The Akilah Institute: Real Skills for Real Women

Featured image: Yassina Igihozo (left) and Divine Uwase (right) led me on a whirlwind walking tour of Kigali.

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By Madelyn Kumar

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[dropcap]U[/dropcap]pon arriving at the smartly-decorated Akilah Institute cafe- woven baskets, industrial lighting, Stewart-esque color palette, and waves of white sunlight- I was warmly greeted by Executive Director Aline Kabanda and Marketing & Communications Associate Allen Ingabire. On the wooden table, tall pitchers of water and crisp, stapled itineraries were carefully arranged in imaginary gridlines. As my fellow Globalist writers filed in, we quickly exchanged pleasantries and dove into the glossy PowerPoint presentation.

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An outside view of the Akilah Institute.

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The Akilah Institute was established in 2010 by Elizabeth Dearborn-Hughes, a fresh Vanderbilt alumnus who worked with a nonprofit for street children, and Dave Hughes, a corporate suit who discovered Elizabeth’s nonprofit. As Rwanda transitioned to a knowledge-based economy (and exhibited impressive levels of girl power by becoming the first country to have a majority female presence in the Parliament), Elizabeth and Dave wanted to develop a space for female education, empowerment, and encouragement. The founders acknowledged the gap between private sector expectations and the lack of professional competencies gained from academic institutions. Therefore, they created a curriculum with a strong focus on technical and leadership skills. Director Kabanda proudly stated that the Akilah Institute inspired “a positive attitude and passion for the field [students] are going into.”  

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Collaboration and leadership skills are encouraged at the Institute.

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The Institute is organized into three programs: Hospitality Management (tourism is the leading sector of Rwanda’s economy that brings in foreign dollars), Information Systems, and Business Management & Entrepreneurship. Akilah’s curriculum is nimble and ever-evolving. Anticipating demand for larger enrollment, the Akilah Institute partnered with technology and business consulting giant Accenture to identify emerging career fields to design new programs that might be launching in the near future.  

Akilah’s model for pre-professional education yields amazing results: a 2016 Akilah alumni survey found that six months after graduating, 90% of Akilah graduates secured employment compared to 83% of total Rwandan university graduates. It is no secret that an Akilah-issued diploma is a valuable tool upon entering Rwanda’s workforce. Admission is highly sought-after, and thus, highly selective. The decision is heavily based upon performance on the Cambridge English assessment and Rwanda’s National Exam (similar to College Board Subject Tests) instead of secondary school GPA. Gaining admission to Akilah is like opening an Ivy League acceptance letter: only 10% of applicants are admitted.  

A USAID statistic flashed across the screen: If 10 percent more adolescent girls attend school, a country’s GDP increases by an average of 3 percent. Currently, 55% of Akilah students are women from rural areas, and 78% are first-generation college students, according to a 2016 Akilah alumni study. As the conversation switched to student life, Director Kabanda explained that the learning environment significantly differs from that of secondary school. Students from all socio-economic backgrounds must navigate challenges such as finding housing and adopting an independent lifestyle. 

In the advent of the digital age, the Akilah Institute is excited to adopt “blended learning,” a buzzword that encompasses a multi-faceted educational approach including online learning. In the annual report, co-founders Elizabeth and Dave Hughes explain that Akilah’s “new model combines education for sustainable development with 21st-century skills, personalized learning, innovation, and ethical leadership.” In their two years at the Institute, students will complete a community leadership project using what they learned in class to implement action plans. Director Kabanda proudly stated, “the curriculum is very student-centered. It requires a lot of agency.” 

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The library where we spoke with Divine, Fida, and Yassina about their daily routines.

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Walking around campus, it was apparent that the Akilah Institute emphasized pre-professional and interpersonal skills. I peered into a hospitality class where students surrounded by various cutlery and dining components were creating grandiose table settings. In another room students were clustered in groups for a discussion about business. Colorful posters showcasing notable alumni- software engineers, luxury hotel tech specialists, administrators- adorned the walls. However, one element was glaringly absent from the classrooms: cell phones. Students at Akilah are asked to keep their phones in their bags on silent mode, unlike in American lecture halls where students can take more selfies than notes. 

Students enjoying their lunches at the Akilah cafe.

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As we filed into the library, we spoke with Divine, Yassina, and Fida, three amiable Akilah students supercharged with enthusiasm. Their hair was tightly pulled into neat ponytails and they wore sharp, professional outfits. They dove into the details of their daily routines as I chronicled their wake-up alarms, homework schedules, and weekend activities. Their passion was palpable as they recited a laundry list of extracurriculars, often heading home around 7:00 P.M.  

