While the debate continues for how to really truly empower marginalized women, Nobel laureates, political leaders, and celebrity NGO founders all agree that an investment with the possibility of infinite returns is the investment in young women. At the nonprofit Akilah Institute for Women, we know this first hand because we’re investing in the education of East Africa's most promising future professionals and leaders.
Founded in 2010 in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda by Elizabeth and Dave Hughes to meet the needs of both marginalized rural women and the new booming local private sector, Akilah—which means "wisdom" in Swahili—is a college for young women—the first of its kind in Rwanda—offering three-year business diplomas in market-relevant fields. 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. That means Akilah is the only alternative for a poor East African woman who aspires to more than marriage and babies in her future, because she cannot afford the traditional higher education options.
Rwanda's private sector regularly complains of a poorly trained workforce that cannot meet employer’s needs for skilled professionals. Meanwhile, women are still hoofing it, with water jugs in their hands, on their heads, and babies in their bellies and on their backs. This is relevant because women comprise 51 percent of the population. Taking these phenomena into account, Akilah set out to build a practical and desperately needed bridge connecting young women to the fastest-growing sectors of the economy. Akilah's model of affordable education incorporates two crucial elements: market-relevant curricula with professional development programs connecting all 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.
But at Akilah, Francine entered a novel program that focuses on the hard and soft skills necessary to work in a demanding professional economy, one that receives a good majority of its revenue from curious global tourists. Francine’s skills now go way beyond waiting tables or answering the phone, as she has concretely developed English language, leadership, ethics, teamwork, public speaking, and entrepreneurial skills.
The yearly tuition to attend Akilah is $3,350 USD but we provide up to $3,000 in scholarship money. To ensure that students like Francine won’t have to struggle to afford even their tiny fraction of the tuition fees (their personal investment in their futures), we built a student loan program in collaboration with Vittana. This student loan program is a first in Rwanda.
Today, Francine is earning a monthly salary that is 10 times her previous earning potential, as surveyed upon admission. She and each of her classmates had a job offer well before they graduated and seventeen are now working full-time and training with Marriott International—which was voted in the top 10 of the "Top 50 Companies for Women in 2013" by the National Association for Female Executives—in preparation for the launch of Sub-Saharan Africa’s very first Marriott hotel in Kigali. And, even after graduates enter the workforce, our institution offers its services to ensure these new young professionals’ 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 countries, illustrates the dire need for such scalable institutions that invest in youth, women, and the workforce. Our second campus is currently under construction in Bugesera, Rwanda, and plans for launching a Bujumbura campus in Burundi are also well underway for 2013.
What we do isn't rocket science—it's practical and not at all sexy, but it works and that means that women's futures are transformed. With 100 percent job placement logged for the 39 students in the Class of 2012, the inaugural graduating class, we know that Akilah has a unique definition of success.
We embrace the maxim that the only investment with infinite returns is in connecting young people like Francine to growing organizations and markets. At Akilah, the benefits far outweigh any of the costs for the individual, the surrounding communities, and nation overall. Follow and support us as we expand across the East African region and catapult the lives of thousands more young women.
Lisa Martilotta is the Executive Director of the Akilah Institute for Women. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.