Yet some of the academies do charge tuition. One operation in Lagos, for example, asks for $600 per year from each of its 400 students, the equivalent of two to three months’ worth of wages for the average Nigerian. Smith’s MFA charges parents $150 for the school year in a country where the per-capita GDP is just $455; his rationale is that research shows people value services they have to pay for more highly than they do free ones. (A 2017 report by advocacy group RESULTS Educational Fund found that school fees continue to be a barrier to education in Africa, especially for the very poor.)
What’s more, these outside actors—whether sports academies or private foundations or corporations—lack many of the accountability and transparency checks of government, leading to serious questions about evaluations, efficacy, and ethics. To the casual observer, the story of these academies, and the men behind them, might call to mind “The White-Savior Industrial Complex,” a pejorative coined by the author Teju Cole in response to the Kony2012 video sensation, where he described the urge of privileged whites to help as “the fastest growth industry in the U.S.” More broadly, the landscape includes foreign companies and ‘edupreneurs,’ encouraged by donors like the World Bank, that sense a market opportunity among Africa’s youth bulge.
And in serving as an alternative—rather than a supplement—to public schools, the academies may struggle to actually improve the state of education across the continent. Malouf Bous believes that organizations that really want to make a difference should push for better public education, not parallel or rival models. “To really get to scale and achieve equity,” she said, “external organizations could be supporting communities to advocate for and hold their governments accountable for delivering high-quality public education.”
Regardless, sporting heavyweights continue to rush in to recruit prospective athletes in Africa: The famed Barcelona soccer club recently opened a training academy in Lagos, Nigeria; in May, 2017 the National Basketball Association opened its first academy in Africa in Thies, Senegal. Like oil and gas prospectors, the NBA—in partnership with the Senegalese nonprofit Sports for Education and Economic Development (SEED)—searched across the continent for the first 12 youth basketball players to join the academy in Senegal. Graduates of the school will finish with a national high-school diploma, and in addition to athletics, they will have access to tutors, ESL training, and a range of classes including philosophy and physics. According to the NBA, 94 percent of SEED graduates have passed the national high-school exit exam, compared to the national average of 35 percent.
Africa’s current population of 1.2 billion will grow to 2.4 billion by 2050—the continent added 30 million more people last year alone—and will serve as a growing source of athletic talent. Images of kids playing soccer along dirt roads, in refuse-strewn fields and refugee camps, on beaches or in clearings are common throughout the continent. “They’ve grown up not playing on grass fields, not having nets, shoes, some of them are raw when they arrive,” said Chaka Daley, the head coach of the University of Michigan, where the soccer roster will feature five African-born players this fall. “But they have pace, strength, and something like creative guile in the way they play. … The African-born kids don’t just want to make it. They want to give back to the people who got them here.”