The pathway

Meet the Africans pioneering a unique approach to higher ed

Beatrice Saywa doesn’t blame the sun for her despair. The sun wakes her tenderly each morning at the same time it begins to brighten the sumptuous hues in the red clay soil of Kenya. The light is soft as it strains through the fabric over the lone window of the single-room home where Beatrice is raising her four children.

She prepares a single meal for them and her husband each day. She lights charcoal outside every evening, then carries the fire inside to cook dinner on the cement floor of their room. After they eat, the sun departs and she begins to feel a chill. While the smell of smoke lingers in the room, she puts her three girls and baby boy down on a blanket on one side of a small, worn couch. She and her husband, Nicholas Sadaka Okotch, take the cushions off the couch, place them on the floor on the other side of the room and lay down.

When she awakes, Nicholas is gone. He leaves their house to find internet access to do his coursework through an innovative program called BYU-Pathway Worldwide. The program gives Nicholas access to an accredited online business management degree. Beatrice hopes this leads to a better future for her family. The educational program, which is sponsored by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is now available in 180 countries to anyone who can speak English. A student who completes an introductory curriculum with a B average can enroll in online degree programs that BYU-Pathway offers in partnership with Brigham Young University-Idaho in Rexburg, Idaho, and Ensign College in Salt Lake City.

Beatrice Saywa prepares a single meal each day for her husband and their children. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Those involved with the program believe it’s impacting not just the program’s sponsoring faith institution in Africa but is reshaping what higher education might look like in African society writ large. On the continent today, only about 8-9 percent of the population has access to a college education. As one source puts it, there simply “aren’t enough seats.” With low supply comes pent-up demand. That demand accounts for BYU-Pathway’s explosive growth there.

Among Latter-day Saints who choose to serve two-year missions, in some pockets of Africa nearly 50 percent are currently enrolling in BYU-Pathway when they return home. Today, enrollment in online certificate and degree programs through BYU-Pathway and its partners is approaching 20,000 students. The program launched on the continent in 2011. In 2017, African students were 4% of BYU-Pathway’s global student body. Today, Africans comprise roughly 27 percent of all Pathway students, school officials say.

“Our compound annual growth rate has averaged 78 percent a year in Africa,” BYU-Pathway President Brian Ashton says. “This is persistent, unparalleled enrollment growth. Within the next five years, we think that we’ll get to about 44,000 students in Africa.”

Uncovering the groundbreaking secrets of BYU-Pathway Worldwide
Episode 13: BYU-Pathway Worldwide President Gilbert discusses innovations blessing Church education

The stakes are high. Like Beatrice and Nicholas, more than two-thirds of Pathway’s African students — 69 percent — struggle to find two meals a day. To make BYU-Pathway affordable, tuition is strikingly low and varies based on national economic circumstances. Americans pay $81 per credit hour, a total of $9,720 for a 120-hour bachelor’s degree. In Kenya, where the average person makes about $3.50 a day and BYU-Pathway charges $7.25 per credit hour, through church-supported tuition, Beatrice and Nicholas can earn the same, accredited American bachelor’s degree for less than a tenth of the U.S. cost — $870. And with readily available scholarships, they pay far less.

Today, 84 percent of BYU-Pathway students in Africa receive aid, cutting tuition costs for most by 50 to 75 percent. Beatrice and Nicholas, if they finish, will pay only $435 each for a degree. A cottage industry of formal and informal donors has grown up around BYU-Pathway to provide help. Pathway’s Heber J. Grant scholarship, available to every student, provides 10 to 50 percent off tuition. The Hall Foundation scholarship provides 25 percent off to recently returned Latter-day Saint missionaries who live outside the United States. Individuals and nonprofits like the Lord’s Hands (founded by a former Latter-day Saint bishop in Kenya) donate used laptops; they send one or two at a time, due to restrictions in some countries, with people who fly to Africa.

Underlying the program is a shared faith in Jesus Christ that compels students to work toward a better future, even when life is neither easy nor simple. The experiences of both recent graduates and others like Beatrice and Nicholas highlight ongoing hurdles for Pathway and its African students.

First, despite the scholarships, many students struggle to pay for vital educational tools like computer access and internet access. And while college degrees remain strongly linked to better jobs and increased pay in the United States, fewer degree-based jobs exist in Africa, where the informal economy can make up one-third to more than two-thirds of the market. Those degree-based jobs that do exist regularly require not only a degree but experience in the field.

For Beatrice and her little family in the charcoal-fired, one-room home on a hill in Ongata Rongai, a suburb of Nairobi, BYU-Pathway is a promise of a better life.

“Here in Kenya, education is more theoretical and less of practical. They focus on theory, theory, theory. We used to call it CPF. You cram. You pass. You forget.”

BYU-Pathway Worldwide employment opportunities

Hyena activity is mostly nocturnal. George Ochieng, 25, sometimes hears them laughing when he rises at crazy hours for Zoom calls with BYU-Pathway study groups.

