Selam Kairu lives in Nairobi, Kenya, but she credits a lot of her business’s growth to lessons learned from the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, approximately 7,600 miles away.

Since beginning online studies with Darden, Kairu and her husband Ken, who jointly started an insurance agency, have increased sales, automated their insurance claims process, transformed their marketing strategy and developed a strategic plan to guide their company for years to come.

They have done it all without setting foot in Virginia.

Students at a graduation ceremony in Kenya after completing the Business Strategy Specialization, a certificate program offered online by UVA’s Darden School of Business.

Kairu and her husband are two of the many people who have benefited from a Darden scholarship program for African students seeking to enroll in the school’s online courses. Darden launched the effort, called the Africa Scholarship Cohort, in 2016 in partnership with the Kenya-based educational organization Distance Learning for Africa and the online learning platform Coursera. It expanded on previous partnerships that Darden, led by then Senior Assistant for Degree Programs Michael Koenig, built in the region.

Since launching the program, Darden has provided approximately 3,500 scholarships to African students in 37 countries, totaling more than $200,000 in financial aid. The scholarships defray the costs associated with online courses, including registration fees and payment for certificates upon graduation, totaling around $500 per student.

Though not astronomical, that $500 fee can be prohibitive for students and businesses on a tight budget, and waiving it opens transformative possibilities for the students, their families and their businesses. They are free to take a variety of courses offered online by Darden faculty members on topics including business strategy, design thinking, project management and growth strategies. If they choose, they can complete a five-course Business Strategy Specialization and graduate with a certificate.

“It provides them with essential skill sets that are market-relevant, enhancing their problem-solving skills, job readiness and employability,” said Sidiki Traore, founder and president of Distance Learning for Africa. “We have had great success stories from all over the continent.”

Selam Kairu and her husband have used what they learned from Darden to grow their insurance agency in Nairobi.

Some students, like Kairu, have used the UVA courses to improve businesses they started themselves. Since Kairu started taking courses, several of her employees have applied for and received scholarships as well.

“What I learned helped me grow my business. I am a better business person and employer; I think more critically and strategically in my business decisions,” she said. “I have loved challenging not only my team here in the office, but also other businesspeople who I have encouraged to do the course.”

Liz Wachuka, who lives in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, said the courses have helped her “recreate my product and service offering and give the company new life.” She is now in the process of developing an online life skills program aimed at youth and young adults, and finalizing a book with a similar focus.

Liz Wachuka, right, speaking at a presentation with Darden administrator Michael Koenig, left.

“Every one of the courses I have done has had a direct impact on my business,” she said. “My way of thinking has changed after being equipped with tools that have helped me make informed decisions.”

Students in the program, according to UVA Director of Online Learning Programs Kristin Palmer, have used it to find employment and success in a variety of fields. One started her own cosmetics company; another started a consulting business based on design thinking strategies learned through Darden. Others have become leaders at companies around Africa, and are encouraging their coworkers and employees to enroll.

Still others have used the program to make up for disruptions to their education, such as when a Kenyan university system shut down suddenly because of a lack of government funding.

“We had several students enroll in our courses after that, and we helped them apply for further financial aid,” Palmer said. “So many people are getting access to this material, and they are very vocal about how it is changing their lives.”

After three successful years, Palmer and Traore are eager to expand the program. They launched a special scholarship cohort for women entrepreneurs in the fall, and are working with the UVA-based Presidential Precinct program, which focuses on empowering young leaders worldwide, to launch more online courses in Africa and Latin America.

Traore is also focused on reaching students who lack easy internet access. Already, he said, the program’s flexible format helps those students by allowing them to use whatever device they have access to.

“The mode of delivery has been highly commended, as it is flexible enough to accommodate learning whether one is at a desktop, on mobile or at a local cybercafé,” he said. “The vast majority of Africans are challenged by poverty, technology, power and internet access. … Our approach has been to start with capital cities, where these barriers to entry are minimal, and work with ministries, corporations and community centers to ensure uptake of the courses.”

Graduation ceremonies have also proved a powerful tool. When a student completes the specialization, Distance Learning of Africa holds a graduation ceremony to present them with their certificate.

“It helps skeptical families, friends and communities to see that it is possible and real, and in turn helps us gain trust and increase uptake,” Traore said.

For students like Selam Kairu, the certificate itself serves as a tangible reminder of her connection to UVA and all that can help her accomplish.

“I enrolled in the program because I believe in lifelong learning,” she said. “Getting a high-quality education from UVA is a dream come true.”

Article by Caroline Newman,