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“Too good to be true” – the young Africans receiving international scholarships

Growing up in a rural village in Cameroon, Mekila Ngwambe saw few people leave his community to travel to other parts of the country, let alone to go abroad. So when he received a fully-funded scholarship to study over 3,000 miles away at the University of Edinburgh, he couldn’t believe it – and, at first, his family didn’t. 

Photo: PeopleImages, iStock.

The number of scholarships on offer hasn’t increased proportionately with the demand from Africa's young people

“My mum thought it was a scam,” he laughs. “It was too good to be true.”

Ngwambe is one of the nearly 45,000 young Africans who has received a scholarship from the Mastercard Foundation. Now, he says, he views his life in two stages – the years before he received the funding and the ones since. 

“I wanted to be educated so badly,” he says of himself as a child. “I loved reading. I loved doing things. I mean, in school, I was very intelligent, but I didn’t just have the means.”

Like others in his village, Ngwambe relied on kerosene lamps to study at night as there was no electricity. At school, a computer science exam meant labelling the parts of the machine on a diagram as there were no actual computers. 

It wasn’t until he arrived in Edinburgh that he realised how different life is for more privileged young people around the world. It was this experience that inspired him to set up his company, Sun Save Solutions, which focuses on bringing solar power to rural areas. 

“I wanted to be educated so badly”

“Without the Mastercard [Foundation], there’s no chance that I would have been here,” says Ngwambe, speaking from China, where he is now enrolled in another scholarship program and attempting to build a product prototype to help power small businesses in rural Africa. 

While scholarships like the one the Mastercard Foundation offers can be life-changing, they are extremely competitive – and becoming more so, according to Bimpe Femi-Oyewo, CEO and founder of Edward Consulting. 

Femi-Oyewo’s company focuses on supporting Africans to access funding to study abroad and, in the last four years, she has secured over $13.6 million to help students attend institutions including the University of Oxford, Massachusetts Institute of Technology and London Business School. 

But the number of scholarships on offer hasn’t increased proportionately with the demand from Africa’s young people, according to Femi-Oyewo. Data shows students from Sub-Saharan Africa are increasingly choosing to study abroad, with US numbers, for example, growing by 22% between 2015 and 2022. 

In some African countries, currency fluctuations are also making it more expensive to study abroad. The devaluation of the Nigerian naira in June saw the value of some families’ savings halve overnight. Ghana and Sierra Leone are among other countries that experienced currency depreciation in 2023, leading more students to seek help with funding. 

For Ubah Ali, who is from the unrecognised country of Somaliland, an international scholarship was the chance to forge a different path from the one set out for her. As the oldest of seven siblings, raised by a single mother in the shadow of a civil war, she had little hope of breaking out of her conservative community.  

“When I was young, I never saw women leading or women going to higher education,” she says. “If girls were allowed to go to school, they would go to primary school and then get married at the end.”

But, after doing well in her exams, Ali received a scholarship to a private boarding school and had the opportunity to complete her last year of high school in the US. Through the Mastercard Foundation, she then pursued her undergraduate degree at the American University of Beruit. 

While looking for a university, she focused on scholarships that would cover costs beyond just tuition, including flights, books and equipment (“because I literally had, like, no money”). 

As well as costs, another barrier to pursuing scholarships for African students can be securing a visa. Femi-Oyewo says she has worked with multiple students who, despite having earned a scholarship to a top university, have subsequently been rejected for a visa, leaving them devastated. 

“I literally had no money”

The problem is most prevalent in the US, where visa rejection rates for African students have been on the rise in recent years. 

“I don’t know if I would have gotten a visa… if it was now,” says Femi-Oyewo, who received a scholarship to study in the US in 2006. 

For the students who do manage to overcome these barriers, the experience can often set their lives on an entirely new trajectory. 

Ali is now deeply involved in activism work, particularly focusing on ending Female Genital Mutilation – something she is a survivor of. She credits her international education and exposure to people outside of her small town for helping her to realise that FGM is not the norm for everyone. 

She is now working as a research assistant at University College London, focusing on involving indigenous voices from the Horn of Africa in climate change discussions. 

Both Ali and Ngwambe say it is hard for scholarship students to return to their home countries, as they often struggle to find career opportunities there. Despite being well-educated, salaries can be lower and recruitment to top roles is often not based on meritocracy. They agree that scholarship programs should focus more on professional development and supporting students to find jobs after graduation. 

Despite concerns about brain drain, Femi-Oyewo believes scholarships are lifting the prospects of entire countries. She says the students she works with end up earning higher wages – revenue which is often sent back to their families. 

Most of all, Femi-Oyewo, Ngwambe and Ali all believe in the importance of paying forward the opportunities they received, through social enterprises, activism work and increasing access to education for younger generations of Africans. 

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