At 8:am, on July 23, 2010, Jean Leon Iragena, 24, received a phone call from Rwanda Education Board officials informing him that he had been awarded the Presidential Scholarship to study in the US.
He had to undergo an English proficiency test together with other 120 students from which only 30 would be selected.
Iragena passed the test and was admitted at Millsaps College, a leading higher institute in the US, where he graduated with two bachelor’s degrees; Applied Mathematics and Quantitative Economics.
Desire Gacinya, head of scholarships department at REB, says Iragena is among 411 students who have benefited from the Presidential Scholarship Program.
In 2006, President Paul Kagame travelled to United States to receive his honorary doctorate degree at the Oklahoma Christian University in recognition of his exemplary role in transforming Rwanda.
While there, Kagame launched the scholarship program. Many universities in US, UK and Germany have since then partnered with the program, offering Rwandan students scholarships in important fields such as science and technology.
Demystifying brain drain
Unlike many African scholars, many of whom have stayed in Western countries they studied from, upon graduation, Kagame’s Presidential Scholarship beneficiaries return to Rwanda to participate in the development of the country.
Some have started charity organisations, while others are engaged in businesses. Others are ardent civil servants.
Iragena is the CEO and founder of Isaro-Foundation, a charity organisation that empowers young Rwandans to improve the culture of reading and writing.
“When I arrived in US…I struggled to read and write English,” he told KTPress. After mastering the language, he adds, “I decided to take it back home for young Rwandans to benefit.”
Iragena, a vulnerable orphan of one mother, ships books from the US and distributes them in primary and secondary schools across the country. In addition to his charity work, Iragena also sponsors young writers to publish their books.
Another graduate, Pie Masomo, with a degree in computer engineering from Oklahoma Christian University in 2012, has started a software applications firm in Kigali and works as a tutorial assistant at Carnegie Melon University in Kigali.
Aloys Zunguzungu, with a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering, has established an NGO-Rwandans4water, which installs boreholes in the country’s rural areas of Gasabo, Gatsibo and Nyagatare districts.
Zunguzungu grew up in an orphanage, after losing all his parents during the 1994 genocide against Tutsi when he was just 4 years old.
He has established 70 boreholes serving 350,000 families with access to clean water. “His work is exceptional,” says Gilbert Rumanzi, a resident of Nyagihanga sector in Gatsibo District.
Rumanzi says Rwandans4water has rescued the community from a decades-long peril of diseases acquired from using water from swamps.
According to Zunguzungu, through funding from different international partners, his project pushed the percentage of access to clean water in rural communities from 20% to 60% in Gatsibo District alone. A borehole cost between $700 and $1000 to construct a, based on the terrain.
“My dream is to share what I have with needy Rwandans. I want to see my country growing into a model village in a near future,” he told KTPress.
Then Janet Akayenzi, another beneficiary, with a bachelor in environmental health from Spelman College-Atlanta, says, “Having studied at a Liberal Arts college and an all-girls school molded me into a strong woman who knows the change I want to see.”
She is now striving to serve others as her priority. She currently works at Africa Energy Services Group, a continental energy company.
These graduates are Rwanda’s pursuit to become a middle-income economy under its Vision 2020 program. But the program required highly skilled personnel.
In 2005, President Kagame introduced the scholarships program aimed at investing in skilled labour.
A landlocked country and not blessed with natural resources, Kagame said Rwanda’s principal asset is its own people.
“We need to improve human resources so that Rwanda can become a knowledge-based economy,” he said then.
The program would save Rwanda millions of dollars spent on expatriates who were then being hired to fill the skills gap that was haunting the country.
The scholarship program, Gacinya says, targets students that take courses that will address the country’s priorities. All those that graduated under the scholarship came back to Rwanda. “They are all over serving the country in different capacities,” Gacinya told KTPress.
While the skills they acquire from these top global universities may earn them lucrative jobs elsewhere, this is not the case. All presidential scholarship beneficiaries came back to serve their country.
For instance, Iragena’s scholarship at Millsaps College was worth $200,000 (Frw136million). The 411 scholarships are worth over US$100m.
Iragena considers the scholarship a rare opportunity one would not wish to take for granted. Emphatically, Zunguzungu adds, “I want to pay back by serving my country.”