Nokwanda Ramatheko’s parents never understood her passion for learning or her desire to make a difference in the world. Born in Soweto, one of the most notorious townships in South Africa, her community was rife with crime, teen pregnancies, high school dropouts, high unemployment rates, and high HIV/AIDS infection rates. After her parents separated, her father struggled to pay school fees so she could attend a neighboring township school, go to university, and make a better life for herself.
But Nokwanda had bigger ideas. At an early age, she felt that people had to stop waiting for the government to help and find their own solutions. “We have to change society’s view,” she said. When she wanted to attend a conference or enter a competition, she notes, “I would make a plan, find the money, get a taxi, and come back home with trophies in my hand.”
Nokwanda does not just want a better life for herself and her family, she wants to change the world. She encourages others to follow her path as an advisor for the Universal Youth Group, a group of 300 underprivileged youth from her township. She gives them school applications and takes them with her on auditions and to competitions. When she was 18 years old and postponed attending university to join the African Leadership Academy (ALA), her father nearly disowned her.
ALA is a highly competitive two-year, pre-university boarding school in Johannesburg, South Africa, that identifies promising young African men and women to build a strong, connected generation of leaders who will transform Africa. Cisco has funded 16 scholars over the past four years through the Cisco Scholars Program, a $680,000 scholarship fund.
The intensive two-year program focuses on practical leadership experience, training in entrepreneurship, and African Studies for a deep understanding of the overarching issues facing Africa on both the global and local level. The rigorous curriculum prepares students for success on the Cambridge International Examinations and ALA guides them to scholarships at some of the best universities in the world. Students commit to work in Africa for ten years, acting on their ideas and experiences.
ALA also helps students build a human network to support them for the rest of their lives and multiply the impact of their experience. “We seek to build a world-class leadership institution that will develop 6,000 transformative African leaders over the next 50 years,” said Theodore Sutherland, external affairs fellow, African Leadership Academy.
The ALA has drawn the attention and support of global philanthropic, government, and corporate partners, including Cisco. Former Cisco Scholars now attend prestigious institutions including Harvard University, Yale University, Trinity College, the University of Cape Town, and Drexel University. The first 12 Cisco Scholar graduates secured $1.5 million in scholarships from universities and fellowship programs, four dollars in scholarship funding for every one dollar invested by Cisco.
After her first year at ALA, Nokwanda was accepted into the Bezos Scholars Program @ Aspen Institute, where top students from around the world join top scholars, writers, artists, entrepreneurs, and change-makers at the Aspen Ideas Festival to share big ideas about sustainability. When Nokwanda returns to South Africa, she will lead a local Ideas Festival based on her experience.
“From the festival, I found personal growth,” Nokwanda says. “Instead of being only a South African or only an African, I became a global citizen…Now I am back in my country with tons of practical steps to take in order to make that global change and the first step is delivering our own local ideas festival.”
Since 2008, ALA’s young leaders have put their ideas into action with the launch of 38 non-profit and for-profit enterprises that have the potential to transform Africa. They have built nonprofit organizations to address entrenched social issues; they have launched profitable businesses; and they have shared their ideas on a global stage. They have coalesced into a powerful community, and will work together to build larger initiatives and have greater impact as their lives progress.
Nokwanda is not only a game changer with international connections: her success has changed minds and hearts very close to home. After her first few months at ALA, she and her father reconciled. She credits ALA with helping her learn how to communicate with her parents and resolve their differences.
Nokwanda inspired her mother, Maditaba Ramatheko, to return to school, finish her Matric (e.g. high school degree), and develop the skills to start her own small business. “We are so grateful of the fact that Cisco is going all out to give our beloved daughter at ALA all the necessary support, especially financial aid, to pursue and fulfill her dreams,” wrote her mother. “We really appreciate and are greatly indebted to you.”
“I have this big dream and ALA has helped me understand how I can make that dream a reality,” Nokwanda said. “They have helped connect me to various networks like Cisco, Echoing Green, and the Aspen Institute. ALA challenges us all the time. They have a different way of thinking. We spend hours discussing and arguing how to address challenges. It helps me to think differently, which will help me help people in different communities.”