Women Disrupting Tech
One-line solution summary:
Launch an online Information Systems diploma to address the educational access and digital divide for women across Africa and Asia.
Pitch your solution.
Since 2010, the Akilah Institute has built a reputation for delivering high-quality, market-relevant education for young women at its campus in Rwanda. Akilah’s academic model leverages technology, competency-based education, and personalized learning to put graduates on the fast track to success.
The ICT industry offers tremendous potential for African and Asian economies, but women currently make up only a fraction of IT posts globally. Akilah’s solution is to launch an online competency-based diploma in Information Systems targeting underserved young women across the region, providing direct access to the workforce upon graduation.
Akilah is uniquely positioned to deliver a scalable and affordable higher education model that inspires students to think critically and creatively about how to build a more sustainable world. Globally, we expect to enroll 150,000 students annually, impacting 1 million learners across Africa and Asia by 2030.
Film your elevator pitch.
What specific problem are you solving?
With the spread of Coronavirus, there have been fundamental changes to the landscape in which the private and public sectors operate as well as how people work, live, and learn. The demand for routine-based skills have decreased, while the need for specialized labor and soft skills have increased, especially in the business and technology fields. All top 10 trending skills of the future lie at the intersection of soft skills and technology skills.
In the digital economy, young women are particularly underserved. The International Telecommunications Union reports that the proportion of women globally using the internet is 12% lower than that of men; this gender gap widens to 32.9% in the least developed countries.
A 2012 study conducted by Intel suggests that when women have access to the internet, 30 percent earn additional income, 45 percent search for jobs, and 80 percent improve their education. Women and girls are consistently excluded from ICT education and lack the confidence necessary to compete with their male counterparts. In school, girls are often discouraged from studying ICT, and if they do, feel threatened and silenced by male students. This digital gender divide isn’t just unfair; it’s fundamentally detrimental for women’s livelihoods.
What is your solution?
In 2013, Akilah launched its accredited Information Systems (INS) diploma program at a time when technology was considered a career “for males.”. A total of eight young women were in the inaugural class of our campus-based INS program. Last fall, 173 young women were enrolled in the INS program -- an increase of over 2000 percent. In August, we will launch a fully online competency-based INS program to expand access to young women across Africa and Asia. The INS diploma combines technical knowledge with a solid understanding of business processes to create industry-ready professionals for the public and private sectors. Students learn industry-specific competencies such as product management, systems analysis and design, programming, business intelligence, e-business, database design and management.
Coursework is administered through Canvas, our Learning Management System, as well as virtual discussions via our online student life portal. Students first enter Akilah’s Bridge program, an intensive, six-week program designed to equip them with the requisite English language and digital literacy skills. Then, students begin a two-year INS diploma program, taking courses that interweave core leadership and INS competencies. All students complete a required three-month internship prior to graduation that often leads directly to employment.
Who does your solution serve, and in what ways will the solution impact their lives?
Akilah enrolls underserved young women in the INS program who have graduated from secondary school, passed their national exams, and demonstrate strong leadership potential.
Our approach has led to a decade of demonstrative results for over 2,500 alumni and students, the majority of whom come from rural areas and were previously unemployed:
- Eighty-six percent of graduates secure employment within six months of graduation
- Thirty-three percent of graduates have received at least one promotion in position and/or salary since graduating, and 31 percent are in a supervisory role
- More than 81 percent of graduates are supporting at least one individual or family member financially
Our success is rooted in our ability to not only prepare young women with the requisite technical skills to compete for the jobs of today and tomorrow, but to instill in them the knowledge, skills, values, and confidence to effect change in their workplaces, households, and communities. Their ability to analyze, innovate, and problem solve are just a few of the reasons that Akilah graduates are pursued for highly-coveted positions in the private sector. And their employment ensures that these young women become economically independent and invest in their families, communities and societies.
Which dimension of the Challenge does your solution most closely address?Strengthen competencies, particularly in STEM and digital literacy, for girls and young women to effectively transition from education to employment
Explain how the problem, your solution, and your solution’s target population relate to the Challenge and your selected dimension.
Akilah’s online competency-based INS diploma program aligns with our selected dimension perfectly through the transformational impact of our program. Underserved young women strengthen their technical and leadership competencies in order to be prepared for the changing world of work. Their ability to secure and retain employment and demonstrate leadership in their workplaces, households, and communities, shows the efficacy of our program. When young women advance in the ICT sector, it ultimately bridges the educational, economic, and digital gender divides across Africa and Asia.
