A Bright Future for Business Education in Rwanda

 The Sun is rising at Kigali’s School of Finance and Banking

By Dr. James Hembree

Sunrise at Mburabuturo Hill, home of Kigali, Rwanda’s School of Finance and Banking, is a splendid sight. Perhaps that is why the day starts so early here. It is early September and I am at SFB as a Fulbright Specialist from Seattle University working on a six week consulting project in resource development. The students have just completed their final exams. During finals week, each day unfolds in an unvarying pattern. At 4:30 a.m. the first cock crows in the distance. At 5:30 a.m. glimmers of daylight begin to brighten the rooftops and the plots of farmland on the surrounding hills. By 6:00 a.m., students are already streaming onto the campus from the neighborhoods where they live.

They come at that early hour to get a jump start on a day spent pouring over journal articles and class notes, rehearsing answers to practice questions, grilling each other on issues in finance, accounting, marketing, and human resource management. These are the four main disciplines taught at School of Finance and Banking (SFB), a public institution established by Rwanda’s government in 2002 to develop talent for the financial sector.

Another reason that students come early is to lay claim to a favorite study spot, not in a library, a campus café or a student lounge, but on spacious lawns among the trees, around outdoor picnic tables, in narrow stoned-paved passageways between buildings, and under clotheslines laden with freshly hung laundry from the school’s residence hall. (Two hundred nineteen of SFB’s 2,787 students live on campus, a benefit reserved for single women with security concerns and students with other special needs.)

Space is at a premium. The campus was built to serve 500 students but has grown to six times that size. By 10:00 a.m., every patch of shade will be occupied by students gathered in groups of 3 or 7 or 15. They also sit in hallways. Four students are packed into the stairwell immediately outside my office door as I write this paragraph.  After sundown, the activity continues. Clusters of young people huddle under every available street light and security lamp on campus. It is as though they refuse to waste a single kilowatt that might be harnessed in the pursuit of knowledge. This is SFB during exam week. It is a splendid sight.

It is not that students here are any less subject to distractions than their peers elsewhere in the world. In fact, they are torn in many directions by the demands of work and family. Many hold part time jobs not just to pay for tuition but to contribute to the livelihood of parents and siblings. The US$955 per year price tag on an SFB education is tough in a country where most people earn less than US$2 per day. While the government heavily subsidizes the cost for students who pass with high enough scores on standardized tests (about fifty percent of the student body), the rest must pay their own way as best they can.

There are other challenges, too. Challenges not known by students in other, more privileged and historically peaceful parts of the world. The demographics of SFB reflect Rwanda’s difficult past. Many are child heads of households, HIV or genocide orphans, or recovering child soldiers struggling to change the destiny that fate or misfortune initially sent their way. I heard a young man say as much a few days ago in a public celebration hosted by Generation Rwanda, an organization that provides scholarships and mentoring for young people such as these. “The four years I have spent at SFB,” he said, “have changed my fate.” Sometimes the simplest truths directly stated are the most powerful. It was a riveting declaration, and a hopeful one.

In the midst of these challenges, the students’ thirst for knowledge remains my dominant impression at the end of a month at SFB. It is perhaps the greatest asset of Rwanda’s burgeoning school of business, a clear and early sign of its promising future. As an advisor for the school’s resource development strategy, I am also convinced that this thirst is a major reason why the world should pay attention to these students. It is why we should lend them both our moral and financial support.

Another of SFB’s assets is its strikingly beautiful and strategic location. Rwanda is known as the land of a thousand hills and SFB has been granted one of the best of them. Campus buildings cluster on 22.3 hectares of prime real estate atop a gently rounded knoll, originally the site of a secondary school established by Swiss Presbyterians in the 1960s. A walk around the perimeter reveals 360 degree views that elegantly evoke ideas about intellectual vision. Better still, this hill is adjacent to Kigali’s downtown business core which rambles over the crest of an adjacent rise. Two hills side by side, suggesting the partnership of gown and town, knowledge in the service of pragmatic goals.

