Six Personalities driving transformation in higher education in Africa

Africa has been the land of opportunities, so are the Africans writing their own future. Continent has seen leaders making impact on the lives of millions across the world. Tons of African entrepreneurs  are working tirelessly towards providing quality and accessible higher education to Africans, education which are relevant and comparable to the global standards, or it should say transformative education. I have sourced details of six such personalities working towards higher education development in Africa. Information about them and their institutions have been gathered from their respective websites and other publications available in the public domain. I have collected relevant information about their contribution and achievements together in this blog for readers to know about them. They are not ranked in any order.



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Hon. Atiku Abubakar - Founder, American University of Nigeria


Atiku Abubakar is a Nigerian politician, businessman and philanthropist, who served as the second elected Vice-President of Nigeria from 1999 to 2007. The American University of Nigeria (AUN) was established in 2003 by him along with other local and international statesmen and academic leaders. The institution was conceived as Africa’s first Development University. Its mission is to pioneer service learning and build leaders who will be prepared to tackle societal concerns. Located in Yola, Adamawa State Nigeria, the University is a world-class career-oriented institution missioned to be an agent of change in the development of the region. AUN has a strong commitment to providing the skills and the leadership essential to solving the continent’s critical social and economic problems.


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While laying the foundation for AUN, he has said that having benefited from the US system of instruction as a young man, he was eager to make available in Nigeria an American trained faculty – emphasising critical thinking, small classes, student participation, problem-solving. AUN has received special recognition from Google. In a bid to alleviate the educational decadence in Northeastern Nigeria, Abubakar issued scholarship to 15 escapees of the Chibok schoolgirls kidnapping. AUN is a residential campus situated on 2,400 hectares.


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Patrick G. Awuah, Jr. - Founder and President of Ashesi University College, Ghana


Patrick Awuah is the Founder and President of Ashesi University College, a private, not-for-profit institution that has quickly gained a reputation for innovation and quality education in Ghana. He is a Ghanaian engineer, educator, and entrepreneur. Awuah established Ashesi University in 2002. He was awarded a MacArthur fellowship in 2015 for his work with Ashesi.


Ashesi aims to contribute to a renaissance in Africa by educating a new generation of ethical, entrepreneurial leaders with the critical thinking skills and ethical courage it will take to transform their continent. Now in its 16th year, graduates are working for progress across Africa and the University has become a recognized voice in higher education in Ghana. In 2012, Ashesi University was ranked as one of the top ten Most Respected Companies in Ghana, and was the first educational institution to win the award. In the same survey, Patrick Awuah was named the 4th Most Respected CEO in Ghana.


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At the heart of the Ashesi experience is our liberal arts and sciences curriculum, and our campus culture. Ashesi students come from 18 African countries to learn, live and innovate together; half are on scholarships, and 48% are women. On campus, these students join with faculty and Ashesi leadership to engage in discussion, civic action and connection with each other—under a shared mission to transform the African continent.


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Dev Varyani - Founder Chairman, NIIT Ghana, BlueCrest University College, Ghana, Sierra Leone & Liberia and Academic City College, Ghana.


Mr. Dev Varyani is a seasoned entrepreneur who started his first business in Nigeria 23 years ago. Since then, Vista group has established itself as market leader in more than 14 countries in Africa under Dev’s leadership. He started the IT revolution in Ghana by establishing first NIIT training centre in Accra in 1999, having trained more than 50,000 students in the region. Continuing his contribution towards education development in Africa, he set up centre for Sikkim Manipal University in Ghana in late 2007. Continuing his stint further in higher education he established BlueCrest University College in 2010 in Ghana, followed by Liberia and Sierra Leone. His latest venture has been in Fashion education with the establishment of School of Fashion & Design in Accra. To expand his contribution towards higher education a new brand Academic City College was also launched in 2015 to offer specialised job oriented tertiary programs. Till date, his institutions made an impact on the lives of thousands of youth in Africa.  




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A highly passionate individual and a motivating professional, Mr. Dev has remained a highly successful entrepreneur in the region. His western outlook coupled with fine business acumen has helped instill a sense of confidence among its employees who look up to him as their role model. Many proposals for expanding into Africa are received by him from various industries to grow and venture into new projects in Africa. Just recently Mr. Dev Varyani  has been appointed as the Member,Board of Governors at Sri Sri University India.


