Inside partnership between Cornell SC Johnson College of Business and Mastercard Foundation to support Rwanda’s Hospitality, Tourism Industry

By Mary Lorson
On 23 April 2021 at 08:02

Rwanda’s hospitality and tourism industry was thriving before the pandemic. Worldwide hotel chains and luxury resorts were bustling, and more were on the way. With skilled workers in high demand, businesses in Rwanda’s tourism sector were already taking advantage of various training offerings. Now, those hard-hit enterprises are wisely using the forced shutdowns to focus on the future by implementing valuable upskilling opportunities.

One training program – the Mastercard Foundation Hanga Ahazaza initiative – works with several partners in Rwanda, such as the Cornell SC Johnson College of Business to provide professional development opportunities for managers and hospitality educators, through its Certificate in Hospitality Management program and its Professional Development Program (PDP). Cornell delivers this advanced training via its eCornell online courses, virtual events, executive education, and classes in its Kigali Heights facility.

“Our goal under Hanga Ahazaza is simple: to enable 30,000 young people to access dignified and fulfilling work in the tourism sector,” says Rica Rwigamba, Rwanda Country Head at the Mastercard Foundation.

“While the goal remains the same, we’re working with our partners to adapt programs to a pandemic and post-pandemic world by building resilience in the sector and adopting digital technology as an enabler of skills training.”

Since 2018, more than 100 businesses have participated in Cornell’s program and nearly 800 employees have benefited from this training. Participants in the Cornell program say courses like Service Excellence and Building High-Performance Teams provide essential skills and a broader understanding of their industry, which they emulate at work every day.

Program benefits: skills and broader understanding

Managers are reporting a significant improvement in their employees’ customer service performance. Vincent Nzigira, a Managing Director of Bourbon Coffee – a global chain founded in 2007 to create both a market for Rwandan coffee and jobs for Rwandan workers – was one of the first managers to work directly with the Cornell Hanga Ahazaza program in Kigali. The program provided resources and encouragement for his employees – 17 so far. “Customer service has no specific formula,” he says. “It’s about the details, but it’s also about common sense and accountability.” His staff is bringing more personality, creativity, and positivity to their work, and they require less supervision.

Jeanne Kayitesi, Human Resources Manager at One&Only Resorts, oversees a staff of about 200, and has sent 32 of her employees to the Cornell Hanga Ahazaza training. Kayitesi has also seen the positive effect of the program on her team, one of whom has been promoted to full-time manager. “The course has changed him,” she attested. “I have seen a huge shift in his leadership style from when he started.”
Kayitesi says her employees who have been especially pro-active in the course have improved immensely – “how they respond to their possibilities and leadership has changed…now, they are eager to learn.” As an employer, One&Only sends a clear message of support to its enrolled employees, providing training space and equipment, and offering transportation to and from Cornell’s Kigali Heights classroom.

Kayitesi believes her colleagues are inspired to work harder because they have a clearer understanding of how business works. “I hope that other businesses will understand that if they support their staff in this way, they too can benefit from this opportunity.”

Side-by-side training

Managers who enrolled along with their employees say they appreciate the perspective gained from the coursework itself and from the shared experience with their team members. This past February, Shehzad Rajani, a financial controller at the Radisson Blu Kigali, completed Cornell’s Certificate in Hospitality Management, with a Specialization in Financial Management.

Rajani has worked in finance for years and was impressed to find the coursework challenging. Currently, he is overseeing general managers from different countries and during the COVID-19 lockdown, he found that participating in the Cornell Hanga Ahazaza certificate program together was “the most positive thing to do” in the middle of the crisis.

The Building High-Performance Teams course reinforced Rajani’s belief in team motivation, and he’s already putting principles from the classroom into practice, including formalizing his weekly catch-up sessions with his employees.

“I’ve become a better listener. I ask them for their goals, action plan, and development plan. They feel like they can approach me.” He also believes that constructive feedback is better received by his staff because he makes a point of encouraging them often. “In finance, we need to be transparent, to notice when people are confused, to help, to educate and inform them, and overall to be more involved with operational managers.”

Rajani has experience in project mentorship and he hopes to do more of it within his department. He wants to complete Cornell’s advanced General Management certification so that he can become a stronger coach and mentor. “You should always continue to grow and learn,” he says.

Eric Semuzima, HR Manager at Radisson Blu and Kigali Convention Center, also took part of the course with his employees. He wanted to be an encouraging role model for his staff. He appreciated “the way the content was communicated and managed, so that it can be easily understood and explained.” He was also impressed by the financial aspect of the program, focusing on statements of organization and revenue interpretation. “Before this, I thought these reports were not important,” he says.

But now, he uses the data to monitor his departmental expenses. Semuzima sees improvements in his employees too – when they refer to their lessons and exercises in resolving conflicts or reaching a shared understanding on how to optimize results. People are speaking up, bringing experience to their supervisors, and are more confident and better understand how the departments function. They’re showing initiative too: “They don’t need direction for every task,” she says. This broadened understanding of the business is now a requirement for employees wishing to advance. “In our future planning, any promotions will be contingent on staff completing this course.”

