Emerging Voices features contributions from scholars and practitioners highlighting new research, thinking, and approaches to development challenges. This article is from Lisa Martilotta, a principle in Akilah Institute for Women, Rwanda’s first women’s college. She describes her organization’s efforts to link college education to employment opportunities for young women in Rwanda.
The only investment with the possibility of infinite returns is the investment in youth, and more particularly, young women. Nobel laureates, political leaders, and celebrity NGO founders all agree on this, but as Isobel Coleman wrote on her blog in December, the challenge remains: how can we bridge the ever-increasing gap between youth development and the demanding market?
We launched the Akilah Institute for Women (Akilah) in 2010 in the capital of Rwanda, Kigali, to meet the needs of both marginalized rural women and the booming private sector. Akilah is a college for young women offering three-year diploma programs in market-relevant fields. If you’re an East African woman, odds are that you will be married and pregnant before twenty rather than attending classes, since school is an investment that many families reserve for their boys.
Meanwhile, Rwanda’s private sector logs regular complaints of a poorly trained workforce that cannot meet the need for skilled professionals. Taking these phenomena into account, Akilah set out to build a bridge connecting young women to the fastest-growing sectors of the economy. We quickly realized that in East Africa, education and training institutes don’t typically collaborate with the private sector—and vice versa. They are also rarely affordable to the overwhelming majority of women. Our solution was to offer fairly priced higher education that incorporates two crucial elements: market-relevant curricula and professional development programs that connect graduates directly to the workforce.
One of our alumnae, Francine, lost her parents, and all but one of her siblings, in the 1994 genocide, leaving her as a toddler in her adolescent sister’s care. She had no money to pay for tuition for the national university and was blocked from developing a career. In East Africa, women represent 53 percent of the population, but for cultural and historical reasons they are at a serious disadvantage in both school and jobs. It is estimated that a mere 1 percent of the Rwandan population has access to higher education, and a shockingly low one-third of that group is female.
But at Akilah, Francine entered a novel program that focuses on the hard and soft skills necessary to work in an environment of scarce employment: not just how to wait tables or clean a room, but the concrete development of English language, leadership, ethics, teamwork, public speaking, and entrepreneurial skills. Our approach centers on a team-based learning method that mirrors the job site and teaches essential professional and leadership capacities, such as effective communication, problem solving, and critical analysis.
This program was designed by listening to and incorporating the needs of growing East African markets. For our students, like Francine, who struggle to afford even their tiny fraction of the tuition fees—a personal investment that builds each student’s sense of ownership in her future—we built a student loan program in collaboration with Vittana.
Today, Francine is earning a monthly salary that is ten times her previous earning potential, as surveyed upon admission. She and each of her classmates had a job offer before they graduated and seventeen are now training with Marriott in the Middle East, preparing to return home to assume positions of responsibility in Sub-Saharan Africa’s very first Marriott hotel. This illustrates Akilah’s successful efforts to forge internship and employment partnerships with the business community. But even after graduates enter the workforce, this “turning education into employment” model means that the institution shares responsibility with its alumnae for offering services to ensure career paths stay wide, long, and well lit.
Our vision is to expand into a network of campuses for women across East Africa. The demand definitely exists: the constant flow of new applicants, as well as requests by other local and national authorities for a campus in their jurisdiction, illustrates the dire need for such scalable institutions that invest in youth, women, and the workforce. And the model is scalable for two main reasons: first, we have created a scalable package of specially tailored curricula and related academic programs for East African women to ensure ease of implementation at each new campus; and second, we have strong support from like-minded global investors. Our second campus is currently under construction in Bugesera, Rwanda, and plans for the third in Burundi are well underway with the Burundian government and private sector.
Youth, workforce, and market development has consequences for all nations, especially low-income ones. The World Bank and others have argued that insufficient job opportunities correlate with intolerance, low civic engagement, and low levels of optimism about the future. This creates the conditions for social strife everywhere, and may have been among the precursors for the genocide that cost the lives of almost a million people in Rwanda in 1994. So why aren’t more like-minded institutions popping up in areas where youth are unemployed? We see three reasons:
- Too many academic institutions do not firmly grasp the intimate connection between their mission and the growth of a nation.
- It costs institutional time, energy, and resources to engage in deep and meaningful collaboration with private-sector partners. Academic institutions often prioritize other things that lead to donor dollars or income.
- The private and public sectors too often fail to play a tangible role (most importantly, with funding) in the development of academic institutions. They either do not see their connection with national development or deem the investment too costly and instead adopt short-term approaches to profit.
But for those educational institutions that embrace the maxim that the only investment with infinite returns is in connecting young people like Francine to growing organizations and markets, the benefits far outweigh the costs.