ON THE BANKS OF THE NIGER RIVER lies Niamey, the capital city of Niger, a Francophone nation in the Sahel region of West Africa. Niamey’s many unpaved streets and roaming farm animals give the city a rural, village-like feel despite the fact that it is home to nearly 2 million people.
Twenty-seven-year-old Nana Natitia grew up there. In a country where only 8 percent of girls even attend secondary school, let alone complete it, Natitia is a proud high school graduate. Her ambitions pushed her to apply to Niger’s national public university, but she failed out. She tried again, this time in neighboring Burkina Faso, but again, she failed. “I abandoned my studies, disappointed and discouraged,” she says.
Then, while scrolling through her social media feed, she discovered African Development University (A.D.U.). She attended an open house, liked what she saw, applied, and was accepted. Natitia is now studying for a bachelor’s in business administration with a focus on project management. “A.D.U. is innovative and ethical, and it gives us the opportunity to learn English and technology,” Natitia says. “It gives me the confidence to study again. What is different about A.D.U. is the whole liberal arts approach. I guess after years of rote memorizing, I was starting to lag behind in traditional universities. At A.D.U., the thinking by ourselves and hands-on practical approach, coupled with the high-caliber faculty, were just what I needed to succeed.”
Today, if you ask Nigeriens to name the best university in the country, many cite A.D.U. This new nonprofit university—it opened its doors to students in October 2017—focuses on educating the most promising young people in the Sahel region to become leaders with the knowledge, skills, and commitment to shape their countries’ future. A.D.U. currently offers undergraduate programs, specialized master’s degrees, an MBA program, professional English courses, and executive programs.
That A.D.U. even exists—and that it has grown so quickly—is testament to the power of the Harvard Kennedy School community. Nowhere is that community more evident than in the deep and productive partnership between two Mid-Career alumni from the class of 2017, Kad Kaneye and Meredith Segal.
Different backgrounds, similar goals
Kaneye’s and Segal’s backgrounds couldn’t be more different. Kaneye grew up in Niger—his early years were spent in a mud house without clean water—in a family that valued education and helped him to attend university in Paris. Unlike many Nigeriens who study abroad, he wanted to return to his country and give other young Nigeriens the same chance at success that he had. “Many people say, ‘If you come back to Niger, you waste the opportunity you’ve been given,’” Kaneye says.
Segal was raised by a family of activists in Maine. Before coming to the Kennedy School, she worked in domestic politics and on educational issues in the United States, and she hadn’t traveled much internationally, “certainly never to Africa,” she says.
The two met in a design-thinking course they cross-registered for at Harvard Business School. “It was all about how to create products, organizations, and tools that authentically meet a need and have a market,” says Segal.
Kaneye’s stories of his homeland intrigued Segal. “Right away, I was impressed with the passion with which Kad spoke about Niger. He was so excited to represent Niger and to tell us all about his country.”
Kaneye had always understood the need for a new university to help develop his country. About 20 percent of Niger’s population cannot meet their food needs, and adult literacy is only 19 percent. These facts and others combine with one of the globe’s highest rates of population growth to leave an alarming number of Nigeriens struggling to subsist.
Existing institutions did not provide a pipeline of qualified graduates for Nigerien employers. On one hand, Niger’s private universities offer credentials to pretty much anyone who can afford the tuition. On the other hand, public universities experience frequent faculty and student strikes that disrupt and delay students’ education.
Many Nigerien employers feel the pinch. Seydou Souley Mahamadou is the CEO of Impact Media, a company in Niger that produces broadcast television shows. “The problem is that the national education system has lost its value,” he says. “So most laureates of Nigerien universities don’t have sufficient capabilities and the 'ethics' we need in our work. Companies are obliged to look for Nigeriens who had the chance to study abroad, or to hire expatriates. For us, A.D.U. is like a river that appeared in a desert.”
This river started with 175 students. The bilingual programs had 35 students in A.D.U.’s undergraduate program, 25 in master’s and mba programs, 100 in certificate programs in English, and 15 in executive programs. The goal is to grow to 1,000 students by 2025.
“I have one month in my life for you.”
“I had been thinking about this project for 10 years,” says Kaneye. “But the magic started when Meredith joined me in Niger.”
Kessely Hong, lecturer in public policy at the Kennedy School and an early supporter of A.D.U., met Segal in the fall semester, when Segal took a negotiation class with her. “Meredith was appreciated by her classmates for her eloquence, ingenuity, support for people in low-power positions, and ability to build coalitions,” says Hong. “I learned about Kad’s wonderful dedication to bringing quality higher education to Niger through conversations with Meredith.” Now Hong serves on A.D.U.’s academic advisory board along with Deborah Hughes Hallett, adjunct professor of public policy at the Kennedy School, and a host of faculty from top schools around the globe.
Hong says that Kaneye’s and Segal’s different strengths united to create a juggernaut. “By combining Kad’s deep connection to Niger and his understanding of the country’s educational needs with Meredith’s expertise in designing innovative schools, they have been able to build a brand-new university from scratch that is specifically designed to train young adults from Niger to succeed in highly skilled jobs,” she says. “They provide an inspiring example to our current students of the ability to create something that extends beyond any single person’s knowledge base by joining forces and leveraging their differences.”
