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Akilah: Seven years of grooming girls into future leaders

When 32-year-old Elizabeth Dearborn Hughes moved to Rwanda in 2006, she wasn’t aware that her destiny was to make an impact in the lives of Rwandan children.
Students during a lecture. / Courtesy
Students during a lecture. / Courtesy

When 32-year-old Elizabeth Dearborn Hughes moved to Rwanda in 2006, she wasn’t aware that her destiny was to make an impact in the lives of Rwandan children. During her stay, she observed the need to groom young girls and work towards helping them achieve economic independence and also, obtain leadership roles in the workplace and society in general.

“I moved to Rwanda in 2006, and witnessed the incredible career opportunities within the technology and hospitality industries and with that, I wanted to create a bridge between the young girls and the burgeoning private sector,” Hughes says.

 

In January 2010, she put her thoughts to practice and founded Akilah Institute with a model that would empower and ensure that the girls are provided with the right skills for them to effectively launch their careers in the work place and in society.

 

“I founded this institute with a vision to create a nurturing and rigorous academic environment that invests in the next generation of female leaders and entrepreneurs who are building businesses and investing in their communities,” she says.

 

Aside from the technical skills in business, technology and hospitality, leadership development, public speaking, and communication are among the skills that the girls are imparted with.

The mother of two stays in Kibagabaga and says that the zeal of the girls at Akilah is inspiring; that’s why it’s really important to her that her two young girls grow up around the Akilah students who can teach them how to be strong and inspirational women.

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The girls during a discussion. 

Her admiration for Rwanda and respect for the strong women who aim at building their country are her inspiration.

“I am deeply inspired by women like the late Aloisea Inyumba who played a key role in helping me open Akilah. She embodied the concept of a strong and passionate woman who spent her life building institutions and helping others,” Hughes says.

The institute started small with only 50 students, one programme and seven staff, but it has since grown to over 400 girls, 37 staff and a branch that was opened up in Burundi.

“We opened a campus in Burundi a few years ago and then unfortunately we were forced to close it last summer but we are committed to returning when the situation is stable and safe for our students and faculty,” Hughes says.

She adds, “We were able to transfer about 50 of our Burundian students to the Rwanda campus but it was heartbreaking for our team to leave behind so many young women with incredible potential. I still believe that Burundi can become an economic success story and Akilah can play a critical role in educating the women to lead that process.”

The institute plans on expanding the Akilah model across Africa; the Rwanda campus will remain the headquarters of the organisation and the innovation centre to develop and test new academic programmes and methodologies.

It is also planning on introducing weekend and evening programmes in September next year.

Aline Kabanda, the Country Director, says that the three programmes that is, Entrepreneurship, Information System and Hospitality Management, actually do align with the country’s vision.

She explains that the focus on hospitality management was because tourism is still one of the leading sectors in the economy with highest forex exchange earner, and information systems, as Rwanda wants to position itself as the ICT hub in East Africa. The focus on entrepreneurship was because the country has a young but vibrant private sector.

So, through equipping these girls with these skills, contribution to the development of the country will be achieved.

Before the girls join Akilah, they are interviewed to see if their career aspirations connect with the programme.

“We do that mostly because someone might come here wanting to do law and then just go with the options we have, which isn’t right. We want the girls to understand what it is that they want and go for it, hence thrive in the intensive environment that we provide for them,” Kabanda points out.

She also says that their commitment is to make sure that girls are provided with not just the right skills and the right knowledge but also, the mindset and the attitude, and that is why students take leadership courses right from the beginning.

The girls are motivated to understand who they are, their strengths, weaknesses, goals, dreams and how to start preparing for their needs.

“We help them understand that they have the potential of becoming who they want to be, being successful takes the right grooming.

“Rwanda is really leading the way with women empowerment, what is necessary is to continue to build on the generation that will continue with the amazing work done. It is our hope that these girls will see themselves as leaders of today and tomorrow, and positively impact and lead their families because they have what it takes to be successful. They should dream big,” Kabanda says.

What the girls say

21-year-old Ange Sonia Rugwiro testifies to the change in her life. She says she would never have described herself as confident back then but now, it’s all different and with the dreams and confidence she has towards life, the sky is the limit.

She joined Akilah three years back and has pursued a course in Information Systems. She says she not only acquired technical skills but also, leadership boost.

“I am the guild president, however, this didn’t come on a silver platter as I had to work for it and it came from the belief and the confidence I developed with time. Being in such a community has groomed us, plus, the skills we get make us competitive on the job market,” Rugwiro says.

She recalls when university student leaders had gone for Itorero (civic education) and amongst the different groups; she volunteered to be a leader. The other girls were amazed by how brave she was since they all thought boys would come out first.

“During Itorero I stood and gave orders that were followed; I wish all girls would recognise their abilities and never underestimate their power,” Rugwiro says.

Sakina Usengimana opted for entrepreneurship because she has always loved the industry.

She says that the opportunity to get hands-on skills will enable her to expand both of her businesses; she runs a local shop and sells jewellery too.

“We are helped to put in practice what we study, we get to pitch our business ideas to investors and take part in class competitions where winners are awarded with capital,” she says.

Usengimana says that the hands-on skills give them ground to make errors such that when they reach out on the market, they will know what to do exactly.

Mentors from organisations like Inkomoko provide guidance on their various projects.

For Allen Ingabire, taking care of people is what she loves and does best that’s why she went for hospitality management.

“By the time I joined Akilah I will admit to not knowing exactly what I wanted to be but I was given guidance and now I see a bright future ahead of me.”

Usengimana admits to having turned out a responsible woman who looks out for other girls too. The girls have managed to mobilise and empower other young women from villages like Kinyinya, Karongi, Kibuye.

“I have been shaped into a woman who can take an initiative and this has helped to open my mind. We have indeed acquired skills than we never thought we’d have. Some girls focus on physical beauty and nothing else but this isn’t wise, we are trained to look beyond that,” Ingabire adds.

How can young girls be groomed into future leaders?

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Louise Hategeka

To achieve this, you need to expose them to various leadership skills and also, enlighten them on what is required. They need to be motivated, and they need to build the confidence to be able to write their own success stories from the start as they gain experience. We need to give them a platform where they can interact and share experiences with different inspirational leaders, most especially women. Through such initiatives, girls get acquainted and are inspired to embrace leadership.

Louise Hategeka, school instructor

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Ugwimbabazi

If this initiative is to be a success, young girls should be given more access to leadership seminars, conferences and trainings. Such initiatives give girls necessary knowledge and skills about leadership. In conferences, girls get an opportunity to meet and network with inspirational and successful leaders, and it is this inspiration that will open doors for their own leadership. Acquaintance is paramount when it comes to leadership.

Marie Jean Ugwimbabazi, clothing stylist

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Ruth Dusabeyesu

A good way to go about this is to let girls exercise leadership as early as school. For instance, empower and encourage them to lead their school extracurricular activities, be prefects, and lead their fellow students in different projects. Giving girls a chance to lead will give them a sense of responsibility and maturity, and it is this experience that will build their self-esteem and empower them. 

Ruth Dusabeyesu, scholar

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Nyirahabineza

I think every good leader can attribute their success to mentorship. There should be an initiative to reach out to young girls and take them through mentorship programmes which will enable them acquire skills and also improve their interest in leadership. Girls need to be enthused, motivated and enlightened on their inner abilities and talents. Mentorship opens their eyes to the opportunities around them, and eventually, it shows them how they can tap into all those opportunities.

Yvonne Nyirahabineza, tutor

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