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Fred Swaniker - Founder, African Leadership University, Mauritius & Rwanda


Fred Swaniker is a Ghanaian serial entrepreneur and leadership development expert. He has launched four organizations that aim to develop leaders, primarily in Africa. He is the chairman and founder of the African Leadership Academy, an institution located outside Johannesburg in South Africa that is developing 6,000 transformative leaders for Africa over a 50-year period. He is also the founder of African Leadership Network, Global Leadership Adventures, and African Leadership University which is opening multiple universities across Africa with the aim of grooming 3 million leaders by 2060.


Fred is deeply passionate about Africa and believes that the missing ingredient on the continent is good leadership. In line with this, he has founded two organizations that aim to catalyze a new generation of ethical, entrepreneurial African leaders: African Leadership Academy and the African Leadership Network.


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ALU have developed a Learning Cycle that helps students learn new skills and master concepts. This 4-part Learning Cycle incorporates the need to discover gaps in your knowledge and skillset, self-paced learning, peer learning (students teaching and learning from each other) and facilitated group learning. Every stage of the Learning Cycle is incorporated into the classes students take in their Leadership Core. ALU goes above and beyond to provide students with an education like no other. We focus on giving student a holistic experience designed to make them a successful entrepreneur, leader and a better citizen of the world. ALU has identified several fundamental strategies that make our approach to teaching and learning unique, relevant and engaging.

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Elizabeth Dearborn Hughes - Co-Founder & CEO, Akilah Institute for Women, Rwanda


Elizabeth moved to Rwanda a few days after graduating from Vanderbilt University in 2006. After volunteering with grassroots projects, she co-founded the nonprofit Amani Africa to provide scholarships to street children, and organize reconciliation and conflict resolution conferences for genocide survivors. In 2008, Elizabeth and her husband Dave Hughes founded the Akilah Institute to provide market-relevant education and career development to promising young female leaders. Akilah is an accredited college with majors in Information Systems, Entrepreneurship, and Hospitality Management.

Newsweek recognized Elizabeth as one of the 125 Women of Impact. She was recognized as one of the World’s Most Influential Female Social Entrepreneurs by Forbes Magazine. Elizabeth received the Woman of Peace award from the Women’s Peace Power Foundation in October 2009. Akilah has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, GOOD Magazine, ABC News, the Council on Foreign Relations, HuffPost Women, Hope Magazine, the Tampa Bay Times, and more. Elizabeth and Dave live in Kigali, Rwanda with their daughter Lorraine.

Akilah offers a unique model of market-relevant education that enables young women to achieve economic independence and obtain leadership roles in the workplace and in society. The Akilah Institute for Women is the only women's college in Rwanda. Akilah offers a unique model of market-relevant education empowering graduates for success in careers and leadership roles. Students select to major in entrepreneurship, information systems, or hospitality management. 97% of Akilah students are the first in their family to attend higher education. Akilah aims to build future generations of women leaders and professionals in Africa through the development of a network of campuses. Akilah will graduate 1,200 students by the year 2020. Akilah has a 95% job placement rate for the first two graduating classes.


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Prof. Philip Cotton - Vice Chancellor, University of Rwanda


When Phil Cotton told his teachers at Riddlesdown Comprehensive in Croydon, south London, in the 1970s, that he wanted to be a doctor, they laughed. “We don’t do that here”, they said. Almost four decades later, he helped to establish Rwanda’s first medical school as Principal of the then newly created College of Medicine and Health Sciences in Kigali. Education has been his lifelong passion—and developed a second passion for Africa, after first visiting Mozambique on a student elective 28 years ago. He was handed the greatest challenge of all. The creation of the medical school in Rwanda was part of a massive government project to merge seven public educational organisations, including what was formerly known as the Kigali Health Institute, into a new University of Rwanda, on the model of the University of California in the USA. “Our ambition is to be one of the top universities in Africa within 10 years. I think we are going to see Rwanda setting the standard for health care across east Africa”, Cotton said. (Source: www.lancet.com).


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Prof. Phil Cotton was appointed the Vice Chancellor for University of Rwanda in October 2015. In the most recent report on the research performance of universities, the University of Rwanda (UR) is ranked as the second most influential University in East Africa. The report produced by Clarivate Analytics (formerly Thomson Reuters), is based on information in the Web of Science database, indicates that the University of Rwanda’s research output doubled from 314 publications in 2014 to 622 in 2016. In the same report Rwanda is considered to have the most influential and impactful research in Eastern Africa. According to the Essential Science Indicators, publications by researchers from UR and its collaborators in the Medical and Health Sciences have appeared and been cited in the top 10% of the most influential research journals in the World.