Collage of PfAL alumni

Alumni experience

Celebrating diversity: my Programme for African Leadership story

PfAL alumni Aaron Kirunda writes about moving to London for the Programme for African Leadership at LSE, and his subsequent work developing children's literacy.

After PFAL, I was determined to be part of the solution. I knew it was possible.

I was part of the inaugural PfAL class/cohort back in 2012. I was coming to London for the first time, and I was in transition. After a few years of employment in development communication consultancy, I had taken a three month sabbatical and studied the development of Singapore, which made me believe in the possibilities of actually making a large-scale difference in a country within my lifetime.

The three week PfAL fellowship then opened me up to the realities of the world. I had been lucky to join it and so my investigation into what I would want to be started. In 2013, I came back to LSE for an Msc in Social Policy and Development, generously sponsored by the Commonwealth. More than what I learnt in class, I further came to understand the realities and possibilities of the world.

Afterwards I went home to Uganda immediately, where I developed an optimistic education program to help improve literacy and develop 21st century skills in our greatest asset – our children. To date, we have been able to reach 1.5m children in 1,500 schools in Uganda, co-founded and launched the African Spelling Bee, spreading to over 20 African countries in 2019. 90% of all participants in our program stay in school, and there is a 20% improvement in academic performance. Our participating children have emerged as some of the best in the country ever since. Tracking them, we realise it was not by chance, but that we had an impact on their lives. In 2016, I was selected to participate in the East African Acumen Fellowship, and it was an awesome experience.

I enjoyed being at LSE. The location within central London, does not just give you an academic experience but also one of the daily lives of other people living in a cosmopolitan city in a developed country. For me, coming from a developing country, this experience was profound and helped me understand that we are all just human beings in the pursuit of a better life, regardless of where you live.

More than anything, my time in London made me want to go back home and be part of the change we need, rather than hang around and enjoy the better amenities that were already fought for. The monuments at every street corner were a reminder - that what I see here was a sacrifice of someone several years ago. At LSE, I learned more from my classmates than my professors, especially in the seminar room. My class had over 40 different nationalities, people with their experiences of different countries. This is just invaluable. The discussions and debates and shared experiences were authentic and the reality on ground, and were a lot more vivid than any paper I read.

I learnt that the best way to go about LSE was to soak everything in and learn. It is a short time and it runs really fast. So it is critical to make connections with others, not just the ones from your country. Be curious and explore courses beyond your department. Audit them or add them to your program, and learn the causes of anything you have ever thought about. Being at LSE is an absolutely fantastic opportunity to learn, so reach out to the professors and ask questions and debate with them, and do not hold back or wonder what will be thought of you. No one really has time to make fun of anyone.

My PFAL, experience was intense. It was formative for myself and for PFAL, since it was the inaugural class. However, it connected us who were in that room in a different way, and made us all, from so many different sectors, feel like one of the same family. At the end of three weeks we seemed to have known each other for a lifetime. The exposure to world class research by leading academics was profound, in my analysis, and I got to learn about the depth of almost all the challenges of the world in that time. It was awesome.

After PFAL, I was determined to be part of the solution. I knew it was possible, and when I got back home I got two colleagues together and we pooled our savings and started a business, which has evolved into something else. It was not easy to start, but the feeling and desire to make my country better in my lifetime was the driving factor more than anything else.

I plan to continue to invest more time and resources in my work, working on starting the first ever Early Child Development (ECD) Lab School in the country and I believe it will be a  great resource for learning and teaching and spring board to invest in ECD across the country. I will also continue to work on helping more children fall in love with books, improve their literacy, develop 21st century life skills and become the best they can ever be across the continent. I believe that the future of Africa currently lies in the hands of 0-13 year old. Investing in them right now secures the social, economic and political future of our beloved continent.