A New Model of Leadership for Africa
Here’s the Twitter version of the Patrick Awuah story: Grow up in Accra, scholarship to Swarthmore, Microsoft engineer, millionaire by 30, marry, have son, return home, save world.
Africa’s rich and powerful are almost as easy to spot as its ubiquitous poor. Many of them shuttle to and from work and around towns like Accra, Ghana, in shiny chauffeured cars and oversized SUVs.
That’s not how Patrick Awuah ’89 rolls. The man who wants to revolutionize how Africa educates its future chief executives of government and business—he’s spent $700,000 of his own money doing it—drives himself to work in a 1999 Honda CR-V, looking more like a suburban dad than a mover or shaker.
Awuah has been doing things differently since he launched Ashesi University College nearly eight years ago in Accra, his hometown. It’s become a model for the fast-growing number of private universities in sub-Saharan Africa.
Forty percent of Ashesi’s 450 students receive some financial aid, something that underfunded and overcrowded public universities can’t afford to give. At its core is a liberal arts education, inspired by Awuah’s experience at Swarthmore, that challenges students to think critically. On a hilltop north of the city, a new campus is under construction and Awuah has been fielding calls about launching similar schools around Africa. It’s not a stretch to say that the 44-year-old Awuah stands as a new model for African leadership. A glance around the continent finds political leaders rewriting constitutions and rigging elections to maintain their grip on power. When’s the last time you heard any of them say something like: “I do need to think about succession planning. I’m not going to be president of this institution forever. It is fair to say that we’ll need to get this institution to a certain place and I need to have the courage and the grace to step aside and let the institution really grow up, without its founder.”
Or this: “We need to make sure that this is not an institution that is about Patrick.”
In 1985, Ghana was economically crippled under a military dictatorship. Swarthmore accepted Awuah on a near-full scholarship, requiring that he pay just $400. But his family couldn’t afford it, prompting the U.S. Embassy—the same embassy that today calls him for advice—to initially reject his application for a visa. Swarthmore fixed the problem by giving him a full scholarship. He double-majored—economics and engineering—landed a job working for Bill Gates, and, at Microsoft, he met future wife Rebecca, a software testing engineer.
That’s a success story by any measure, but 14 years ago, their life changed with the birth of their first child, Nanayaw, recounts Rebecca Awuah, who now teaches calculus at Ashesi. They also have a 7-year-old daughter, Efia.
“That was a transition period for us, becoming parents,” she says from her office. “For Patrick, the real strong realization was that the negative image of what’s going on in Africa influences the self-perception of everyone of African descent. He felt that in addition to doing something for his country—by trying to educate people to be better leaders and solve some of the big problems we have in Africa—that improvement here would also influence the self-perception of the diaspora.”
So he left Microsoft and enrolled at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. In 1998, he and a team of friends traveled to Ghana to complete a feasibility study on creating a private university. He wrote Ashesi’s business plan for his M.B.A. thesis. Classmate Nina Marini co-founded the school. She’s now a trustee.
The school opened in 2002 with 30 students, half of whom were on financial aid. Providing aid was among the most difficult decisions early on. Ashesi could have built up reserves by restricting enrollment to full-paying students for the first few years and then begun the aid program. Giving aid right away meant gambling on the school’s future—there was just a year’s worth of capital when the first students walked through the door.
“The most important question [that we ask our students] is what is a good society and how do you organize it?” Awuah says. “That conversation is not interesting if you only have students from affluent families in your classroom. It’s not interesting if you only have men, or if you only have women, or if you only have poor people. We wanted diversity, and we needed to put some financial resources toward achieving that diversity.”
There’s plenty of research to support Awuah’s conclusion, but he was drawing on his own experiences as well. Swarthmore gave him a great opportunity, but there were also lessons learned from his parents. His father (also Patrick) worked as a mechanical engineer for Ghana’s rail system, and his mother, Catherine, was a nurse who later became a wholesaler.
“We always had cousins over with us—extended family that were having financial trouble, that needed help to put their kids through school. My parents were always willing to do that,” he recalled. “On some occasions my father would even support strangers, help them with their school fees, things like that.”
ASHESI OFFERS FOUR-YEAR BACHELOR'S DEGREES in business administration, computer science. and management information systems. Seniors are required to complete a community service project before graduating—and many graduate with job offers from corporate Ghana and government ministries.
Araba Amuasi had two software development job offers when she graduated in 2007. “With that kind of position in Ghana, I’d be very comfortable,” she explained.
