In Kigali on October 27, 2021, Nice Uwase, wearing a traditional Rwandan mushanana dress, stood at the outdoor podium addressing her fellow classmates of the Cornell Hanga Ahazaza Program, emphasizing the magnitude of the opportunity and the achievement they shared. “This is a milestone for all of us,” said Uwase. “And we could not have done this without you,” she added, directly acknowledging the Cornell team. The event was the program’s first opportunity since 2019 to acknowledge, in person, the students’ earning of their certificates from the Cornell Peter and Stephanie Nolan School of Hotel Administration and eCornell. The 427 Rwandan tourism and hospitality professionals, representing ten cohorts of students, were jubilant at the chance to gather together and acknowledge this career-accelerating accomplishment.
Launched and funded by the Mastercard Foundation, the Hanga Ahazaza (“create the future” in Kinyarwanda) Initiative is a consortium of non-profit and industry partners, the Rwandan government, and several educational institutions, including the Cornell Peter and Stephanie Nolan School of Hotel Administration, part of the SC Johnson College of Business. The Initiative’s goal is to further accelerate Rwanda’s rapidly strengthening hospitality and tourism sector, a foundational piece of the country’s economic development strategy.
Cornell joined the Hanga Ahazaza Initiative in 2018, providing exceptional business training in hospitality through virtual courses taught by Nolan professors, delivered by eCornell, and facilitated by in-country instructors. Rwandan hospitality and tourism employers nominate and support certain of their staff members to complete the Cornell Hanga Ahazaza Program coursework, earning specialized certificates in Hotel Revenue Management, Financial Management, Marketing, and more. The courses both increase the students’ marketability and upskill the Rwandan hospitality and tourism industry.
The hospitality and tourism sector was, of course, particularly hard-hit by the global pandemic, but the Cornell Hanga Ahazaza Program continued despite lockdowns and layoffs. “Ours was the only program in the Hanga Ahazaza Initiative that was fully online,” explained Cornell’s Kim Szpiro, Hanga Ahazaza Associate Director and program lead. “So we were able to continue the teaching, providing additional remote support with Zoom meetings, WhatsApp messaging, and individual phone calls. Nineteen months after the first pandemic lockdown, 427 students had completed the 10-month program…crossing the half way point to our grant-target of 850 certificate completions.”
At the graduation ceremony, the assembled hospitality and tourism professionals (some of whom completed the program in addition to shouldering extra duty at their understaffed workplaces) sported festive traditional or modern styles and beaming smiles.
Benjamin Mutabazi says he learned of the program “on the last day of completing training in front office operations…it was a blessing right there that I couldn’t think twice to grab.” Mutabazi credits program completion with earning a promotion from a front office agent to a guest house manager. “As a result [of] participating in this program, I increased my hospitality IQ… it opened my eyes…my dreams got bigger,” he added.
Another celebrant, Adelphine Abewe, who owns her own indoor plant company, #elamorgardenkigali, shared that after completing the Cornell program she now feels “willing and prepared” to add a café to her business. This expansion will aim “to train young females and teenager mothers in Food and Beverage Service.”
Nice Uwase, the student speaker, was an impressive representative of the Hanga Ahazaza student population — an educated working professional with over a decade of hospitality industry experience. Uwase holds a bachelor’s degree in Business, Economics, and Finance from the Independent University of Kigali, and is pursuing an MBA at the University of Suffolk in the United Kingdom. She is Director of Sales and Revenue Optimization at the Radisson Blu Hotel & Kigali Convention Centre. “Remember to thank the people who helped us,” she counseled her fellows, naming the MasterCard Foundation, the Rwandan Development Board, and the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business, all three of which had sent officials bringing congratulations to the event.
Not only did the event satisfy months of waiting for the Cornell Hanga Ahazaza students, but it also heralded a reopening of Rwanda’s hospitality and tourism community. Rwanda’s rigorous COVID protocols (including mandatory testing and a public health campaign that fully vaccinated over 90% of Kigali residents) allowed for a safe return of conferences and summits throughout the fall, calling employees back to work after being laid off during the height of the pandemic.
The next Cornell Hanga Ahazaza certificate celebration is scheduled for May 17, 2022, with an address by Nolan Professor Alex Susskind and an anticipated 250 additional Rwandan hospitality and tourism sector workers receiving recognition.
“I am very excited to address the next cohort of graduates in Kigali later this spring,” enthused Susskind. “This kind of service collaboration on a global scale is exactly what the Nolan School and our college are uniquely suited to do.”
The collaboration will travel in both directions in June of 2022, when the Cornell Hanga Ahazaza Initiative will bring 18 technical and vocational trainers from Rwanda to Ithaca for the Nolan School of Hotel Administration’s Professional Development Program. Complementing the online certificate learnings, these sessions will provide an enduring train-the-trainer component, bolstering in-country hospitality and tourism training and strengthening this bridge within the industry’s global community.