Changing the Game for Women in East Africa

By Heather Ward

March 8, 2017

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In honor of International Women’s Day, CIGE’s Heather Ward interviews Karen Sherman, president of the Akilah Institute, a postsecondary institution for women in Rwanda.

Q: Describe the Akilah Institute’s academic program. What are students learning?

Akilah is set up as an education-to-workforce model, a place where young women in Rwanda and other parts of East Africa can gain a college education, one that leads to a good job. Akilah offers two-year diploma programs in entrepreneurship and small business management, hospitality management and information systems—all of them linked directly to the local economy so that these women get strong academic and market-relevant skills. They also learn leadership and career navigation skills so they can go out into the workforce and succeed after graduation.

Q: How does Akilah ensure that the education students are getting aligns with workforce needs?

akilah-podcastIt’s really a central tenet of the program. I think that for some university programs, the workforce link is an afterthought. But we actually started there, from the first class of 50 students that entered in 2010. We worked with potential employers to help define the curriculum and have a constant feedback loop with employers, whether it’s internship feedback or how graduates are performing as employees. And we have a local advisory council made up of a number of our private sector partners who give us regular feedback. We now have nearly 70 employment partners that we work with for both internships and employment, including key anchor partners, like Marriott, that employ a number of Akilah graduates.

Q: What makes Akilah a higher education institution rather than a vocational program?

Our program is academically rigorous. It may not be a traditional liberal arts education, but the range of what students learn spans technical, academic and leadership skills. I’ve personally gone through the traditional U.S. university system for a bachelor’s and master’s degree, and I absolutely see the value of that. I am a big fan of a liberal arts education. But I also think that, especially in low- and middle-income countries, a traditional liberal arts education may in fact be a luxury—especially for women. If you think about how women need to be able to support their families, contribute to their communities and bring up the next generation, there is a very compelling argument to have women out in the workforce. Even in Rwanda, which has put women at the forefront of its development agenda, you still have 84 percent of women working in subsistence farming. So it’s imperative that we link women to the job market. It’s not a “nice to have”—it’s a “must have.”

I also think that for countries that are fairly patriarchal, it’s important for men to see that there’s value in girls’ education beyond educating them for education’s sake.


Q: Akilah is transitioning to a competency-based education (CBE) model. What does that mean for Akilah? Why is CBE a good fit?

It means that every course we teach is aligned with a specific set of core or program competencies. The core competencies span everything from digital literacy, to leadership and social responsibility, to career navigation, to self-esteem, with specific indicators to measure change. There are also course-level competencies for the three diplomas. Students are required to achieve proficiency and demonstrate mastery of the subject matter. And all of it is designed to take women up a ladder to become career-ready.

Q: For women who’ve graduated from Akilah to date, the outcomes are impressive. [Note: see “Outcomes for Akilah Institute Graduates” data in sidebar.] What is the impact for an individual student and her family?

akilah-quote-1bOne of our oldest graduates, who was 35 when she started at Akilah, is named Jackie. She was embarrassed to go back to school because she was older. And her husband didn’t think she needed to go to school. But Jackie’s mother encouraged her and said, “You should really go.” So she did. After her first year, Jackie’s husband said, “Okay, you’ve proved a point. You can stop now.” But she said, “No, I’m going to finish my education.”

So Jackie gets her degree, and then she buys a farm. Now she’s employing other people on her farm. She’s working with her husband and raising her daughters. When we went to interview her, she talked about her daughters: One wants to go to Oxford, the other one wants to go to Harvard. We asked Jackie, “What are your dreams for your daughters?” And she said, “I don’t have to dream for my daughters, they can dream for themselves.” That’s the ripple effect for you.

Q: Do some Akilah graduates continue on with their postsecondary education?