In what city, town, or region is your solution team headquartered?Kigali, Rwanda
What is your solution’s stage of development?Growth: An organization with an established product, service, or business model rolled out in one or, ideally, several communities, which is poised for further growth
Who is the primary delegate for your solution?
Karen Sherman, President, Akilah Institute
If you have additional video content that explains your solution, provide a YouTube or Vimeo link here:
Which of the following categories best describes your solution?A new application of an existing technology
Describe what makes your solution innovative.
Akilah is not the first INS online diploma program in Rwanda, but we are the first and only college that focuses on women’s leadership and career development aligning with market-relevant needs. Competitors like Mount Kenya University and Carnegie Mellon Rwanda offer an INS online degree. However, we use data-driven personalized learning to tailor the academic experience to each student. Rather than starting with the supply — underserved young women in need of skills and employment — Akilah starts with the demand — the skills gaps in the current and future labor market — and works backwards, so that young women graduate ready to assume leadership roles in the workplace and society. We partner with leading corporations and startups, and our curriculum is developed alongside government partnerships which allow us to focus on preparing students to thrive in the workforce of tomorrow.
Our model is a hybrid of a liberal arts education, combining competency-based (CBE) academic programs with a customized, data-driven learning model. Students gain practical experience and the tools needed to thrive in the fastest growing sectors of the economy. CBE is an outcomes-based, student-centered approach to learning through proven mastery of specific competencies instead of just completing credit hours.
Our academic model combines a core curriculum in environmental, social, and economic sustainability with intensive leadership training, community service, public speaking, and soft skill development, none of which other universities offer. Akilah’s unique unbundled faculty structure, academic model, and pedagogy are designed to ensure students’ academic, personal, and professional success.
Describe the core technology that powers your solution.
Technology is the backbone of our education programs at Akilah and Davis, both in terms of facilitating access to education as well as a career choice. Akilah’s diploma in Information Systems (INS) prepares learners for a career in the digital economy.
We use Canvas as our student learning management system. Canvas effectively tracks student progress and measures their proficiency or mastery of academic competencies. Every course we teach is aligned with a specific set of core or program competencies. The core competencies span from digital literacy to leadership and social responsibility, to career navigation and self-esteem, with specific indicators to measure change. Our academic team reviews this data regularly to enable real-time adjustments to the curriculum or interventions regarding a student’s performance. We are also introducing new systems and software beyond Canvas to support online learning, including an online library and research database, plagiarism software and a virtual lab application (VMWare), which allows INS students to complete their practicals in a virtual lab environment.
Provide evidence that this technology works.
Canvas and VMWare are both well-known, established service providers that are utilized by higher education institutions globally. Specific to Akilah and Davis, we have utilized Canvas over the past two years as our primary mode to deliver our academic courses and as the method in which students submit their competency-based educational assessments and participate in online discussions.
In March 2020, we closed the Akilah campus to comply with the Rwandan Government’s directive to decrease the spread of the coronavirus in the country. Our Academic team worked swiftly to shift our current Akilah students to continue their academic year at a distance and online. We have been using Canvas as our primary teaching method which has allowed us to test in real-time the challenges and benefits of teaching learners online in Rwanda.
With the hands-on, student-centered approach from Akilah’s highly qualified faculty, graduates will have a competitive edge in the tech industry. INS graduates have the potential of starting their own tech companies or launching their careers in the following fields: Software Engineering, Mobile Apps Development, Systems Analysis, Database Administration, Website Development, Network Administration, Big Data Analysis, and Systems Administration and Support.
Please select the technologies currently used in your solution:
What is your theory of change?
Akilah’s Theory of Change posits that if promising young women who have graduated secondary school and come from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds are given a market-relevant and competency-based education, leadership skills, and career development services, then they will develop proficiency or mastery of the following core competencies: (1) Critical Thinking; (2) English and Communication; (3) Leadership and Responsibility; (4) Information Technology and Quantitative Literacy; (5) Personal Growth and Self-Confidence; and (6) Career Navigation. Students simultaneously build program competencies in Information Systems: Industry knowledge and methods of information systems; Analyze and evaluate information systems project proposals; Design, configure and deploy information systems project components; Communication; Client Service-mindedness; Identify and mitigate threats to information systems; Professionalism; Adaptability; and Career mindfulness. If students achieve proficiency or mastery of the program and core competencies described, then they will be prepared and motivated to use what they’ve learned outside of the classroom: these young women will graduate from Akilah “career ready.” Graduates’ career readiness facilitates their ability to secure employment and advance in their career pathways, and, ultimately, achieve economic independence and obtain leadership roles in the workplace and in society.
