Dr Nhlanhla Thwala

Vice-Chancellor | Provost of Africa Leadership University

AfricaLive: How would you define your identity as an institution, and what major milestones have you achieved?

Dr. Nhlanhla Thwala: The Africa Leadership University is the successor institution of the Africa Leadership Academy which was a high school. The founders started it with the idea of creating a university preparation institution that would prepare students for the university challenge ahead. The institution was founded on core values such as discipline and knowledge with the main mission being to solve Africa’s leading challenges. The founders believed in solving the continent’s problems through African philosophies of how to look at knowledge, society and development. 

The institution is rooted in African pride and recruits students from all over the continent. With our Pan-African ideals well enshrined, we started questioning the norm of sending African students abroad to expand their learning. It seemed like all the best African talent was being shipped out leaving the continent with a dearth of expertise that can help in development. This line of thinking led to the development of the African Leadership College in Mauritius which was closely allied with the Glasgow Caledonian University. Despite the strong British connection, the university is strong on African leadership values. The values include; leading yourself, leading others, educating for impact and leading complex projects. 

The college took off shortly after it was established, but we realized that we were still operating at a very boutique level. As educators, we have learned how to do good quality at a small scale, but not good quality at a large scale, which is what Africa needs. The challenge became clear, we had to implement a university concept and a scale concept under the auspices of a Pan African framework. This led to the creation of the African Leadership University in Rwanda. 

At the ALU, we have programs at the post and undergraduate levels that help solve the scale problem. At undergraduate level, we have a program known as Bachelor of Science in Global Challenges, which educates our young people on their continents’ challenges and opportunities. The intention here is to curate the education system in a way that addresses our problems by sensitizing students about them. Other undergraduate courses include Bachelors in entrepreneurship, computer science and international trade and business. We believe that all these disciplines can help address Africa’s leading challenges. These programmes have helped spearhead conversations that should lead to solutions. 

AfricaLive: How are you looking to make an impact on the continent now and into the future?

Dr. Nhlanhla Thwala: We are looking to make an impact by ensuring a seamless transition from high school, undergraduate to postgraduate level. Our programs in all levels must be fine-tuned to appreciate technology, business acumen and entrepreneurship. Our students must master the technological tools of the day that can help improve African lives and also have the business acumen that leads to wealth creation. Entrepreneurship must be geared towards turning our most stubborn challenges into opportunities. 

As a leadership university, we are also looking to intensively train in leadership. Our main focus is creating synergies between junior and senior leadership. We have to produce senior leadership that internalizes Africa’s problems as opportunities. We believe that the best place to start is by exposing young people to some of our biggest challenges. It conditions them early so that they understand the assignment ahead which is tackling the biggest problems. 

AfricaLive: So you believe in not only imparting knowledge but also in conditioning the youth to believe that they can play a huge role in solving societal problems?

Dr. Nhlanhla Thwala: We believe that young people are a resource that can be deployed to come up with ideas that improve society. Young people’s perspectives are often so different from mine, and I find it fascinating. I come from a generation that is quite methodical, we believe in being scholarly trained, doing feasibility studies, and then getting funding. Young people are more into articulating the problem first.

This has created the basis of modern research, especially in this part of the world. We start with root cause analysis and then try to innovate within the constraints that exist. This eliminates the excuse of lacking resources because it stresses the need to innovate within the constraints. This model led to the rise of M-Pesa in Kenya, which is one of the most successful mobile money models in the world. 

AfricaLive: In that same train of thought, what does innovation mean in the context of the markets you operate in?

Dr. Nhlanhla Thwala: We check for the systemic change that an innovation brings to society. We also check for impact in specific areas of focus that affect our lives. The third element is the debate between inventing and reinventing. We don’t mind either as long as it leads to impact and progression. It’s all about inputs, processes and outcomes. Sometimes the inputs stay the same but we rearrange the processes to change the outcomes. Other times we maintain the processes and change the inputs to arrive at optimal outcomes. It’s all fine as long as we get outcomes that are favourable to our situation. So we stress the need for favourable outcomes for our students and ensure they value that above all else.

AfricaLive: Does this emphasis on outcomes call for a change in the way we have thought about things before?

