Investing in the Education of East Africa's Most Promising Young Leaders: Women

The Akilah Institute's program in Rwanda teaches women the hard and soft skills necessary to work in a demanding professional economy.

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

Photo courtesy of the Akilah Institute


October is domestic violence awareness month and when most people think of domestic violence, they imagine mostly female victims. However, abuse of men happens as well – in both heterosexual and homosexual relationships. But some are taking it upon themselves to change all that.

Keep Reading Show less

At this point most reasonable people agree that climate change is a serious problem. And while a lot of good people are working on solutions, and we're all chipping in by using fewer plastic bags, it's also helpful to understand where the leading causes of the issue stem from. The list of 20 leading emitters of carbon dioxide by The Guardian newspaper does just that.

Keep Reading Show less
The Planet
via International Labour Organization / Flickr and Michael Moore / Facebook

Before the release of "The Joker" there was a glut of stories in the media about the film's potential to incite violence.

The FBI issued a warning, saying the film may inspire violence from a group known as the Clowncels, a subgroup of the involuntarily celibate or Incel community.

Incels an online subculture who believe they are unable to attract a sexual partner. The American nonprofit Southern Poverty Law Center describes them as "part of the online male supremacist ecosystem" that is included in its list of hate groups.

Keep Reading Show less

Since normalizing relations with Communist China back in 1979, the U.S. government and its companies that do business with the country have, for the most part, turned a blind-eye to its numerous human rights abuses.

In China's Muslim-majority province of Xinjiang, it's believed that over a million members of its Uighur population are being arbitrarily imprisoned and tortured in concentration camps. Female Uighurs in detention are being given forced abortions and subjected to sexual mistreatment.

Keep Reading Show less

The vaping epidemic is like a PSA come to life. A recent outbreak of vaping-related deaths and illnesses has affected people from across 46 states. More than 800 people fell ill, and at least 17 people died from vaping. In Illinois and Wisconsin, 87% of the people who got sick said they used THC, and 71% of people also said they used products that contained nicotine. Symptoms of the illness included coughing, chest pains, shortness of breath, nausea, and fatigue. We finally might now why.

Researchers from the Mayo Clinic believe toxic chemical fumes, not the actual chemicals in the vape liquid, might be the culprit. "It seems to be some kind of direct chemical injury, similar to what one might see with exposures to toxic chemical fumes, poisonous gases and toxic agents," Dr. Brandon Larsen, a surgical pathologist at the Mayo Clinic in Arizona, said in release.

Keep Reading Show less