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Meet the young leaders shaping Africa’s future

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A pioneering programme, sponsored by the Mastercard Foundation, has empowered hundreds of inspirational young students from the continent since 2016. We met some of the current cohort, all who have ambitions to change the world.

To be able to learn at a university like Edinburgh was everything to me. The experience has provided me with a greater education which ultimately means I will be able to help more people.

Teni AganaFourth year International Development, Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program Online distance learning student from Ghana
Providing opportunities for African students with great academic and leadership potential but few educational opportunities has been at the heart of a transformative initiative over the past seven years.

The Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program aims to ensure access to education for bright young leaders who have a personal commitment to changing the world around them and improving the lives of others.

Some 200 African students have benefitted from a partnership between the University of Edinburgh and the Mastercard Foundation since 2016, with students coming from a variety of backgrounds and countries from all over the African continent.

Making a difference

Diing Diing and his family left South Sudan as refugees. They settled in Kenya, where he went to school, before moving to Kumasi, Ghana to complete a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology.

He joined the University of Edinburgh in September 2022, studying a postgraduate degree in food security, a subject important to him personally due to the instability and conflict in South Sudan.

South Sudanese student Diing Diing pictured at Old College.

“After my undergraduate degree I went back to South Sudan and got a job at a lab but I was just analysing samples,” explains Diing. “I didn’t feel like I was contributing as much as I could. I wanted to feel like I was making a difference.

“Food security is a key challenge in South Sudan. The programme I am studying here in Edinburgh will help me return to South Sudan and help people that are not getting access to enough food. I would like to bridge the gap between those who are affected and government agencies and NGOs in order to best support these families.”

The conflict and challenges in his country has made Diing grasp the opportunities he has made for himself and appreciate the support and assistance on offer at Edinburgh.

“When I was in high school in Kenya I was really struggling with my school fees and all that kind of stuff. I never really thought I would go to university and I didn’t know much about Mastercard. Coming to a university like Edinburgh was never in my plans.

“The opportunity to come Edinburgh has been amazing but it’s also been challenging. The main difference has been that I’ve been exam-based my entire life but I’ve found it’s totally different here. I have to write essays and do presentations. It’s a completely different system so I’m learning about the process as well as the subject as I go.”

Ugandan student Maria Ndagire outside Old College

Working with farmers to tackle the climate crisis

Maria Ndagire, from Uganda, has also used her background as a motivator in her chosen career. The Environment and Development student attended Universidad EARTH in Costa Rica as part of the Mastercard programme before moving to Edinburgh in September 2022.

“Agriculture is absolutely crucial to the country of Uganda and so many local communities, as is climate change,” explains Maria. “So that’s why I applied to study environment and development at Edinburgh. I have experience of working with farmers and understanding the problems that they faced due to the ongoing climate crisis. So I knew that this was something I wanted to do.”

Maria would ideally like to work in the development sector, focusing on integrated solutions to combat the climate crisis. She views her education with Edinburgh as a key step along the way to realising her goals.

“I already fell in love with the School and the programme before I even applied. It’s a unique model of education that incorporates leadership and entrepreneurship that really appealed to me. Since starting studying here I’ve been really impressed with how much attention they give to tutorials. I love the teaching methods of having the lecture with the professor and then smaller groups to discuss the subjects and draw from our own experiences and backgrounds.”

The University of Edinburgh is one of the UK’s leading universities for African students. More than 1100 students from 38 African countries currently study with the University, including the largest community of South African undergraduate students in the UK, and student communities from Nigeria, Kenya, Egypt, and Zimbabwe, plus some 3,600 African alumni across 45 countries.

women farming
Credit: boezie via Getty Images

Strength in diversity

Tlalane Cecilia Matsoso is a fourth year law student who, through the Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program, came direct from high school in Lesotho to Edinburgh. The similarities in Scottish law and South African and Lesotho law really appealed to her but the diversity of the University has also made a great impression on her studies.

Tlalane Cecilia Matsoso, fourth year law student, pictured against the backdrop of mountains in her home country of Lesotho

“I’ve been encouraged and motivated by working with people from so many different countries and realising there’s just not one answer to one problem,” explains Tlalane. “The diversity that you experience meeting so many different people makes you think, okay, there’s definitely different things that we need to work on to develop better international laws or better human rights laws that serve to protect different people in different backgrounds of different countries.”

Tlalane’s advice to new students is to ask as many questions as possible and engage with the tools and advice that is at the disposal of all Mastercard students.

“First and foremost you need to make the most of every session or opportunity or programme that Mastercard organises. Not every programme will seem relevant but I guarantee you will attend a session and realize there is another skill you need to develop. Make the most of the opportunities and the sessions and communicate to the Mastercard team, because once you do, you’d be amazed how much assistance they’ll offer you. That will not only help with your current problems, but will help you develop career-wise.”

Two places at once

A local woman working at textiles in Ghana.

Someone whose career is directly benefitting from the Mastercard Foundation Scholars Programme is Teni Agana, an entrepreneur from Bolgatanga, a farming community in north east Ghana. The International Development student is currently undertaking the fourth year of her degree as a part-time online distance learning student.

Teni found that the Mastercard Foundation online distance learning scholarship was the best route for her to continue to run her business and help her community while studying.

Teni Explains: “If you are a young professional like me who is just starting, you have a great idea that you want to implement, being an online scholar is the best option. But, I have to say that I feel like Edinburgh is not just an online school.

“The support I’ve received has been marvellous. At first I thought I was just going to sit on my computer on my own but it’s not like that. We have a lot of group work that we do even though we’re all from different places across the world. We are collaborating with each other, working with each other and learning from each other.

“I didn’t want to leave my business and stop helping people so getting the chance to do an online course with Edinburgh and getting the Mastercard scholarship was ideal. If you are young professional who is working, you want to still earn money and support yourself.”

Through her business Loozeele, she empowers and employs local women to create and sell textile products to earn money rather than migrate for work and face living on the streets of larger cities.

“The people that we work with, they are all female. In the northern part of Ghana we live in a farming community but in the dry season people can’t work so most young girls migrate for work. To stop them from migrating we engage with them to make different products and create a wage for themselves and their families.

“We are supporting fifty girls in the north who otherwise might have been sleeping on the streets of Accra, and about 27 of our girls are in school. When they finish school they come and make the products that we sell. That was my personal motivation when I started my business in 2018, to help my community and the girls in it.”

Loozeele products modelled by local Ghanaians

Paying it forward

Since launching in 2012, the Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program has supported nearly 40,000 young people in Africa to pursue secondary or tertiary education.  It has enabled young people to attain inclusive, relevant education, transition smoothly into dignified and fulfilling work, and lead transformative lives.

Phase Two of the Program at Edinburgh, announced in January 2023, will see some 850 sustainability-focused postgraduate scholarships available for students from Africa, underlining the commitment to helping young people make positive change.

The Scholars Program and the University of Edinburgh has been formative in the experiences of the four scholars at Edinburgh, but they all agree it is ultimately their responsibility to implement change.

Tlalane said: “Mastercard and the University of Edinburgh are giving us the tools to make a difference but it is up to us to pay it forward.”

Maria echoed Tlalane’s comments: “A person that is very dear to me told me that commitment is staying true to the things you said you were going to do even after the time or the feelings that you said have passed. The Mastercard Foundation and the University of Edinburgh are committed to educating Africans and creating the next generation of leaders. It is up to us to become those leaders.”