Select the key characteristics of your target population.
Which of the UN Sustainable Development Goals does your solution address?
In which countries do you currently operate?
In which countries will you be operating within the next year?
How many people does your solution currently serve? How many will it serve in one year? In five years?
Through our campus-based diploma programs, we currently serve 961 female students at the Akilah campus, and have over 2,500 students and alumnae to date. With the launch of our Online INS Diploma, we will serve an additional 360 co-ed students in which 180 of those are women from the East African region, during the 2020-2021 Academic Year.
In the next five years, we are planning to reach 35,000 students through both our campus and online programs. We will also roll out additional online diploma, degree, and certificate programs to the Asian and African markets, meeting learners where they are.
What are your goals within the next year and within the next five years?
Our primary goal in the next year is to successfully launch our Online INS and Business Management and Entrepreneurship Diploma programs in East Africa. In 2021, we will begin recruitment for our Asian cohorts, as well. Over the next five years and beyond, our academic leadership team and faculty are uniquely positioned to deliver a scalable and affordable higher education model that inspires students to think critically and creatively about how to build a more sustainable world. A grant will support the enrollment of 35,000 students by 2024. By 2030, we expect to enroll 150,000 students annually in our lean campus and online programs.
What barriers currently exist for you to accomplish your goals in the next year and in the next five years?
Student enrollment and retention: We envision a cultural barrier in encouraging young women to enroll in our INS diploma given the challenges we had when we first launched our in-person INS diploma. Information systems is still viewed as a “male-dominated” industry with more barriers for women to enter the field. Additionally, we have learned through Akilah that women face unique challenges to continuing their education including societal pressure that prioritizes marriage and family as opposed to aggressively pursuing education as their male peers are encouraged to do.
Faculty: While our faculty is skilled in delivering our curriculum in face-to-face and blended learning modalities, they have never taught content in a fully online program before. We anticipate a learning curve in which faculty are able to effectively deliver the curriculum.
Accreditation: Online programs are still a relatively new concept for our accrediting body - Workforce Development Authority. We will be one of the first programs they accredit in-country that will fully be delivered online.
How do you plan to overcome these barriers?
Student enrollment and retention: We have learned how to leverage our robust Akilah alumnae pool to act as ambassadors for our program to encourage women to join the INS program. We have already begun utilizing them through our recruitment efforts to encourage other women to join. In order to ensure student retention, we have built a robust student affairs department which is well equipped to manage issues specific to our female students and ensure they can finish school with the option for a deferred graduation date.
Faculty: To ensure our faculty can make the transition to online, our professional development (PD) team has been supporting the faculty shift to distance learning already, and they will provide additional training over the Spring and Summer to prepare faculty for fully online programs.
Accreditation: Over the past ten years, we have built a very strong relationship with the Director General’s office within the Workforce Development Authority and Ministry of Education. Given our strong relationships, we collaborate with them to ensure our programs fulfill their criteria.
What type of organization is your solution team?Hybrid of for-profit and nonprofit
How many people work on your solution team?
We have five staff that compose the team leading on our solution. Below provides a breakdown of these staff members’ key responsibilities as it relates to our solution:
Aline Kabanda, President, Davis College Rwanda
- Oversee strategic partnerships
- Oversee Rwandan leadership
- Liaise with funding partners
Paul Swaga, Academic Director
- Oversee execution of online academic curriculum
Ariel Jagusztyn, Assistant Vice President of Academic Program
- Lead academic team through curriculum development
- Oversee work of curriculum developers
Stella Wayianzuvuko, Faculty Development Coordinator
- Oversee professional development of faculty
Becky Shiring, Assistant VP of Academic Technology
- Oversee execution of academic technology utilized in our online programs
How many years have you worked on your solution?
For the last decade, we have delivered a high-quality, affordable model of higher education, providing educational access and economic opportunity to underserved young women in East Africa.
Why are you and your team well-positioned to deliver this solution?
Over the last decade, Akilah has designed a unique academic, staffing, and instructional model that is affordable, scalable, and effectively prepares students to tackle the world's most pressing needs. Every element of Akilah, including our unbundled faculty structure, technology, market-relevant and competency-based curriculum, and lean infrastructure, is designed with a focus on affordability and access, creating educational and economic opportunities for young people who wouldn’t otherwise have them. Our team is skilled at competency-based education, and blended and online learning under the direction of 20-year academic veteran Tony Guzman, Akilah’s Chief Academic Officer, and 30-year gender-issues veteran, Karen Sherman, Akilah President.