Still, the speed with which the effort took off came as a surprise to all involved. “We kept saying to each other that we have to work on the plan for this university,” says Segal. “Kad talked about this idea, but always as an undone, to-do list item. And he wanted to do something about this dream of his. I was uncertain that I had anything to bring to the table, since I had no international experience at all.” What she did have was an extraordinary ability to bring stakeholders together to meet a common purpose, along with knowledge about educational innovation, skills she honed working on charter schools in the United States and U.S. politics.
After graduating in May of 2017, Kaneye hoped to admit the university’s first class within three to five years. He was on his way to a new job in Rwanda, where he would continue planning for the school. He and Segal had discussed spending some time in Niger to work on the university, but he wasn’t expecting her to take him up on it. “I was looking for projects to work on after graduating from HKS, and I thought, ‘If there’s ever a moment in my life to do something disconnected from what I did before, this was the moment,’” Segal remembers.
Says Kaneye, “I remember that Meredith called me and said, ‘I have one month in my life for you.’ I thought, 'This university was supposed to start in three years; it will probably take five years.' But Meredith said, ‘Let me come for one month, and we’ll see.’”
Segal’s choice wasn’t fearless—she was concerned by State Department warnings about security issues in Niger—but she recalled something her friend Agnes Agoye MC/MPA 2017 had once said: “If you’re ever going to do something in the developing world, you can’t go by what the State Department says.” Within weeks, Segal was on a plane.
“Pretty quickly, the poverty and lack of infrastructure faded into the background because of the people I got to know,” she says. From there, it was a whirlwind. She and Kaneye met with tribal and religious leaders, ceos of companies that couldn’t fill their labor needs, the minister of education, and even Niger’s president, who held an hourlong personal meeting with them. The Harvard reputation carried weight. “We had a type of access I was very surprised by and grateful for," Segal says. "People were curious about these two individuals who’d graduated from Harvard and wanted to open a new, nonprofit university.”
Segal’s involvement in A.D.U. quickly changed from offering advice to a more formal role. “At every meeting, Kad was profoundly generous,” she says. “At first, he introduced me as a friend from Harvard. Later, he introduced me as a person working on the project. Before long, he started introducing me as A.D.U.’s cofounder. At this point, it became clear we were going to go ahead with this project. We decided in August to open in October.”
The U.S. ambassador was among the guests at the October 2017 ribbon-cutting ceremony. In addition to the support of Harvard faculty, A.D.U. benefited from the donations of Kaneye and Segal’s classmates. “The idea was there, the thinking was there, the plan was there, but Harvard made it come to reality,” says Kaneye.
Most of the students at A.D.U.—70 percent in the founding class—are women. “We didn’t predict this would happen,” Kaneye says. “Students took a competitive entrance exam, and the best were the girls.” This is remarkable, because female Nigeriens typically experience severe inequality. The gender gap begins in primary school, where only 44 percent of girls reach sixth grade. The high rate of child marriage in Niger—76 percent of women age 20 to 24 are married before the age of 18—also limits women’s and girls’ participation in education.
Natitia, the student who failed out of two universities and is now the president of her class at A.D.U. (a class calling itself the Obama cohort) was married at age 22 and has three children. She says, “A.D.U. has given me the opportunity to apply to the Clinton Global Initiative University,” an annual program in which young people, experts, and celebrity activists come together to develop solutions to pressing problems. Natitia traveled in October of 2018 to Chicago, where she worked on a plan to raise awareness of the challenges disabled people face in Niger. “Attending the Clinton Global Initiative University was my first experience out of Africa—first time in a plane—and I would say had the most impact on my life so far,” she says. “Entrepreneurs from all over the world, public and civic leaders, the fellows … it was the best place one can dream to be on earth. I am grateful to A.D.U. for preparing me to apply via the consistent support and mentorship of our on-campus Innovation Lab and the recommendation from board member Agnes Igoye.
“I’m a mother with three children who is struggling to have a good education for a better life," Natitia says. "Being part of the A.D.U. adventure is the most enriching and exciting experience ever for me and all young Nigeriens. I hope and I believe A.D.U. will be the key to the development of Niger because great leaders and entrepreneurs will come out of it.”
Says Kaneye, “Niger doesn’t have wars, doesn’t have natural disasters, doesn’t have huge malaria endemics, Ebola, aids—all these things are pretty much controlled. My conviction is that the critical problem of countries in the Sahel is the lack of human capital. If we educate a generation of ethical and entrepreneurial leaders in sufficient critical mass, they will be able to design and drive change in the region. And we dream of the day when people will come from all over the continent—even the world—because the best education can be found at A.D.U.”
Today, Kaneye—who named one of his children Meredith—and Segal are busy raising funds for A.D.U. and working on international accreditation for the university, a process that takes approximately three years. Says Segal, “Kad and I work really well together. We’re both very non-risk-averse; we both see far more opportunity than potential problems.” Thanks to their optimism, young Nigeriens have a new path forward.