in Africa. With input from Swarthmore, the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Washington, Ashesi designed a curriculum that combined elements of a traditional liberal arts and sciences college with world-class majors in business and technology. To teach strong values, we created a mandatory four-year leadership series designed to instill ethics and a commitment to greater good.
Ashesi launched with 30 students, half of whom received need-based scholarships. Only 27 percent were women. Today, Ashesi—which means “beginning” in Akan— has grown to about 800 students toward our eventual target of 2,000. Half of our students are women; half receive financial aid. Our graduates are highly sought after in industry, and receive placement within months of graduation, or start their own business. Are our graduates able to uphold high ethical standards in the outside world? Each year, alumni return to campus to share personal examples of being invited to join corrupt schemes. These alumni tell current students how they successfully chose the ethical path, sometimes turning down a great deal of benefit.
I am grateful for Ashesi’s growing reputation, and proud of the work of our students, alumni, staff and faculty. But Africa needs even more from Ashesi, and needs more institutions like Ashesi. Sitting in Africa’s classrooms today are students whose education will set Africa’s course over the next 20 to 30 years. When more African universities follow Ashesi’s model, we will see a better future for Africa and for the world.