Osumane Kabré describes his home country, Burkina Fasso, as “one of the richest countries in the world and one of the poorest countries in the world at the same time.” Although the country has great natural resources, Kabré sees the greatest riches in the potential of its people. He was so concerned about this untapped human resource that he asked himself “How can I go to the United States, get a good education, and return to help my own people?” He sees education as the pathway to prosperity in Burkina Fasso and other West African nations and has dedicated himself to making education available to as many as possible through his Leading Change-Africa and YAM Education ventures.
Kabré’s entrepreneurial journey began at age 12 when he rose early to bike to the bakery to get bread that he would deliver from house to house. While he did not reach his goal of making $100 million by delivering bread, what he received was far more valuable. He delivered to affluent customers in the community for several years. After finishing high school, he asked six of those customers for help supporting his higher education. Only one agreed. The customer did not know Kabré beyond brief interactions when making a delivery or collecting payment, but she was impressed by his work ethic. She invested in his education and left an indelible impression that would shape Kabré’s approach in his future endeavors.
The customer’s investment allowed Kabré to come to Madison to pursue education. He did not realize that Wisconsin existed until a friend introduced him to internet research. He searched for the best universities to study and found the University of Wisconsin-Madison on the list. Based on the business school’s reputation and his love for the color red (and paying no attention to the weather), Kabré made his way to Madison. As a native French speaker, he took classes to learn English for 4 months before transferring to Madison College to earn his associate degree in accounting to save money on tuition. He then transferred to the University of Wisconsin-Madison to earn his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in accounting. He worked at Ernst & Young for three years before leaving to restart his entrepreneurship journey.
During his time at UW-Madison, Kabré reflected on the customer’s investment in his education and wondered “Why did this woman help me and how can I pay her back?” This reflection brought him to a great truth: “You cannot pay people back. You can only pay it forward.” As a result, Leading Change-Africa was born.
Leading Change-Africa is a program that selects talented students from West Africa and brings them to the U.S. to study. Students in the program make three key commitments. First, they agree to work for three years in the U.S. Then, they must leave their employment and return to their home countries to start businesses. The program provides entrepreneurial training and financial investment to prepare them to honor this commitment. Finally, each student must sponsor at least three students to participate in the program to pay it forward. Currently, Leading Change-Africa has 15 students at MATC in Madison, three students at MATC in Milwaukee, and 33 students sponsored in Africa. The woman who originally supported Kabré is now a sponsor of his program who gets to see her original investment multiply with each student.
While he was proud of the work that Leading Change-Africa was doing for its participants, Kabré realized that the number of students who could participate was limited because it is not feasible to bring every student from Africa to the U.S. to study, “so we have to take the education to them.” He started YAM Education, Inc. to remediate this problem.
YAM Education partners with community colleges such as Madison College to provide remote associate degree programs where students can earn a degree and transfer those credits to a four-year college to earn as bachelor’s degree if they so desire without leaving their communities. The Yam Education platform offers students self-paced courses in core competencies such as academic speaking, grammar, and communication for an affordable monthly subscription fee. Students can also take English courses free of charge for two months. The platform provides a community among the students and allows them to network with professionals. Students can participate only in these courses or can continue to pursue an associate degree. “I really wish that I had these things for myself,” Kabré commented.
The YAM program is beginning with a six-month trial for 250 students to assess the platform and program components. In the fall, they plan to open the program to students in six countries: Burkina Faso, Mali, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria, and Kenya. The programs offered in partnership with Madison College will roll out on a schedule over 24 months. This time allows them to build the courses and to make any necessary adjustments. One point that Kabré emphasizes in curriculum development is that the content is culturally relevant to the participants. “I don’t want to give them a canned curriculum,” he said. The slow roll out will allow the team time to make necessary changes.
In five years, Kabré sees the program reaching 1 million people. He anticipates 20,000 students by the end of 2023. Kabré observes that a small fraction of 1 million international students in the United States come from Africa. The issue is not desire; there is a strong interest in studying in the US. “They are applying but not getting visas to come or there are other challenges,” he commented. Kabré sees the YAM program as a way to support students to accomplish their goals free of bureaucratic hindrances on either side.
All of Kabré’s efforts contribute to a much bigger picture related to building human resources in West Africa. As companies bring their businesses to Africa, Kabré wants the populace to have the knowledge and skills to dictate how companies engage with the local people. This self-determination effort is a direct counter to colonial approaches that western institutions have taken with Africa historically. He also has a vision for Black people in the United States to share their knowledge with the students as a means to bridge the diaspora. He hopes that we can learn from each other how to be producers and creators rather than simply consumers.