She rejected both offers. Far from the big-city bustle of Accra is the Village of Hope orphanage in the town of Fetteh, through which captive Africans would pass centuries ago on their way to the Fort of Good Hope and enslavement. Amuasi is now chief operating officer at the orphanage, which houses 175 children, a school, and a health clinic. She’s overhauling the school’s curriculum and plans to introduce a basic computer-programming class.
“The fulfillment doesn’t come from finances,” says Amuasi, who volunteered at the orphanage for her community service project. “My education opened opportunities for me to see different classes of people. When you realize that you are among the privileged, I feel it is your responsibility to give back—to let your education benefit other people.”
Higher-education enrollment in sub-Saharan Africa has tripled to 4 million since 1990, fueled by population growth and expanded access to high school. Still, just 5 percent of eligible black Africans are actually enrolled, compared to the global average of 26 percent. Nearly 60 percent of applicants to Ghana’s public institutions were turned away in 2008 because of lack of space and staff, according to Minister of Education Alex Tettey-Enyo.
Since 1990, the number of private universities has grown from 24 to 468, while public institutions have doubled to 200. Many of the new private schools are religious-based; most of them, including nonsectarian Ashesi, are not-for-profits.
As students grow frustrated with public-school problems including overcrowded classrooms, teacher absences, poor infrastructure, and a lack of supplies, they’re turning to private schools like Ashesi, despite the cost. At $5,300 per year, Ashesi is the most expensive university in Ghana, more than double the cost of a typical public university. But, because of its financial-aid program, it is also Ghana’s least expensive university for some students.
Ironically for Awuah, it was the administration of former Ghanaian President Jerry Rawlings that opened the door to private higher education, beginning in the 1990s. Before he became the elected president, Flight Lt. Rawlings was Ghana’s military dictator in the 1980s, trumpeting socialist economic policies that devastated the country, wiping out the middle class, which included Awuah’s family.
While Awuah was working in Seattle helping to create a remote access server for Windows, a wave of “economic reform” was sweeping Africa. Rawlings, pushed by lenders including the World Bank and newfound allies including President Bill Clinton, democratized the economy by selling off state interests in businesses. He eventually removed barriers to private higher educational institutions, allowing competition with the country’s seven public universities. Thirty private university colleges have opened in Ghana.
AWUAH IS NOT A "HEY , LOOK AT ME" kind of guy, but he understood that creating what he hoped would be the beginning of an African Ivy League requires lots of money. So he hired savvy fundraising and public relations specialists. Awuah’s life story had been told in the press before, and this helped attract powerful allies.
“I read about it in the Ghanaian papers,” says Sam Jonah, himself a Ghanaian success story.
Jonah rose through the ranks at Ashanti Goldfields mining company to become chief executive in 1986, when he was 36 years old. Today he runs an investment company based in Johannesburg. He calls Awuah “my hero.”
“He decided to come back,” Jonah says. “It doesn’t happen in our part of the world. I was quite intrigued. He’s a living example of what is needed to build nations.”
Jonah called Ashesi and asked for a meeting with Awuah. Afterward, he donated $40,000 for the school’s library and joined the board of trustees. Jonah says he’s seen for himself and hears from fellow business leaders that Ashesi graduates “have a sense of focus.” He attributes that maturity to Ashesi’s liberal arts core, arguing that the traditional public system is too rigid.
Ashesi students analyze literature and culture in a Text and Meaning course, debate economic and political decisions of African governments in Comparative Politics, and study philosophers in Social Theory—among other courses—before focusing solely on their business-related majors.
Quotes from William Butler Yeats and Martin Luther King Jr. adorn the whiteboard outside Awuah’s office. He credits Goethe—“If there is anything you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now.”—for empowering him in the early days. It also informed his choice of “Ashesi,” which means “new beginning” in the Fanti dialect of the Akan language in Ghana.
“I am really concerned about the human spirit,” Awuah says. “I’m concerned about character and ethos … about something deeper within people, about how they’re seeing the world, how they’re seeing others, how they’re seeing their role in their environment. Those kinds of things really speak to me. That really is the essence of leadership.”
As much as Awuah might prefer to solve problems from his compact office in Accra, he’s clearly become a star in the African higher-education circles—and beyond. Last summer, he was an invited speaker at a UNESCO conference in Paris. The U.S. ambassador to Ghana attended the groundbreaking ceremony at Ashesi’s new campus, as did Ghana’s minister of education.
When Rebecca Awuah thinks back to their days in Seattle, she says she couldn’t have projected “the trajectory that we’ve taken, especially in the sense of his leadership position—but that has obviously become a very strong skill and attribute. The leadership capacity has evolved and developed. He’s somewhat reserved, meticulous. He’s an engineer by training. He thinks through problems. But he’s not a connector. He’s not the type of person who goes out and has a big network of people.”
