Lennon Chimbumu is the kind of young adult every mom dreams of raising. Polite and well spoken, the Zimbabwean 20-year-old will probably major in computer science at Stanford, where he's a freshman. During his first few months in the U.S., he felt some culture shock, but the time was also revelatory. He listened to the Beatles for the first time, and his roommate introduced him to more modern bands, such as the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Gorillaz. He's also been swept up by that most American of college experiences: football. "Sometimes I don't understand half the stuff that's happening on the field," he says, "but the feel of being in the stands is definitely exciting."
As he adjusts to life in the U.S., Chimbumu could also become a huge problem for Africa. Bright prospects like him rarely return once they leave, and brain drain has been an enormous challenge for African nations. So an innovative new boarding school in Johannesburg is trying to create some incentives to keep talent at home. The two-year African Leadership Academy program targets the continent's most talented young people, positions them to get top Western-college educations — this fall, it sent its first graduating class abroad, including Chimbumu — and then tries to make sure they come back.
The African Leadership Academy's formula for luring talent is actually quite simple. The school offers an education that prepares them for universities like Stanford, Oxford, and MIT, but the annual tuition and fees of $25,000 per student seem ridiculously out of reach for the vast majority of Africans. So the school provides significant aid in the form of forgivable loans. The catch: The loans are forgiven only if students return to Africa after the age of 25 and then work at least 10 years on the continent.
The school's founders don't want to simply hold a debt over their students' heads. Through a curriculum focused primarily on African studies, leadership, and entrepreneurship, the academy tries to show students that, while there are clearly dire needs in Africa, there are also big opportunities. "They're not going to come back to Africa out of a sense of altruism," says cofounder Fred Swaniker, a Stanford Business School graduate who has lived in 10 African countries. "We need to match that passion and sense of giving back to Africa with raw opportunity so that they see it's in their best interest in every way to come back to Africa."
The students who make it through the African Leadership Academy's intense application process — for the newest class, only 114 of the 2,300-plus applicants were admitted — come from all across the continent; 36 countries are currently represented. Academic talent is a given. The students also typically show interest in addressing social needs within their communities. For instance, one student built a windmill to provide power to his village. Another organized an effort among kids in his refugee camp to raise money to run a school. Another is Gambia's most prominent AIDS activist.
"It's an amazing feeling when you're talking to a student and you can tell that this person is going to be the president of a country one day," says Swaniker. He himself became headmaster at age 18 of another school he and his mother started in Botswana. Still, he laughs, he probably wouldn't have made the cut into the African Leadership Academy.
The school, which costs about $6.5 million a year to run, is 88% donor-funded by contributors such as the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, the Bezos Family Foundation, and the MasterCard Foundation. The school's 75 faculty and staff come from more than a dozen countries. And students are deliberately paired with roommates from a different country or region — so Chimbumu, for instance, roomed with students from England (occasionally, students come from outside of Africa) and Kenya. "It's giving them an understanding of the entire continent, not just their part of the continent," says interim principal Jenny Ketley, a veteran South African educator.
Classes, which are capped at about 15 students, emphasize discussion and interaction rather than lectures. As a kind of hands-on thesis, students are also required either to participate in running a business, such as the on-campus bank or an operation that supplies chickens and eggs for the school cafeteria, or to develop a long-term service project meant to continue even after their time at the academy is over. One such project focusing on impoverished informal settlements near Johannesburg has brought biodiesel energy to a school and helped residents raise money by creating and selling art made from recycled materials. Another project developed math DVDs for other schools serving underprivileged students in South Africa.
Leading a business or a service project is part of what Swaniker calls a "leadership-development ecosystem." "You can't teach leadership in a two-year program," says cofounder Chris Bradford, an American from Kalamazoo, Michigan. "But what you can do is create an environment in which leadership can be learned and in which students are prepared to continue to learn leadership throughout their lives."
The founders also hope that the networks the students establish at the school will serve as a support structure for them once they return to Africa as working professionals. The connections they will eventually make at university "really don't stretch that far into this continent, and I think that's a really frustrating experience for a lot of African students," says Bradford. "That contributes to brain drain."
School officials know some students may not come back — it wouldn't take all that long for one to earn enough as a New York investment banker to pay off the loans — but they're hopeful that the combination of leadership training and Africa-focused education will inspire the majority of the students to return.
Chimbumu, for one, is loving life in the U.S., but Africa's still on his mind. He's already considering adding a second major to his computer-science studies — possibly in human development or public health, two fields that would prepare him to address the incapacitating effects of poverty back home. "I'm thinking about what I could do back in Zimbabwe to help the country," he says. "I think that's where I can make the most impact." And if he follows through on that, the African Leadership Academy will have done its job.
A version of this article appeared in the December 2010/January 2010 issue of Fast Company magazine.