How Can Education Improve African Leadership? Patrick Awuah left a career at Microsoft to chase a dream: to found a liberal arts college in his native Ghana. He believes that better education will foster better leaders in Africa.
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How Can Education Improve African Leadership?

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How Can Education Improve African Leadership?

How Can Education Improve African Leadership?

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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This is the TED RADIO HOUR from NPR. I'm Alison Stewart. On today's show, we're hearing some big ideas emerging from Africa, from TED speakers all across the continent.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: OK, are you there?

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON: Yes. Do you need a bit for level, and so on?

STEWART: We also reached out to someone whose voice is a familiar one to NPR listeners.

QUIST-ARCTON: Greetings. I'm Ofeibea Quist-Arcton. At the moment, the Africa correspondent of NPR, based in Dakar, Senegal. But rarely here, because I travel all over the continent.


QUIST-ARCTON: Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News...







STEWART: Ofeibea began reporting from Africa nearly 30 years ago. She is often the first person on the ground when news breaks. But she also seeks out the continent's more nuanced human stories.

QUIST-ARCTON: The debate about whether it's only bad news from Africa or good news stories, or whatever - yes, it's an important debate. But I think the most important thing is to tell a good tale. And that's what will make the listener sit up, prick up their ears and listen. I don't think it matters whether you're in Mogadishu or Missouri. They're going to want to listen.

STEWART: Ofeibea has covered conflicts in Zaire, Mali, the Ivory Coast...


QUIST-ARCTON: Gbagbo's camp defies international calls for him to concede defeat, and he's sworn in at the presidential palace...

STEWART: But she's also known for finding unexpected moments along the way - like at a maternity ward in newly independent South Sudan.


QUIST-ARCTON: This little boy you hear crying had only just been born, but the number one baby has already got his name.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Independence.

QUIST-ARCTON: Independence was immediately nicknamed "Indie" on the ward. His mother, 24-year-old...

QUIST-ARCTON: Being an African - I come from Ghana - I don't get stuck on, how is Africa being reported? Yes, we can't get away from the fact that we report the conflicts and the poverty, and so on. That is part of what happens in Africa. But I don't consider myself a war reporter. I want to report everything, and I think that is what I hold sacred; to make sure that I'm telling as many stories as possible.

Like taking a barge - well, I say a barge, but it was two bits of giant metal, sort of clipped together and towed by a tugboat, along the Congo River; to see what life is like for ordinary Congolese, who use this life source that runs through their country as their Highway 66.


QUIST-ARCTON: The Congo River is tantalizing.


QUIST-ARCTON: Somebody selling shoes... (Foreign language spoken)...and do you do good business here?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Foreign language spoken).

QUIST-ARCTON: She says she makes a lot of money here. And I think with that, she's dismissing me so that she can get on with business. Merci.

QUIST-ARCTON: For me, what's important is to make sure that the aspects of Africa, such as the culture, the music, the creativity, the innovation, the inventiveness and invention - all that gets reported alongside.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Distinguished guest, fellow students, ladies and gentlemen...

QUIST-ARCTON: I heard about Ashesi College University - actually, quite a long time ago. But the story was proposed to me by somebody from NPR who said, look, we're doing a series about immigrants who lived in America and have returned home; done good, and brought progress to their country. So that's how I actually met Patrick Awuah.


PATRICK AWUAH: The moment that students walked in the gates at Ashesi, you know, my emotions were wild.

QUIST-ARCTON: Who used to work for Microsoft, and then decided to take his family home to Ghana; to set up what he wanted to be an Ivy League university in Ghana. But it was the students that really struck me.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: You're like raw gold. The school is like a furnace. The heat from all the courses and everything, from the professors, from the project that you undertake, you come out as a refined substance. You come out glittering. You move with such quality.

QUIST-ARCTON: The fact that these young people have such a belief in themselves and their continent, and feel that they are the ones who are going to propel Africa forward - I mean, it was so uplifting.

STEWART: That's NPR correspondent Ofeibea Quist-Arcton. She covered Ashesi University's first graduation, in 2006. A year later, Ashesi's founder, Patrick Awuah, spoke at TED.