Cocktail parties and black tie fetes? “Those types of events are not his favorite, although he’s adapted,” she says.
NEXT COMES EXPANSION. Ashesi’s Seattle-based nonprofit foundation has raised $3.7 million, largely from American and African donors. The International Finance Corporation, the private lending arm of the World Bank, followed up with its first-ever loan to a private university in Ghana, providing $2.5 million.
Construction of the new hilltop campus near the village of Berekuso is scheduled to be complete in two years, allowing enrollment to reach 1,000. The new campus will have a little-Ivy feel, with dormitories, libraries, an auditorium, and cafeteria—replacing the current crowded urban location. The new campus is designed to eventually accommodate 2,000 students.
Nine years ago, before Ashesi opened its doors to the first students, Berekuso was seeking to sell 100 acres overlooking greater Accra. The village is just 15 miles north of the capital, but after 45 minutes driving through small towns and over peaks to get there, one gets the sense of being much farther from the city.
Two years before the first Ashesi student set foot on the Accra campus, Berekuso Village Chief Nana Oteng-Korankye II made an important decision—and a financial sacrifice. He was already negotiating the sale of the land to a Dutch real estate developer (whom he calls “the white man”), who planned to build luxury housing. No money had changed hands, so Awuah saw an opening.
“It’s an absolutely stunning location. It’s up on a hill, so it’s a little cooler than in the city,” Awuah says. “They had a verbal agreement that they were going to do a deal and were beginning to do paperwork for it.”
Awuah asked the chief for a meeting. Half the population of plantain and pineapple farmers showed up, including school children, elders, and many in between.
“I was highly impressed,” Korankye says. “The way he talked, wanting to establish the school to help Ghana and Africa … this man is not somebody who is just making up a story.”
So Berekuso chose Ashesi. The price was $100,000, just one-quarter of what they would have earned from the developer. A university will provide jobs for villagers and inspiration for young children, Korankye reasoned.
“We called the white man,” the chief says, expecting the developer to be angry. “I said we are getting a university here. We are giving our land to the university.”
“The white man agreed with us,” he says. “The man was very happy. He made wine and placed my name on it, from him to me, and says it was a good decision I made, and the school will help the village. We are friends even now.”
Also under construction are plans to add four new majors, all of which address needs in Ghanaian—and African—society. They’re beginning the accreditation process for progams in engineering and applied sciences, interdisciplinary liberal arts, law, and management and economics. “You notice I didn’t say business management. I said management, so that we’ll also add public management,” Awuah says. “If you look around this country, there are a lot of issues that have to do with management. You go to a hospital, a lot of the problems that you see are management problems. You go to the airport, our schools, everywhere.”
Awuah considers the law degree important because, in addition to those in the justice system, many members of parliament and other political leaders obtain legal training, “In an emerging democracy like this, we see that lawyers who are educated in the mold of those who are educated at Swarthmore—critical thinkers before going to learn law—can not only be good lawyers but can also be lawyers who empathize with their clients better, because they have a broader perspective than just law,” he says.
With the school’s success come offers, or at least inquiries, from home and abroad. A businessman in Zambia offers to buy land to start a school there. Inquiries come from Nigeria. Plus, Awuah’s countrymen have urged him to open more schools in Ghana.
At some point, Awuah plans to write a “how to” book; he’s saved virtually every document they’ve created, including business models. But whether they will hand the tool kit to others, partner with them, or venture on their own again is unknown.
“When we started this project, we very much had a desire to develop an institution that can be replicated. We keep that in mind, [but] we will not attempt to replicate unless we feel we’re ready, and I think we’re a long way from that.” Building the new campus and adding academic departments take priority over talk of future expansion, he says.
“We are very clear with ourselves that for now we need to stay very focused because building this institution has not been easy. It takes an incredible amount of energy and focus. We don’t want to take our eye off the ball and risk degradation of quality here. I think it’s aspirational for us, but you’re talking to a guy who”—breaking into laughter here—“has been in the trenches for awhile, and is a little more pragmatic than nine years ago.”
Ken Maguire, a former Associated Press reporter, is a freelance writer based in West Africa. This is his first article for the Bulletin. Maguire lives in Togo, but most of his freelance work is in neighboring Ghana and includes regular features in GlobalPost.com on topics such as Ghana's gold and cocoa industries, kente cloth, and efforts to protect sea turtles that nest on Ghana's beaches. Married with two young children, he teaches a U.S. government class at a high school in Lomé, Togo's capital.