SFB plays a crucial role in Rwanda’s effort to stimulate economic development through home grown entrepreneurship and investment in the private sector rather than through an excessive dependence on international aid. The country’s GDP grew by an estimated 7.4 percent in 2010 and SFB’s degree and certificate programs focus on high demand areas in this dynamic economy. Finance is the most popular degree with 682 majors currently. Accounting runs a close second with 510. Almost all of them will find jobs quickly. To ease the transition from school to work, a six week internship is required of every SFB senior who is not already employed. Many of these are hosted by the country’s major banks: Banque Populaire de Rwanda, Bank of Kigali, Access Bank, COGEBANK, and others.

Entrepreneurship is a major focus of SFB’s curriculum. Rwanda places great hope in college graduates who have the skills to forego job seeking in favor of job creation.  A proposal is under review by the Rwanda Development Board to expand entrepreneurship training for SFB students. The school also offers a Women’s Entrepreneurship Program in partnership with the University of Michigan Business School and Goldman Sachs. Soon to begin its fourth year, the program delivers six months of specialized training to 60 small scale business women recruited from every corner of the country, including rural, agricultural areas. That’s 60 women annually, with a goal of reaching 300 women over five years.

The bond between gown and town extends in Rwanda to the public sector. A three way partnership between government, business and SFB yields promising new strategies for educational finance.

For its part, Rwanda’s Ministry of Education is committed to building physical infrastructure. Three major construction projects are underway at SFB at the same time: an Instructional Center, a Sports Center and, towering over the eastern rim of the campus, an impressive, multi-purpose complex that will transform the learning environment for SFB students. This eight floor facility will house some 50,000 square feet of classroom and computer lab space, two 300 seat auditoriums, faculty offices and public gathering areas. SFB is paying for the first two projects out of operating revenue, but the third and largest building is fully funded by the government.

Recognizing the limits of public coffers, however, SFB is putting its business acumen to work to generate funds through private enterprise. In the spring of 2010, SFB Rector Dr. Reid Whitlock received approval to establish Prism East Africa, a new, profit-making subsidiary of SFB in which the school has invested its own working capital. Enterprises planned include actuarial and appraisal services, executive training, mineral certification (important in mineral rich East Africa), management consulting, and publishing. A graduate of Harvard Business School and Princeton with an impressive executive leadership resume, Whitlock has the energy and the background to make the strategy work. If successful, Prism East Africa could be replicated by other schools not only in Africa but around the world.

A final asset of SFB cannot escape notice: The priority that many students place on religious faith. SFB is a secular campus in its administrative vision. Hence, it is not the imposition of executive leadership or a founding religious order or, of a church or government that brings about the intersection of faith and learning at SFB. It is the students themselves. And what has emerged is a multi-faith community.

Each morning at first light I hear from my apartment in SFB faculty housing the rising cadences of a Muslim call to prayer.  Following close behind is the swell of praise courses from a nearby evangelical church. And, finally, as though in antiphonal response, the ringing of bells announcing an early morning Catholic Mass. Rwanda enjoys a mix of Catholics, Protestants, Seventh Day Adventists, Muslims, Pentecostals and other traditions. All are represented at SFB in an atmosphere of religious tolerance that appears to be working well.

And so three assets: A thirst for knowledge that brings throngs of students to campus at 6:00 a.m., a strategic location that fosters learning in the service of economic development, a grounding in values infused with the light of an inclusive transcendence. These are foundation stones upon which one could build, in any culture or country, a great and lasting center of learning.

The road may be long and fraught with challenges—too little space, not enough technology, a shortage of faculty, financial barriers for students and families, and so on. But SFB’s Rector is optimistic. Whitlock came to SFB by presidential appointment in March 2010. He had been in Rwanda for three and a half years as director of On The Frontier, a company specializing in national export strategies for underdeveloped or neglected post-conflict economies. For Whitlock, the move to SFB was a natural transition when Rwanda completed the initial rebuilding phase of the post 1994 Genocide era. “Now is the time,” he says, “to invest in the development of the human capital that will carry Rwanda forward.”

As a Fulbright Specialist working with SFB to advance this mission through creative partnerships and resource development, I feel privileged to offer what I can to bring this goal to fulfillment.

The author is the Senior Director of Development at Seattle University in Seattle, Washington, USA. He is in Rwanda for six weeks as a Fulbright Specialist grantee hosted by SFB (School of Finance and Banking) to work on resource development strategies.


First published in The New Times on Tuesday September 6, 2011