AWUAH: The question of transformation in Africa really is a question of leadership. Africa can only be transformed by enlightened leaders. And it is my contention that the manner in which we educate our leaders is fundamental to progress on this continent.

STEWART: Patrick Awuah says he's committed to educating young people in critical thinking and ethical service, because he believes these values are essential for the nation building that lies ahead in Africa. We'll talk to Patrick in a few minutes. First, let's hear more of his TED Talk.


AWUAH: ...this event, I leave Ghana on a scholarship to go to Swarthmore College for my education. It was a breath of fresh air. You know, the faculty there didn't want us to memorize information and repeat back to them, as I was used to back in Ghana. They wanted us to think critically. They wanted us to be analytical. They wanted us to be concerned about social issues.

In my economics classes, I got high marks for my understanding of basic economics. But I learned something more profound than that, which is that the leaders, the managers of Ghana's economy, were making breathtakingly bad decisions that had brought our economy to the brink of collapse. Leadership matters. It matters a great deal.

But I didn't really fully understand what had happened to me at Swarthmore. I had - I had an inkling, but I didn't fully realize it until I went out into the workplace and I - I went to work at Microsoft Corporation. And I was part of this team, this thinking, learning team, whose job it was to design and implement new software that created value in the world.

And it was - it was brilliant, to be part of this team. It was brilliant. And I realized just what had happened to me at Swarthmore, this transformation. The ability to confront problems, complex problems, and to design solutions for those problems, the ability to create, is the most empowering thing that can happen to an individual. And I was part of that.

Now, while I was at - at Microsoft, the annual revenues of that company grew larger than the GDP of the Republic of Ghana and, by the way, the gap has widened since I left. Now, I've already spoken about one of the reasons why this has occurred. I mean, there's the people there who are so hard working, persistent, creative, empowered.

But there are also some external factors: free markets, the rule of law, infrastructure. These things were provided by institutions run by the people that I call leaders. And those leaders did not emerge spontaneously. Somebody trained them to do the work that they do.

Now, while I was at Microsoft, this funny thing happened. I became a parent and, for the first time, Africa mattered more to me than ever before.

STEWART: Patrick Awuah, welcome to the TED RADIO HOUR.

AWUAH: Thank you, it's my pleasure to be here.

STEWART: Explain to our audience how parenthood played into your decision to return back to Ghana.

AWUAH: Well, all of a sudden I was a parent of an African child. And, more importantly, I was now a member of a generation that owed a responsibility to a future generation. And that's what the birth of my son did for me. It just made me realize that I owed a responsibility to an entire generation that was going to come after me and - and their children as well.

And so that got me to really think more deeply about what was going on in Africa and what I ought to be doing to make the world a better place for this future generation.

STEWART: With a professional background that isn't in education, why did you think starting a liberal arts college would help improve things in Ghana?

AWUAH: The thing about the liberal arts is that it teaches people to think very broadly. It - it teaches people to see things from different perspectives. It teaches critical thinking and problem-solving. And it gives students sort of a philosophical perspective about their role in society.

There's this - this strong teaching of - about ethics and responsibility that I felt are extremely important regardless of, you know, the technical skill that somebody is acquiring in college. And I felt that this was missing in education in Africa. And I felt that this was the root of a lot of the problems that we have in terms of the leadership crisis that we have on the continent.


AWUAH: I asked the question, well, what is it about Ghana that produces leaders that are unethical or unable to solve problems? So I went to look at what was happening in our education system and it's the same: learning by rote from primary school through graduation school. Very little emphasis on ethics. And the average - you know, the typical graduate from a university in Ghana has a stronger sense of entitlement than their sense of responsibility. This is wrong.

So I decided to engage this particular problem, because it seems to me that every society - every society must be very intentional about how it trains its leaders. And Ghana was not paying enough attention and - and this is true across sub-Saharan Africa, actually.

So this is what I'm doing. I'm trying to bring the experience that I had at Swarthmore to Africa. I wish there was a liberal arts college in every African country. I think it would make a huge difference. And what Ashesi University is trying to do is to train a new generation of ethical, entrepreneurial leaders.

We're trying to train leaders of exceptional integrity who have the ability to confront the complex problems, to ask the right questions, and come up with workable solutions.

