Q&A: Fred Swaniker on the 7 skills needed for the future of work in Africa

Ghanaian entrepreneur Fred Swaniker. Photo by: James Duncan Davidson / TED / CC BY-NC

DOHA, Qatar — As Africa grapples with how to find jobs for its booming population, one Ghanaian entrepreneur is making waves with an alternative higher education model that aims to teach young Africans the skills they need to find jobs and create them for others.

Fred Swaniker was a hotly anticipated speaker at last week’s World Innovation Summit for Education in Doha, where he presented his latest venture, the ALX Launchpad, which offers six-month courses to help new graduates find jobs by teaching them “21st-century skills.”

Africa is set to have the world’s largest workforce by 2035, but with a shortage of jobs and the nature of work changing rapidly due to technological advances, young people often struggle to find employment.

“With ALX, we want to offer a system of learning which has multiple entry and exit ramps. You come in, and you leave and you come back … You're always learning — you never graduate.”

— Fred Swaniker, CEO, ALX

Swaniker, who started his career as a management consultant with McKinsey & Company and is originally from Ghana, has been working on the issue for 15 years. It started with the African Leadership Academy secondary school, which he co-founded in 2004 in South Africa, followed in 2016 by the African Leadership University, which reimagines the traditional academic model to focus on entrepreneurship. It currently has campuses in Mauritius, Rwanda, and Kenya.

The entrepreneur’s new endeavor, ALX, takes a different approach by offering shorter, cheaper, and more flexible “pathways” to employment.

The launchpad courses, which target graduates, are just one component. ALX also runs a program for midlevel professionals, called the Xcelerator, and Swaniker plans to start a program for high school leavers next year. The aim is to develop a lifelong learning platform that people can dip in and out of throughout their lives, he said. He hopes to reach 50,000 people over the next five years.

Devex spoke to Swaniker in Doha to find out more.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What is the thinking behind the ALX programs?

Unlocking the leadership potential in Africa — that's the central issue that we care about. We leverage education and leadership development skills training as a means to that end. It’s not about education for education’s sake.

To develop leaders, we believe you need to bring three things together. [First] you have to select people with leadership potential, so we look beyond just grades and look for traits like passion, imagination, resilience, courage, values.

The second thing is practice … To acquire a new skill, only 10% of it can be learned effectively in the classroom ... You learn best by doing. But today most education is only focused on that 10%. So our students do some classroom learning, but they do a lot more peer-to-peer learning, and then we give them a lot of hands-on practice through projects, internships, and work experience.

The third thing is networks, because we believe that no matter how good your skills are as a leader, if you don't have access to the right networks, then you won’t be able to scale your impact, so we connect them to a lot of funders and partners.

You’ve talked about “lifelong learning,” what do you mean by that?

ALX is essentially a lifelong learning institution. Everyone is talking about … how the world is changing so fast [that] you need to keep learning new skills, but the problem is there is no actual learning institution [set up for that]. ...

Currently, we have this one-size-fits-all pathway within universities. You’re not deemed qualified until you stay the full three or four years and graduate … but I think we should focus much more on competence than on time. If you're able to use the competence required to get a job within eight months, then why do you have to stay for the full three years?

With ALX, we want to offer a system of learning which has multiple entry and exit ramps. You come in, and you leave and you come back … You're always learning — you never graduate.

How does ALX Launchpad fit into this?

Currently, it takes an average college graduate in Kenya five years to get a job. One reason is that universities are not giving them the skills that employers are looking for. The second reason is that there just aren’t enough jobs. But we haven't hit the threshold of the jobs that do exist already, so there is a lot of demand for college graduates and … a lot of supply of college graduates looking for jobs — there's just a mismatch of the skills.

So we started a program for recent college grads ... to give people skills that employers highly value. We did research with hundreds of employers around the world … and identified seven meta-skills for the 21st century, which employers said are missing and designed a curriculum around that. The skills are: critical thinking, leading yourself, leading others, managing projects, and complex tasks, analyzing data and using it to make decisions, thinking entrepreneurially, and communicating data.

“We started in Kenya five months ago with 120 college graduates and aimed to have 100% of them in jobs after six months. Right now, within five months, about 85% already have jobs.”

— Fred Swaniker, CEO, ALX

How is ALX Launchpad going so far?

ALX is the most scalable solution. We can open a new site in 60 days because we use coworking spaces and it's much more cost-effective than … building a physical construction.

We started in Kenya five months ago with 120 college graduates and aimed to have 100% of them in jobs after six months. Right now, within five months, about 85% already have jobs.

Next year, we plan to replicate the program in Dakar, Lagos, Abidjan, and Addis Ababa, and then we’re looking beyond Africa because this is a global innovation that the rest of the world can benefit from.

How much does it cost, and is it open to people from low-income backgrounds?

It’s completely affordable because we have an income-share agreement. Students can either pay for it upfront [at $2,000 per year] or they can finance it using income-share agreements [at 10% of their income for five years]. So it's very focused on outcomes. If they don't get a job, they don’t pay.

We are choosing to use it for high school and college graduates, but the model is applicable in vocational learning. It can be done in rural areas because … [the model is] very affordable.

About the author

  • Sophie Edwards

    Sophie Edwards is a Reporter for Devex based in London covering global development news including global education, water and sanitation, innovative financing, the environment along with other topics. She has previously worked for NGOs, the World Bank and spent a number of years as a journalist for a regional newspaper in the U.K. She has an MA from the Institute of Development Studies and a BA from Cambridge University.