What organizations do you currently partner with, if any? How are you working with them?
Our top three partners we will work with are:
- MTN Rwanda: We have partnered with MTN Rwanda to provide internet bundles to online students during the Bridge Program - our summer preparatory program which prepares incoming students to master the core competencies needed to participate in our diploma programs. We will explore working with MTN to continue to provide students with access to subsidized internet bundles during their program.
- Ucroo: Ucroo is the developer behind Davis College’s new portal for students and faculty, DavisConnect. DavisConnect serves as a central site for access to our systems (Canvas, Gmail, Google Apps) and provides a platform for sharing information and connecting teachers and students to the resources they need. The portal has been rolled out to all faculty in the current trimester and is being used to support distance learning professional development and the transition to online learning. DavisConnect will be launched for students at the start of the next academic year. Ucroo continues to work with us through the design and implementation of the portal, creating customized reporting features, integrations with our systems, and training tailored to the different users in the system. The platform plays an increasingly important role in allowing the Davis College community to feel connected while learning online.
- Canvas: Canvas is our learner management system that our students use to participate in online discussions, complete their coursework, and receive feedback on their assignments. Faculty use Canvas to facilitate classroom discussion, assign modules to students, and grade student assignments.
What is your business model?
Our current financial model is primarily funded through a combination of philanthropy and tuition paid by our students. Philanthropic gifts are received as grants and donations that are channeled through the Akilah Foundation - a registered 501c3 in the United States. These grants are annually transferred to the Davis College Rwanda - the private entity registered in Rwanda that operates our academic programs.
Our key customer base are young men and women in East Africa and forthcoming Asia who enroll in an Online INS Diploma Program. Our students pay subsidized tuition fees that equal approximately one-third of the total cost to serve per student. As we explain in the subsequent question, we are actively working to reduce our total cost to serve through lowering costs and widening our customer base.
Finally, for students who are unable to cover their total tuition fees and come from low-income backgrounds, we offer an Income Share Agreement (ISA) through our tuition partner - Chancen International. Chancen offers students loans in the form of ISAs which students pay back gradually upon graduation once they obtain employment.
Do you primarily provide products or services directly to individuals, or to other organizations?Individual consumers or stakeholders (B2C)
What is your path to financial sustainability?
Financial sustainability is a key organizationational goal that we are aiming to achieve in the next seven years. We will achieve this goal by lowering our cost to serve per student in our online and campus programs. We have already made substantial progress in this regard - we have successfully lowered our cost to serve over the past three years from $5,000 USD/student to $2800 USD/student. However, there is still a gap between our cost to serve and a student’s tuition fees. Shifting many of our courses into an online format will allow us to reach more students and thus widen the pool of students who are paying tuition fees. In addition, the cost to serve per student is less for our online diploma students as opposed to those who choose to study on our Akilah and Davis College campuses in Rwanda. In addition, we are exploring innovative funding methods such as impact debt and equity as means in which we diversify our funding streams as an organization.
Why are you applying to Solve?
Akilah has been a pioneer in women’s education in East Africa over the last decade. Our campus is the first and only women’s campus in Rwanda, and our approach to our CBE pedagogy, accredited market-relevant curriculum, and ability to provide young women with direct linkages to the East African workforce are a small portion of what makes us unique and successful.
With the spread of COVID-19 and the lack of access to online higher education for underserved students, specifically young women, we believe that our unique value proposition is to fill this void with our online INS program. This program, along with our Business Management and Entrepreneurship program over the next year, will provide direct value to strengthen underserved young women’s competencies in both digital literacy and the ICT industries, and will ultimately - as proven in our model over the last 10 years - be the bridge between women, the workforce, and the economy.
In which of the following areas do you most need partners or support?
Please explain in more detail here.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic and resulting economic crises, our funding has been greatly effected. In particular, our funding that was intended to fund our expansion goals has been negatively affected given the economic crises and funders unable to fulfill previously promised funding. In addition, our student loan partner, Chancen International is no longer able to provide funding in the form of Income Share Agreements for our continuing and incoming student class.
What organizations would you like to partner with, and how would you like to partner with them?
Our goal is to ensure we identify funding partners that will allow our current students to continue studying as well as support incoming students with financial needs. Our Income Share Agreement with Chancen allows low-income students to access education regardless of their socioeconomic background.
Elizabeth Dearborn Hughes CEO & Co-founder, Davis College