They do! Our leadership team debated whether we should offer a B.A. degree, but we really feel like our niche is linking women directly with the workforce. We have a number of students who choose to go on to a bachelor’s program at other institutions. We’ve just signed a letter of intent with Mount Kenya University—which is based in Rwanda but has campuses throughout East Africa—for a two-plus-one program where our students could earn a B.A. with one additional year. The idea is that as we scale, not only in Rwanda but also in other countries, we could continue the partnership with Mount Kenya to offer the program internationally.

Q: Akilah has an ambitious goal of enrolling 40,000 women across eight campuses in East Africa by 2030, while at the same time keeping tuition affordable and becoming financially self-sustaining. Can you explain how that will work?

We really feel a sense of responsibility to scale the Akilah program to reach more women, but to scale it in a fiscally responsible way and to not sacrifice quality. We’ve spent the last several months working with pro bono partners Ernst & Young to revamp our financial and business model. It includes diverse revenue streams—tuition, equity, earned income from paid short courses and donations.

Let’s start with tuition. Our current tuition is $850 a year; this is what our students pay. The real cost to serve a student is $4,500 per year. We will be gradually increasing the tuition students pay over time, but the aim is to keep it at a level that students can afford. The plan is to align tuition with the cost to serve—that’s how the program will become sustainable. We also feel that it’s hugely important for our program to be accessible to students of all different socioeconomic levels. So there are two options for students who need assistance: A student loan program (we actually created the first-ever student loan program in Rwanda), and we continue to raise money for scholarships for promising students who cannot afford an education.

We will be launching a Series A investment round soon and we’ll be looking for equity investors who are interested in scaling up women’s education along with us. For equity investors, our profit horizon is 10 years.

Also, we are looking to pilot new education products for the marketplace. We have a technology-based sister company, MindSky, and they have developed a proprietary platform for career services that matches students with employers. So as we scale up, we will be able to use technology to power that link between students and employers.

And finally, we will continue to accept philanthropic contributions through a 501(c)3.

Q: Will it be challenging for Akilah to meet its enrollment target, when so few girls complete high school in Rwanda?

According to a recent study by Brookings, of the 75 percent of girls who start school in East Africa, only 8 percent graduate from secondary school. (To be fair, many countries track enrollment but not completion rates, so it’s hard to get accurate data.) Secondary students, particularly in rural areas, drop out for a variety of reasons, some of which have to do with family pressure to get married or early pregnancy, some having to do with competing responsibilities. I think we have to continue to work on the pipeline question—not just in Rwanda, but in other countries as well. If they are not finishing secondary school, it would be great if there were another mechanism, such as the GED, to bring dropouts back into the education system.

Q: Do you see an opportunity for U.S. colleges and universities to partner with Akilah?

We are currently putting together a partnership with Wheaton College to strengthen the pedagogy for faculty in Rwanda as well as our campus administration, something that could also scale across East Africa. I would love to see some more partnerships between Akilah and U.S. women’s colleges. There’s a lot of opportunity for mutual benefit—though maybe it’s not an apples-to-apples relationship—for staff and faculty, but even more so for students.

Q: Why are you so passionate about women’s education?

akilah-quote-2bI have been in the international development field a long time, since 1985, working in multiple countries, including many in the former Soviet Union and across Africa. What I have seen in every country context, including the United States, is the value of educating young women to become economically independent. Education and income generation are game-changers for women, not just for the women themselves, but also for their families and communities. If I have to spend my whole life working toward that end, I feel like that’s a good reason to get up every day.

Karen Sherman is president of the Akilah Institute. Throughout her career, Sherman has combined her expertise, passion, and transformative leadership skills to effect lasting economic and social change for women around the world. She previously served as chief operating officer and then executive director for Global Programs at Women for Women International (WfWI), an organization that enables women war survivors to restart their lives, where her work resulted in measurable impacts on women’s income, health, decision-making and social networks. Sherman holds a master’s degree in Russian and East European Studies from The George Washington University and a bachelor’s degree from University of Oregon. She serves as board chair of Everywoman Everywhere and on the Board of Trustees of Mary Baldwin College.

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About the Author

Heather Ward

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