STEWART: On the home page of your website for your school, the first thing you see is, "Ethical leadership. Innovative thinking. A new Africa." That's the banner. Explain to me why these three ideals are the first thing a potential student will see if they're searching for information about your school on the web page.

AWUAH: Ethical leadership has to do with integrity. It has to do with compassion. It has to do with empathy. And it is the first thing that any future leader or any citizen should be taught, because we live in a world and we operate with others around us. And we ought to be taught how to improve the human condition, if you will.

Innovative thinking has to do with the fact that much of what needs to be built in Africa is yet to be built. There are lots of problems that need to be solved and we need to educate people who are innovators. And teaching people to be innovators has to do, I would say primarily, with courage, right? So the courage to imagine, the courage to act, the courage to persist in that action.

And these are so incredibly important and we feel, my team and I, that if we educate people and do these two things - develop ethical leaders and innovative thinkers - that we would have set the groundwork for a new Africa.

STEWART: One of the things I found interesting in researching about you and your school is that you think Africa needs home grown leaders to bring about change. Why is that?

AWUAH: I don't know of any other place in the world where changes come from outside. And I think that people who - who've been raised in Africa, who understand the culture and how things operate here and who have a deeper appreciation for the problems are actually in the best position to solve the problems here. And that they should be, you know, at the forefront of figuring this out.

They might use help from outside Africa, but really it is up to them to solve the problems here. And just as it has happened elsewhere in the world, I think in Africa it's going to take African talent to cause a renaissance here, to - to cause a transformation on this continent.


AWUAH: I'll admit that there are times when it seems like "Mission: Impossible." But we must believe that these kids are smart, that if we involve them in their education, if we have them discuss the real issue that they confront, that a whole society confronts, and if we give them skills that enable them to engage the real world, that magic will happen.

Now, a month into this project, we've just started classes. I come to the office and I have this email from one of our students and it said very simply, "I am thinking now." And he signs off, "Thank you."

It's such a simple statement, but I was moved almost to tears, because I understood what was happening to this young man. And it is an awesome thing, to be a part of empowering someone in this way. I am thinking now.

STEWART: Over 90 percent of your graduates have chosen to stay in Africa. What have they done or what choices have they made that lets you know that your school is making an impact?

AWUAH: Most of our students who've stayed are working in the private sector. There are some that are working with nonprofits and the government. We see that they very quickly get promoted to middle management and leadership positions wherever they are. It's a wide spectrum of activities that they're engaged in. And some of them have started businesses of their own.

The thing that leads me to believe that we are accomplishing our mission is that we have alumni who come back to campus and talk with students here. And they tell us about the challenges they've had with corruption and how they've stood their ground, how they've acted in the ethical way and thrived, not in spite of it, but actually because of it. That by - by setting a different example, they get noticed. And they actually help their companies prosper.

And this gives me a lot of hope. We've seen students who've decided to work in not-for-profits, who've turned schools around, who are bringing Ashesi's ethos of critical thinking up to primary school and to junior high schools. And this is all very wonderful to see, because it - it - it shows that what we're doing here doesn't just end at our gate, but it's actually rippling out into the society around us.


AWUAH: For many of them, it has been a life-altering experience. These young future leaders are beginning to understand the real business of leadership, the real privilege of leadership which is, after all, to serve humanity. And it's just wonderful to see sort of these glimmers of the promise of what can happen if we train our kids right.

I think that the current and future leaders of Africa have an incredible opportunity to drive a major renaissance on the continent. It's an incredible opportunity. There aren't very many more opportunities like this in the world. I believe that Africa has reached an inflection point. With a march of democracy and free markets across the continent, we have reached a moment from which could emerge a great society within one generation.

It will depend on inspired leadership and it is my contention that the manner in which we train our leaders will make all the difference. Thank you and God bless.


STEWART: Patrick Awuah, president of Ashesi University, thank you for joining us on the TED RADIO HOUR.

AWUAH: Thank you very much.

STEWART: Patrick Awuah. You can find out more about Ashesi University and hear a report on Ashesi from NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton. Go to our website:

You're listening to the TED RADIO HOUR from NPR.

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