The Mastercard Foundation class of '23

The African students hoping to change the world

For the majority of the African students arriving to take up their Master’s courses in Cambridge in the autumn of 2022 it was the first time they’d ever been in the UK. There was a lot to get used to, not least the shorter, colder, winter days!

They came as Mastercard Foundation Scholars following a recent partnership between Mastercard Foundation and Cambridge University that is providing talented, deserving, and service-oriented young African Scholars with fully-funded opportunities to study with us and grow as transformative leaders who are ready to help build a more climate-resilient and sustainable world.

Here we talk to some of the students about their research and experiences.

Muhammad Balarabe

Muhammad Balarabe

Muhammad Balarabe

Muhammad Balarabe is from Nigeria.

He's looking at global health care with a particular focus on the social and economic determinants of health. Having completed his first degree in environmental health at the American University of Nigeria in Yola, he then worked as a consultant in Abuja before Cambridge came into his sights.

“I applied to the University’s Population Health Science programme because within that there’s a global health stream which I’m really interested in. Being in a prestigious and historic University like Cambridge is a massive opportunity. Thousands of students apply here and only a small proportion get in so it’s one of the greatest achievements of my life to get accepted here.”

His research is focussed on developing age-friendly, sustainable cities. As people are living longer, it’s becoming more apparent that cities aren’t suited to the needs of the elderly, he says. Roads can be wide, pavements high, hospitals are often difficult to get to.

“Many cities have younger populations but the 19 year old of today will one day become the elderly person of the future. What is happening in advanced countries is that urban designers are having to break down the infrastructure of cities for people to use well. We’re looking at sustainable cities for the future. So when this 19 year old becomes 70 you need to have in place a ‘friendly’ city and that means designing them right now.”

Muhammad will be taking this research forward when he moves to Cape Town in South Africa to work for the African Centre for Cities. He recognises that if he hadn’t come to Cambridge this opportunity may not have arisen.

He says the Mastercard Foundation has created a real opportunity and a secure learning environment for him. “It gives me the opportunity to return to Africa and contribute, to change narratives and to do things in better ways.”

Nobuhle Ndlovu has come to Cambridge from Zimbabwe.

Nobuhle studied for her degree at the National University of Science and Technology in Bulawayo. She studied Forestry Resources and Wildlife Management (graduating in 2018). Before arriving in Cambridge Nobuhle was helping to manage a forest which is 56,000 hectares in size. She’s always wanted to come to Cambridge to study but needed to work for a few years before she could apply. 

“Both my parents are retired so I took on the responsibility of paying for my three younger brothers to go to College. I had to park my studies while I was supporting them as my parents didn’t have the money to pay for the College fees. It wasn’t until last year, when my younger brother graduated, that I thought now would be a good time to return to my studies.  That’s why I’m so grateful to the Mastercard Foundation Scholarship programme because it’s given me an opportunity that I wouldn’t have otherwise had.”

Nobuhle’s Master’s course has been in Conservation Leadership. “The course looks at a lot of things around organisational management and leadership. I’m working with UNEP-WCMC (global conservation agency based in Cambridge) to look at ways of communicating policy because they work with different countries on ecosystem management. So we’re looking at how we communicate with policy makers in these countries in the most effective way. When I return to Zimbabwe I intend to work in policy development because there are many institutions across Africa that don’t have climate change policies at the moment. I hope to work with the government so I can help be an agent for more change.”

“Cambridge is a wonderful place. The staff here have been wonderful in supporting us and ensuring all the Mastercard Foundation students interact with each other.”

Nobuhle Ndlovu

Nobuhle Ndlovu

Nobuhle Ndlovu

Amon Kabango

Amon Kabango

Amon Kabango

Amon Kabango's home is Malawi.

He studied forest resource management at the University of Malawi in Lilongwe City. Between 2016 and 2018 he studied for his first Master’s in Japan. He’s been working as a Principal Forestry Officer in a protected forest reserve in Zomba City.

He’s been studying Conservation Leadership. After course work, he joined UNEP-WCMC for four months as an intern working on a project “Overcoming barriers to ecosystem restoration, how far are countries going in their restoration commitments?”

“When I return to Malawi I’ll be able to influence policymakers with the leadership skills I’ve learned. These are the issues for conservationists…how to apply for, and win, grants to help conservation work. I already have the science background but I wanted to improve my leadership skills. Policy change is not easy, there are a lot of factors in play with the politics, but you need to inform with best insights.”

“The course itself is very expensive and so it would have been really difficult for me to raise the funds myself. Without the Mastercard Foundation’s support I wouldn’t be here so I really appreciate it.”

Amon had to leave his wife and two young children aged 7 and 3 behind in Malawi while studying here. He’s looking forward to returning home and says the challenge of being separated from family will have been worth it because of the new skills he’s acquired.

Sheila Ojwang is from Kenya.

She studied Architecture for her 6 year degree programme at the University of Nairobi. A number of her professors did their Masters’ at Cambridge and the University was often mentioned by them in lectures.  

“My biggest take-away from being here are the networks I’ve been able to access and the new friends I’ve made…people from all different cultures. It has really opened my mind to understanding how education is also about exchanging ideas. My department has invited world-renowned architects to give seminars and lectures which has been exciting.”

Sheila has been looking at what’s known as passive design structures. This is where buildings are more climate responsive. In Kenya, buildings don’t require heating as much as they do in the UK but they do need air conditioning. One way to reduce this dependency and thus limit the carbon footprint is to look at how buildings can use natural mechanisms for remaining cool. It’s not just about the building materials used but where you place a building. If it’s facing east it will get the morning sunlight, if west it will be flooded with warmer afternoon sunlight.

“I’m interested in the design of residential buildings because there’s a housing deficiency in Nairobi. Between now and 2050 the population of the city is expected to double in size and there’s a big question as to how all these people are going to be housed. There will need to be a lot more affordable housing because house prices are beyond the reach of so many people who tend to migrate from rural areas.  More consideration needs to be given to aesthetic appearance as well as environmental impact as no one wants to live in a box.”

“The Mastercard Foundation has been truly empowering. It sets itself apart as a scholarship and is so much more than pure funding. We’ve had several sessions on personal growth and leadership. We have a programme manager and that added support has been amazing. I’m looking forward to learning about the new incoming cohort of scholars.”

Sheila Ojwang

Sheila Ojwang

Sheila Ojwang

Paul Seagrove

Main image credit: Nick Safell