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(From left: Fida, Madelyn, Lukas, Yassina, Grace, Ileana, Divine)

Divine oozed energy as she talked about her start-up Sharama Events & Tours, a tour group with five other women that “creates magical experiences for its clients.” During the weekend and in her free time, Divine loves exploring Kigali, scouting for new tour stops and uniquely Rwandan experiences. However, the same cannot be said of Book Club, which she admittedly detests. Ms. Allen gave a playful smile as she accused Divine of “often running off to play with a baby.” Divine switched from business to hospitality at the last minute following advice from her father, who encouraged her to “go with her passion.” Introductory Hospitality gave Divine the “path of her life” after its instructor inspired her to “think big.” When I asked why she chose to go to Akilah, she responded, “at Akilah it’s like a family environment. You get help and support from both students, staff, and faculty.” After a second of hesitation she cheekily added that another thing that motivated her to join Akilah was, “I knew Akilah students go to work abroad and get international experience especially in Dubai. [Dubai] is Heaven on Earth.”

Fida exuded confidence and competence as she explained her routine. She starts her day with prayer, a shower, and checking online class assignments for last-minute changes. She takes five classes, including Community Development, Essential Dining, and Business Communications. At Akilah, Fida regards “women who take risks as role models.” Over a lunch of cassava, pork, and beans, Fida tells me the plots of her favorite books in great detail, the stress of preparing for the national exam, her dreams of becoming a hostess, and popular news parodies on television. We giggle as we discuss the addictive absurdity of reality TV and the Kardashian empire. 

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Divine taking an artsy photo with her cellphone of handwoven grass baskets at the Kigali Cultural Village.

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Yassina is an Evening & Weekend student. She wakes up at 5:00 A.M., enrolls in Akilah from 6:00 P.M. to 10:00 P.M. Yassina dexterously juggles taking care of four younger siblings, running errands, and squeezing in thirty minutes of uninterrupted reading. On the weekends she treats herself to swimming and movies in between navigating a packed schedule of English Club, Debate Club, and Public Speaking Club. Yassina’s easy-going nature is evident as she addresses Akilah’s no phone policy. She finds it helpful because “in the workplace, it’s a busy place and you don’t have time for your phone.” (Divine retorts, “it’s a curse to use your phone in class.”) Like Divine, Yassina also has her own tour company that organizes East African travel, Master Tours, which started last May.

After the final bell, I was treated as one of Divine and Yassina’s clients and they gave me the grand walking tour of Kigali. Divine insisted our first stop be Kigali Cultural Village, where we walked through a high-ceilinged, delightfully air-conditioned building. Boutique stalls (this sure wasn’t Kimironko market) were interspersed with cultural artifacts that Divine sought out with precision, explaining how women used the woven contraption displayed before us to grind flour or how the black and white and swirling geometric canvases were actually made of cow excrement (formally known as Imigongo). Yassina would offer commentary on the coffee quality of nearby brands and chime in during Divine’s narration with witty observations. With the searing sun on our backs and Yassina’s hot pink lipstick miraculously unblemished, we strolled along KN 3 Avenue to the Serena, a five star resort offering a refuge from the heat. We were engaged in a lively discussion about the influence of the digital age on the hospitality industry, specifically how a single review online could make or break a business. “Oh, Trip Advisor,” the girls popped their eyebrows and exchanged a knowing glance. Divine and Yassina have developed a technological savviness, each using LinkedIn and other platforms to advertise their tour companies. Even though these girls demonstrated extraordinary maturity and cultural knowledge, their explanations never seemed didactic or condescending. If I pointed to a hotel, they excitedly filled me in on its history, key features, and most importantly, how many stars it earned. As we walked into the Serena, I felt like I was a house hunter with two of the cities premiere realtors gushing about the luxurious pool or informing me of the urban transportation systems.

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The Faculty of Architecture and Environmental Design is designed by the French firm Patrick Schweitzer & Associés.

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Divine is into marketing herself and is a self-proclaimed lover of selfies and social media. She led us to the top floor of the Ubumwe Grand Hotel, an average-looking structure which she secretly knows harbors the best bird’s eye view of the city. We bonded over the satisfaction of setting up the perfect composition for a photo, much to the chagrin of the rest of the group. One look at my camera and Divine steered us to the newly-minted Faculty of Architecture and Environmental Design for the high-contrast buildings which presented impeccable photo opportunities. We came to a dramatic halt a few times to take a selfie with the perfect background, Divine expertly tilting the phone to accommodate everyone in one screen and taking multiple images to capture everyone’s most flattering stills. Yassina admitted she will begrudgingly get her photo taken but prefers to be out of the limelight. Despite her tapered enthusiasm for picture-taking, Yassina is not shy by any means- she genuinely shared her excitement for meeting new people and love of swimming.

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Scenic view from the top of Ubumwe Grand Hotel.

As the sun began to set on the horizon, I reflected on a day well spent in the company of two powerful entrepreneurs brimming with pride for their beautiful city. I make my way back to my hotel and I remember something Allen said in the library: “When you give women the same opportunities, they get [stuff] done.” 

I couldn’t have worded it better myself.

Madelyn Kumar is a junior in Silliman College. You can contact her at madelyn.kumar@yale.edu.