Bryan Farris

The Akilah Institute: Empowering Women in Rwanda

The Akilah Institute for Women is an example of an organization that is focused on unlocking the talent of those who have already completed secondary school. The school, which opened on February 2nd 2010, has 50 students currently enrolled. As previously described in a post I wrote for, the Akilah Institute educates the whole person with a focus on “giving students challenges for their mind, while also teaching them ways to grow from the heart.” Students are trained in a specialized way to directly provide them with entrepreneurial skills that will allow them to find good jobs post graduation. At the moment, much of the coursework is focused specifically on teaching the skills required to enter the hospitality industry, which is rapidly growing in Rwanda. Recently, I had the opportunity to catch up with Elizabeth Dearborn Davis, the founder of Akilah.

Bryan Farris, Elizabeth, thank you for taking the time to share more about Akilah with me. I’m curious, what was your inspiration? What lead you to start Akilah?

Elizabeth Dearborn Davis: What really drives me and what I’m passionate about is trying to figure out how we can create a model for self sufficient education in East Africa. In other words, how do we provide training in a way that is relevant to the local economy and that can fund itself? There are a number of examples where a lot of money is spent getting a school up and running only to see the school shut down a few years later because they haven’t thought about their long term strategy for financing or sustainability. Its obviously very sad when that happens and its a disservice to the Rwandan people. I feel that it is very important to develop a way for schools to be able to last in the long run without relying on continuous streams of funding.

At Akilah, we will be able to achieve sustainability because we will grow nearly all of our own food and in addition, we will have a dairy farm that we can use to sell dairy products in the local market in Kigali. Finally, we will also have an eco-lodge that the students will run as part of their coursework and we expect that to be a meaningful revenue source. Together, the agriculture and eco-lodge will allow us to cover all of our operating costs after 5 years or so. It’s a two-fold benefit because it will help us to fund our operations, and it will help our students learn along the way. What led you to choose hospitality as the primary subject matter at Akilah? Are there other topics that you plan to add into your curriculum in the future?

Elizabeth Dearborn Davis: A couple years ago when we were first doing research on where the economy is going, it was very clear that hospitality is the leading industry in Rwanda and it is where the bulk of foreign direct investment is going. Marriot, Hilton and Radisson are both building 300 room hotels in Kigali right now. The government is really hoping that tourism and hospitality is going to be the industry that will help reduce their reliance on foreign aide. Hospitality is not my background, but my main focus and mission has been to determine which industry was going to give our students the best opportunity to get jobs and lift themselves out of poverty and that was hands-down the hospitality industry. We’ve only been open a few months now, but already seven of our students have been approached by hotels in Kigali and given part time jobs without us doing any outreach. These girls are going to be making 10 times what they were making before they came to Akilah.

We also want to move into culinary arts because we anticipate this is another sector that will have huge demand. Right now the government is estimating that they need to train five to six thousand people every year to keep up with rising demand. We know that our students will be in high demand when they graduate because they have a very technical skill set. What is interesting to me is that you don’t just provide a crash course training in hospitality skills. Instead you provide a more tailored learning experience that focuses on the whole person. Can you speak to that?

Elizabeth Dearborn Davis: Our leadership course is a huge component of our student’s education. There a few different reasons we decided to take a smaller group to train more intensely over a longer period of time. One is that at the end they will actually be able to receive an accredited diploma from the ministry of higher education, similar to a college degree. Secondly, next year one of their most important courses will be an entrepreneurship course. We believe it is important to give our students the skills to start their own businesses because there is huge potential in this industry in Rwanda. We’ve been talking to several banks and MFIs in Kigali who are having a tough time because they are giving out loans to women who have little to no business training. Even when these MFIs give small loans, the recipients still don’t know how to run a proper business. Thirdly, Rwanda is a unique country in East Africa in that almost all of our girls are survivors of the genocide and have experienced significant trauma in their lives. One of our students lost 57 members of her family during the genocide and has been through unimaginable tragedy. Part of what we’re doing at Akilah through our leadership courses and 1 on 1 sessions is to help rebuild each of our student’s confidence and empower them to be strong individuals and leaders which helps fill the gaps in their own personal development.

The reality in Rwanda that you’re dealing with is a seriously traumatized population. A lot of these girls just didn’t have the confidence to stand up in front of a class of people and speak, let alone run a business. Their experience at Akilah changes that and we have watched this group of students undergo a profound transformation just in the first semester. How much are you learning as you go in terms of what is the right approach to educating people?

Elizabeth Dearborn Davis: It has been quickly apparent that our students have not experienced a supportive family or educational environment like we have at Akilah before. When you put them in a class room with teachers who care and place a lot of importance on the students as individuals, its amazing how much of a difference it makes. Not only have most of our students had a very traumatizing life, they have also typically had a very structured and disciplined education which was mostly rote memorization; students, especially women, have never been encouraged to speak up, question the material and challenge their teachers. Elizabeth, thank you very much for sharing your time and energy with the NextBillion community.