Dr. Nhlanhla Thwala: Definitely, we insist on scholarship but not to the point of paralysis. We must focus on outcomes. Focussing on outcomes alone though could be a recipe for disaster, so we scrutinize these outcomes on the basis of ethics and impact. This is why we want to develop ethical, entrepreneurial leaders. Outcomes must be underpinned by ethics and impact in order to strike a healthy balance.

AfricaLive: What is the role of a university when it comes to creating an ethical mindset in young people?

Dr. Nhlanhla Thwala: There are two levels to this, one philosophical and the other historical. Africa has gone through periods of transition from the precolonial, colonial and post-colonial eras. We have to ask ourselves what kind of leaders Africa needs at this moment in time. The discussion around our history and the good and bad philosophies of the past will lead us to optimal answers. 

AfricaLive: Across the world, it’s been challenging to get industry and university partnerships to work. What is your outlook on industry partnerships with your institution and what are the building blocks of a successful partnership?

Dr. Nhlanhla Thwala: We are open to partnering with like-minded entities, especially in the research and development area. In research and development partnerships, the industry is usually looking for ideas that they find useful, or are looking to prototype solutions that they have developed. Our faculty members are also involved because they learn of some of the problems that bedevil the industry and then present them to students as areas for research. Students then come up with solutions that could be of benefit to the industry. This happens in sectors such as agriculture, financial services, and sustainability. These partnerships go a long way in making sure that our education remains relevant both now and in the future. 

We also seek to impart business models and teach our students how to win. We encourage our faculty and students to pay attention to the development of resources that will enable us to implement our programs. As an institution, we embrace entrepreneurship and the capitalist motive because we don’t want our students to end up being victims. We have to make it clear to them that there is a game being played out there and they have to learn it, play it and win. 

AfricaLive: ALU has an interesting focus when it comes to finding solutions at the intersection of sustainability and profitable business. What are your thoughts on how to balance the capitalist approach with the need to conserve our natural environment and find sustainable solutions for our future? 

Dr. Nhlanhla Thwala:: This is a controversial topic that needs a wider discussion. The conservation cause needs funding and more often than not, private institutions do a better job than public institutions. Most zoos and conservatories under public jurisdiction are collapsing because the funding isn’t sufficient. We must figure out how to make both private and public resources participate in conservation efforts. 

Conservation has been the subject of competing interests for a long time. One party wants to kill elephants for instance, for a short-term gain while another wants to conserve the elephants for long term gain. We believe that if you want the conservationists to win, you must incentivize them. As an institution, our role is to do research and show investors, government and communities what they stand to gain by keeping the animals alive. This way, we have more conservationists than poachers. 

We have to make the case for conservation and make it clear to members of the community, the business class and to the government. This is why we have been busy undertaking this research and presenting solutions. We have done research in Mauritius, Kenya and Namibia with more governments inviting us to go and do research in their jurisdictions. Our aim is to present a strong case that isn’t just centered on the moral imperative. Sustainability cannot depend on philanthropic contributions alone, we have to keep the momentum by exposing the economic benefits in order to keep the sustainability model going.

AfricaLive: What message would you like to communicate to readers who may be in a position to build partnerships and collaborate in tackling the challenges Africa faces?

Dr. Nhlanhla Thwala: My message to those in the scientific community is; we deeply value science and scientific research. We go beyond that by believing that scientific research needs to be translated and made accessible so that people can see what they can get from it. Scientific research has no value if it is shelved, it needs to be presented to the industry and the government for it to be useful. 

We are interested in partnering with people from all over the world who believe in research translation and deployment in order to solve Africa’s problems.  We are looking at developing a leadership continuum in ethics and education. We want partners that can help us fill the gap that exists there. We are grappling with how to inculcate leadership at a personal, societal and business level in order to maximize value.  We also want to implement mission learning where students are motivated by intrinsic rather than extrinsic values.

I am proud to have spearheaded a learning system where students get to finish their undergraduate programs with a clear manual and assignments on what they have to achieve after that stage. It keeps them productive and active as they get clearer on their paths in life. Partners who are intrigued and are willing to work with us in all these areas are more than welcome to engage. 

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.