The brains behind unique school that hopes to turn boys into future leaders

Sunday January 17 2016

Mr Christopher Khaemba, an alumnus of Kenyatta University, started his teaching career at Alliance High School where he rose through the ranks to the position of deputy principal. PHOTO | FILE

Mr Christopher Khaemba, an alumnus of Kenyatta University, started his teaching career at Alliance High School where he rose through the ranks to the position of deputy principal. PHOTO | FILE 

A boys’ high school opens tomorrow with what is considered a new way that integrates teaching and coaching methods adopted from top schools and embellished with input from global captains of industry.

The Nova Academies — modelled on the African Leadership Academy in South Africa — is likely to attract attention not only for its approach to education, but also the involvement of respected former Alliance High School principal Christopher Khaemba.

“In developing our schools, we spoke to hundreds of CEOs and leaders around the world to better understand what young people need to succeed in the 21st century,” he told Lifestyle. “We learned that students are not graduating with the skills that they need to lead and innovate at the next level.”

The system in the South African School African Leadership Academy is enriched and integrated with aspects of French, British and US systems with a focus on science, technology, engineering, mathematics and research.

When two graduates of America’s prestigious Stanford University decided to set up a Pan African school to train a new generation of African leaders, they had trouble finding a suitable principal — or dean — to lead the project.

American Chris Bradford and fellow Ghanaian social entrepreneur Fred Swaniker hoped to set up an institution to attract some of the brightest teenagers from across the continent and train them with the aid of a unique curriculum focusing on African studies, leadership and entrepreneurship.

This would, in the scheme of things, provide a production line for African leaders — something similar to Fort Hare college in Cape Town which attracted bright teenagers from the continent in the first half of the last century, including pioneer nationalists like South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, Kenya’s Charles Njonjo and Eliud Mathu, Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere, Zambia’s Kenneth Kaunda and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe.


The founders of the African Leadership Academy knew the importance of picking the right dean to steer the institution. After sifting through various impressive CVs, they decided Christopher Situma Khaemba was their man.

He was not only a long serving principal of Alliance High School and Friends School Kamusinga but a trailblazer, who had left his mark everywhere he worked.

But leading the South African-based academy was a different kind of challenge for Mr Khaemba. He took up the job after a rigorous interview that lasted six months.

Originally 20 candidates were shortlisted from educational institutions across the continent. The number was narrowed to five candidates, with Mr Khaemba finally emerging tops to start the job in February 2008.

The school had attracted top-level support with eminent figures such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Graca Machel agreeing to sit in the board.

Mr Khaemba’s challenge was to take charge of a diverse faculty drawn from across the world and students from 45 countries mainly in Africa – and repeat his performance there.

The educationist took his customary golden touch to the African Leadership Academy. In the first class that was enrolled in September 2010, almost all the students landed full scholarships in some leading universities in the world.

He returned to Kenya ahead of the last elections and announced his intention to be Governor of Bungoma County — but did not contest. Now he serves as the county executive in charge of education in Nairobi County.

But you might say that the bug that bit him back when he was a teacher — of moulding young minds into greatness — has not left him.

He is one of the brains behind the establishment of Nova Academies in Kiambu County, which is the same neighbourhood that Mr Khaemba headed Alliance High School for 23 years.

Mr Khaemba says the system he established at the African Leadership Academy was quickly acknowledged as innovative and globally competitive as evidenced by 100 per cent admission rate to the leading universities worldwide.

“We tracked the performance of the students who had joined universities and all of them graduated with honours and had strong transcripts in their coursework,’’ he told Lifestyle.

The educationist says that at Nova Academies, students will learn through creation and exploration rather than just memorising. He says that although the school is offering the 8-4-4 curriculum, the system is full of hands-on projects and problem-solving challenges that build the confidence and character that students need to become innovators and leaders.

Mr Khaemba explains the school is founded on a system he calls STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics).  

“We have designed every aspect of the student experiences to ensure that our graduates are prepared to embrace the opportunities and challenges ahead,’’ he says.

“Preparing our youth to succeed in the 21st century requires teaching them new skills with a new approach and this academy will be a unique, globally competitive school.”

He says that combining his experience leading Alliance High School and the African Leadership Academy and working with top educators, they will help deliver top academic results, strong values, and the holistic development needed to build the next generation of leaders and innovators.