Semuzima’s own ambitions are fueled by the productivity around him. Combining his HR background and his burgeoning hospitality acumen, his goal is to become the GM of a branded hotel within the next 10 years.

Aline Rwubaka, Operations Manager of Primate Safari, has been in her current position since 2005. As a seasoned professional, she also saw value in enrolling in one of Cornell’s certificate programs. “Our industry has evolved, and this program was an excellent refresher on what’s going on in our industry.” Aline says her leadership skills were particularly tested during the pandemic, when the lockdowns and cancellations were creating additional pressure for everyone. During these times, she found herself relying on tools emphasized in her Building High Performing Teams class. Now, she says, “I listen to my colleagues even when I’m under pressure myself.”

Create the Future: Many possibilities

“There are two Henrys,” says Henry Hakundwumukiza. “Before and after Cornell’s Professional Development Program.” In 2018, the principal of Henry’s college nominated him to participate in the Cornell School of Hotel Administration’s Professional Development Program (PDP), and he has not looked back. “Henry had and has a vision for where he wanted PDP to take him; this is a big story for him,” says Kim Szpiro, Project Lead for the Cornell Hanga Ahazaza initiative.

After completing the program, Henry continued to work as a Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) trainer and was also a writer of curriculum for one of the Hanga Ahazaza educational partners. He joined the Cornell Kigali staff in 2019 as In-Country Instructor and is part of the Cornell Hanga Ahazaza initiative, where he has been involved in curriculum redesign.

“Henry’s a Renaissance man,” Szpiro adds. Henry is a student, instructor, mentor, and entrepreneur. His passion for teaching and learning about hospitality come through on his YouTube cooking channel (Gourmet School of Culinary Arts) and textbook, both created in English, which he considers a priority for future hospitality professionals. Henry has also completed a training course through one of the other Hanga Ahazaza partners and is pursuing a master’s degree – all while raising a family.

“Henry understands our program and its impact on him, but (he also knows) the other partners and how they fit into the bigger picture,” Kim Szpiro adds. Henry’s commitment to professional education is a testament to what Hanga Ahazaza can bring out in students. Cornell’s Hanga Ahazaza students are working professionals, often shouldering extra duties to keep their under-staffed workplaces running while trying to pursue and enhance their career development at the same time. Henry has taken excellent advantage of this experience and encourages his students to do the same.

Next strengths to build for Hospitality & Tourism success in Rwanda

Hospitality managers are pleased with their employees’ progress, but they’re still concerned about staffing challenges. Rwanda’s emerging economy will no doubt continue to grow after the pandemic, with prominent conferences like the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) and tourism re-emerging soon. Because the hospitality industry is still new in Rwanda, staff need focused training in business writing, English proficiency, interview techniques, service etiquette, and career development.

Rwubaka has a passion for tourism and hospitality and says that Rwanda needs more institutions that offer Bachelor and master’s degrees in this field. “It will support the development of the country because it’s a very good industry in which to work, and if more people know about it, then that would be helpful.”

Hanga Ahazaza works to increase Rwanda’s youth employment opportunities and to nurture its tourism industry. Cornell Hanga Ahazaza continues to support this effort, recently launching a new on-demand program for individuals to improve their customer-service skills in reception, housekeeping, food and beverage service, tour guiding, and more. These education units can be completed in about a month.

Kim Szpiro explains that Cornell Hanga Ahazaza is one part of a wider initiative. “As an organization, we are actively promoting other partners within the initiative to provide comprehensive support for the hospitality and tourism industry.”

Vincent Nizigira is hopeful. “Rwanda is investing in its people,” he says. “High quality education will help us to improve and grow.”

Cornell Hanga Ahazaza is currently accepting applications. To learn more, please click here.

About the Mastercard Foundation Hanga Ahazaza Initiative

The Mastercard Foundation Hanga Ahazaza initiative is a $50 million, five-year program focused on increasing employment opportunities for young people while expanding the tourism and hospitality sector in Rwanda. Hanga Ahazaza is a consortium of partners from the education, development, and private sectors, working together to support small businesses and entrepreneurs in the tourism and hospitality sector through increased access to financial services and training, and by connecting them to young people with the skills needed to be successful employees.

Cornell Hanga Ahazaza

•Started in 2018 to increase the numbers of youth in Rwanda’s hospitality and tourism industry.

•310 professional students have completed Cornell’s certificate program.

•What our students are doing now: In our March 2021 post-completion survey, we found that despite the impact of the pandemic 71% had an increase in responsibility, 28% received a promotion, and 14% had started a business. Thirty-nine percent had an increase in salary, 94% agreed or strongly agreed that the program helped them do their job better, and 93% agreed or strongly agreed that it helped them be a better manager or mentor.

Managers participating in Cornell Hanga Ahazaza’s certificate program earn three credentials:

1.Recognition of Achievement
2.Certificate in Hospitality Management
3. Specialization Certificate (six options)

Pre-pandemic 20 students and managers worked together with Cornell faculty during an interactive session.
Since 2018, more than 100 businesses have participated in Cornell’s program.