Take one 'uni in a box' and add a pioneer spirit

June 16, 2006

Despair over Africa is common, but a school for entrepreneurs offers school-leavers hope, says Richard Branson

Millions of African children do not get the chance to go to primary school, and international efforts have understandably focused on this in recent years. But what happens once they finish school? Many children who have battled against the odds to get through primary school find their aspirations shattered once they leave as there are no options for them to go on to secondary school, much less dream about any type of higher education. So they remain in the poverty trap, often in a worse position than before, since they are now aware that there is a brighter future out there but one that is completely out of their reach.

There is, however, a real opportunity to harness technology and alternative approaches, to redefine the delivery methods and concept of higher education in Africa and create unique affordable models. This can, in turn, help build economic freedom on the continent and truly "make poverty history".

There are already some wonderful heroes forging the way in this area. Taddy Blecher, the passionate founder of the Community and Individual Development Association (Cida) City Campus, a private higher education institution in Johannesburg, is certainly one of them. He has devised a model that provides virtually free university education to financially disadvantaged young people from across South Africa. Cida has reduced the cost of providing business and technology courses in hundreds of innovative ways, including having businesses sponsor and teach different streams of coursework, and getting the students to help run the university. Students graduate with a fully accredited business degree, and the majority go on to successful careers. With six years' experience, Cida has developed a model that relies on a mix of people and technology, which Blecher calls "a university in a box". He believes it is a model that could be rolled out across Africa.

Through working with Blecher and getting feedback from the students, Virgin Unite, Virgin's charitable arm, decided to form a partnership with Cida and last year opened a School of Entrepreneurship. The aim is to create an alternative path to a business degree by giving students the chance to expand their entrepreneurial skills. In setting up the school, we found that we would have to pursue a slightly different approach to the British take on the word "entrepreneur". We now realise, for instance, that for some South African students, just as important as opening their own business is the opportunity to be exposed to the kind of entrepreneurial energy that can be used in whatever future path they decide to take.

After talking with many young black people and hearing time and again that they aspired to be accountants, it was clear that their world of opportunities had been stifled under apartheid, influencing them to always choose what they considered to be the safest option. While many in Britain grow up with the chance to learn from successful entrepreneurs, there are significantly fewer role models in many parts of South Africa.

With this in mind, the school will focus on ensuring that students are mentored by successful entrepreneurs and receive hands-on learning and exposure to creative thinking. This will build the foundations for them to open their own businesses or to help inject entrepreneurial thinking into existing organisations.

Also, through the generous contributions of several successful British entrepreneurs, we have started a seed fund that will be used to help some of the students grow businesses. As the majority of small businesses in South Africa fail in their first year, we are looking at ways in which we can support the students, for instance, by providing franchise models.

Virgin businesses are also getting in on the act. For example, Virgin Atlantic will help budding entrepreneurs with opportunities in the tourism sector; Virgin Active will help them to become independent personal trainers; and Virgin Cosmetics/Spa is looking at how they can help support young women to become successful beauty therapists.

Technology has a huge role to play in speeding the reach of education. We are working with people such as musician Peter Gabriel to look at how we can gather together best practice in education and increase access to it via the internet. As part of this, we are pulling together some of the best minds in the technology and education sectors, such as Jimmy Wales from Wikipedia, to look at how we can stretch the technology further to increase access to higher education.

But higher education is not all about going to university and getting a degree. I never took this route and feel strongly that, for some people strictly academic learning is not the right option. Therefore, as part of this push to expand people's educational opportunities, I think there needs to be a strong emphasis on other paths of learning, such as teaching trade skills and setting up apprenticeship programmes so young people can get hands-on learning. One of the keys will be understanding the local market and young people's passions so that the education offered is suited to them. Successful businesspeople can also do their bit by investing in small and medium-sized businesses in African countries to help stimulate economic growth and job opportunities.

People complain about corruption, the brain drain and all sorts of other problems in Africa and throw up their hands in despair, yet what we need to do is open our eyes and see that Africans are already building, and want to continue to build, a better future for themselves. We have a wonderful opportunity to create partnerships with them and help speed the process by supporting future leaders who will deliver what Africa needs most: economic freedom.

Sir Richard Branson is founder of the Virgin Group.

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