“If a country does not have those qualifications, it will not develop. We need innovators and exporters of goods,” Mr Khaemba told Lifestyle.


He says this is different from what is offered in most Africa’s education systems which is largely geared at passing exams and not the future of the students.

“Many schools in Kenya are about memorising, passing exams and forgetting what you have learnt,’’ says Mr Khaemba.

In contrast, academic course work is the foundation of learning, he says.

“Our learning extends beyond exams and scores and the curriculum is designed to give students hands-on experience working in teams to develop the critical problem-solving skills that they will need in their careers,” Mr Khaemba says.

His aim, he adds, is to have graduates who are creative problem-solvers, collaborative leaders who develop self-mastery.

He considers it an added advantage that the students in the new Kenyan institution will get constant exposure to their global counterparts by interacting with sister schools in South Africa and Menlo in Silicon Valley, California.

“Students collaborate across borders on projects, experience and get opportunity to learn from one another by sharing different cultures,” says Mr Khaemba.

Tomorrow, the school will admit the first 120 boys. It costs Sh100,000 per term but Mr Khaemba explains there will be between 10 and 20 students on scholarship. There are plans to start a similar school for girls next year.

Teachers have been drawn from top Kenyan schools such as Maseno, Mang’u and Alliance.

Mr Charles Tsuma, the founding principal, says the teachers have been taken through rigorous training and there is ongoing professional development. Mr Tsuma is himself an educator with over 19 years at top institutions, including the Aga Khan Academy, Strathmore University and Mt Kenya Senior School where he recently served as school principal.

 “Whether its science or math, our teachers really make material come alive rather than stand in front of the class and lecture. Students learn the material by doing projects, working in teams and using latest technology, for example, when we learn history,” says Mr Tsuma.

Six other schools are expected to be opened outside Nairobi in the coming years while 90 will be set up in other African countries starting with Liberia.

Mr Khaemba’s co-founders include Mr Oliver Lotschild (US), Mr Oliver Saboat (US) and Mr Humphrey Watanga (school captain Alliance High school in 1990 and now a businessman in South Africa).

So how did they pick the pioneer class? Students were admitted after applying and on reference from their respective head teachers.

The applicants’ course work in primary school for eight years was examined and their participation in activities was also considered.

Applicants were then interviewed where they participated in group activities and evaluated on qualities like ability to collaborate, lead, articulate ideas, and teamwork. 

Their Kenya Certificate of Primary Education examination results marks were also considered to help gauge their academic abilities.

Mr Khaemba recently visited Liberia at the invitation of the President Ellen Johnson  Sirleaf to examine how he can help to transform the education systems of the troubled West African nation.

“The partnership we are aiming to establish is critical to holistically address the layered challenges facing a population battered, but perseverant, by 14 years of civil war and the most devastating Ebola outbreak the world has ever seen,” read Mr Khaemba’s invitation letter.

“In Liberia 73 per cent of women are illiterate, only 17 per cent of teachers are qualified, and one study found that only 17 per cent of grade 3 children tested could read an adequate number of words per minute. This is unsustainable and calls for systematic and courageous change.”

While his eyes are firmly on Kenya at the moment, Mr Khaemba hopes that the small step of starting the unique institution will be a giant leap for the continent in future.



Stellar career of former principal of Alliance Boys

  •   Mr Christopher Khaemba, an alumnus of Kenyatta University, started his teaching career at Alliance High School where he rose through the ranks to the position of deputy principal.

  •  In 1995, he was appointed principal of Friends School Kamusinga and within three years of taking charge, the school ranked 16th overall in KCSE.

  •  He returned to Alliance High as principal. He helped steer the school back to position one in national academic rankings.

  •  In 2007, he emerged the best among the top scholars after months of head-hunting,  for a prestigious job in South Africa.

  •  In 2008, Mr Khaemba was selected inaugural dean of the African Leadership Academy in Johannesburg.

  •  He returned to Kenya ahead of the 2013 elections and announced his intention to be Governor of Bungoma County — but did not contest.

  •  He has held other positions both in government and private sector:

  •  - Special Advisor on matters of Education in the Prime Minister’s Office, March 2012-March 2013

  • -Deputy Director Teacher Management at TSC from April 2013 to September 2013

  • -General Manager Equity Bank Foundation in 2013.

  •  He is one of the founders of Nova Academies