courtesy of Ashesi University


Patrick Awuah: Transforming African Leadership, One Student at a Time

Meet the SXSW EDU keynote who is revolutionizing African higher education

“Brain drain” is a term used to describe a troubling phenomenon in many parts of the developing world, in which ambitious young people leave their birth nations to find opportunities abroad and never return. This exodus of talent then deprives their countries of the skills and experiences they have gained and that could be used to improve life at home.

Patrick Awuah was initially a contributor to brain drain in his country. In 1985, he left his home in Ghana to attend Swarthmore College in suburban Philadelphia. Then he landed a job at Microsoft as a software engineer and program manager, where he met his future wife and built a comfortable life in Seattle. Yet Awuah was troubled by what he viewed as the failings of leadership in Africa, which fostered the brain drain cycle, so he set about to find a way to educate a new generation of African leaders. His goal would be to keep them in Africa, where their efforts might truly transform the region during its continuing struggles to shake off the specters of war, poverty, civil strife and corruption.

In 2002, Awuah founded Ashesi University near Ghana’s capital, Accra. The goal was to develop a curriculum that entwined liberal arts ideals with practical 21st century skills. In the ensuing 16 years, the school has effectively created a new model for African higher education. Recently announced as a Keynote speaker for SXSW EDU 2019, Awuah generously agreed to answer some questions:

Can you explain how your approach differs from the traditional higher education experience in Ghana?

Patrick Awuah: The higher education system in Ghana is a by-product of our colonial era, which focused more on training people to take instructions than to ask critical questions or solve problems. Today, the legacy of rote memorization continues to permeate all levels of schooling across the continent.

In contrast, Ashesi’s teaching and learning philosophy is centered on engagement and critical thinking. We have designed our curriculum and programs to challenge students to think for themselves and to be curious. Second, we have designed our curriculum and co-curricular activities to foster empathy, ethics and a willingness to solve problems for the greater good. In essence, we are educating students to be engaged citizens and ethical leaders. Third, we are intentional about educating students to have an entrepreneurial mindset by introducing every student to design thinking and problem solving.


courtesy of Ashesi University


With the increasing emphasis being placed on technical skill training in education programs, how would you explain Ashesi’s emphasis on liberal arts education, and how liberal arts are integrated in such programs as engineering and computer science?

PA: We believe that a liberal education is a powerful way to develop good citizens and leaders for any society. That is why we have implemented a multidisciplinary core curriculum for all students – including those in Engineering – that engages students in a conversation about what kind of society they would like to see in Africa, and gives them the tools to contribute to that society. Our core curriculum includes courses that you might expect, such as philosophy, African studies, statistics and social theory; as well as courses that might surprise you, such as computer programming, finance and design thinking.

In your 2007 TED Talk in Tanzania, you said that you believed that African leadership could be transformed within one generation through education and leadership training. How do you think progress has been in the ensuing decade, and how can you measure success for this goal?

PA: I continue to believe this, because I have spent the last 16 years watching students who have graduated from Ashesi go on to have major impact on the continent. Our alumni have helped develop verification tools and systems that have brought trust to the electoral process in several parts of Africa and are strengthening democracy.

One woman who graduated with a computer science degree took her own experiences of often being the only woman in tech teams, and decided to build a movement to get more women in IT. She has trained nearly 5,000 girls so far and brought together over 100 women in technology to make it possible.

We know Africa’s young people are bright, and many have already overcome incredible challenges to do amazing things. And for students who graduate out of Ashesi, we measure how many of them are staying on the continent (90%) to work for progress, and how many of them are starting businesses (5%) and creating jobs. Over time, this collective force of well-educated, empathetic young leaders will help change the trajectory of Africa.


“We believe that a liberal education is a powerful way to develop good citizens and leaders for any society.”

How can the Ashesi model (or lessons from Ashesi’s experience) be applied in other parts of the world, both in developing countries and places such as the US and Western Europe?

PA: We believe that the ways in which our students are able to truly learn are through interactions with the diverse group of people; and a curriculum and pedagogy that challenges them to develop and engage multiple skill sets, show concern for others, and be willing to do the right thing even when it’s most difficult.

I believe that other countries should consider an education model that supports this approach to learning, because we have seen it have a tremendous impact on our students and the careers they lead when they graduate.

If you were to visit Ashesi 50 years from now, what would you hope to see?

PA: I would hope to see a vibrant campus with students from all across Africa that are working together to build amazing organizations for the continent. I would hope that Ashesi’s model becomes a North Star for others, and that other universities help replicate and evolve our model. I would also hope to see that Ashesi remains a community of high integrity, and that this value is evident in the lives and contributions of our alumni.

Patrick Awuah was a Keynote Speaker at SXSW EDU 2019. Watch “Turning Challenges into Opportunities: The Ashesi Way” below:

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