“They are masters of camouflage,” he says of the hyenas that roam beyond the tall, concrete walls that surround his family’s rural home. The antelope are gone because of suburban sprawl here in the Nairobi suburb of Rurui, but the hyenas remain. “You will hear them very near to you but not see them. They hunt the goats people have in our neighborhood.”

Ochieng is a charismatic, confident bundle of energy. “I hope to be the next big thing,” he says. He is a swimmer, piano player and proud gardener and landscaper with shoulders like a linebacker. He smiles and jokes easily, but he is driven. He works eight-hour days running marketing and social media as an intern for a local company while taking 14 credits a semester and maintaining a 3.95 GPA. He plans to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in applied technology in 2024. He has already earned a certificate in web and computer programming. He earns additional scholarship money for his high performance.

George Ochieng has a 3.95 GPA at BYU-Idaho and plans to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in applied technology in 2024. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

BYU-Pathway and its partners have created a system of stackable certificates designed to accelerate students’ access to better employment and pay. Students begin the first certificate while still in introductory curriculum. Earning a second certificate completes the requirements for an associate degree. Earn a third, and the student has enough credits to graduate with a simultaneous bachelor’s degree.

“In Africa, after students finish the introductory curriculum, which now takes six months, about 58 percent report improved employment,” Ashton says. “After they complete their first certificate, about six months after that, another 56 percent report additional improved employment. So after one year, nearly everyone’s improved their employment, and many have improved their employment twice.”

Ochieng is working on his second certificate, in system administration. That is, if he survives the hours. He says he’s used to it. “As an IT guy, I get no sleep,” he says. Ochieng lives in an outbuilding with two rooms to himself. When he has an overnight meeting, he climbs out of bed in the smaller room, which is about the size of a walk-in closet, then walks in his pajamas into the other room — “here is my crib,” he says with a laugh. He puts on headphones and connects his laptop to two monitors. It is 3 a.m. East African Time. The other study group members are in Nigeria, where it’s 1 a.m., the Philippines (8 a.m.), Peru (7 p.m.) and Layton, Utah (6 p.m.). This is common for African students. It is why Nicholas is gone when Beatrice wakes up five days a week — he goes to a Latter-day Saint chapel for internet access and studies in a group that has students on five continents. Both Nicholas and Ochieng enjoy their study groups.

Launched in Africa in 2011, today Africans represent 27 percent of BYU-Pathway’s global student body.
Launched in Africa in 2011, today Africans represent 27 percent of BYU-Pathway’s global student body. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

“They’re all my peers in IT,” Ochieng says of his latest meeting. “That’s not always the case in other courses. In this group, we’re all passionate about tech. We want to make a difference through what we’re studying. It’s challenging. The accents are so challenging. The time zone, it’s not easy. Not everyone can make it into every meeting. The benefit is you get to grow your interpersonal skills.”

Ochieng’s room was once the coop for 200 chickens, but he gave up his businesses selling chickens and breeding dogs to focus on school. He pays for the family’s Wi-Fi connection and his own electricity. A meter on the wall above his desk reads 1.13 kilowatts of power remaining. That will last the rest of the week, he says, then he will send a payment for more.

No Kenyan has finished a bachelor’s degree through Pathway yet, but about a dozen are on track to graduate next year, says Tasara Makasi, Pathway’s director for central and south Africa. Naturally, Ochieng wants to know what graduation will look like.

“Will I get a paper that says ‘associates,’ or will I just have two certificates?” he asks Makasi, who assures him he will receive the former. Ochieng doesn’t ask whether he’ll have a job waiting when he gets his degree. He has faith he will, but Ochieng says he knows there is no guarantee.

“Getting a job in Kenya is tricky,” says Amina Munene Inot, 42, an administrative assistant in a Nairobi office. “You know, you do what you get.”

Amina Munene Inot, 42, has an administrative assistant certificate from BYU-Idaho and now makes enough money that she declines scholarship offers as she pursues a degree. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Inot, who has worked in Dubai and Kandahar, earned an administrative assistant certificate through BYU-Pathway. She now makes enough money that she declines scholarship help for tuition so that money can help others.

“Pathway has brightened my path and the path of many other people,” she says.

As a child, Kenya’s president, William Ruto, sold chickens at a railway crossing. He was ushered into office last year in part because he promised to support “hustlers,” the one-third of Kenyans in the informal economy who work odd jobs in a daily struggle to feed themselves and their families. Some call Ruto the “hustler-in-chief.” After nearly a year in office, frustration is growing among the hustlers who voted for him. Inflation is rising, and Ruto supported a bill to raise taxes.

Ochieng is fortunate. He has a job while he studies. His father is a successful farmer. The family owns a car. Ochieng studied at a national boarding school and three of his four older siblings graduated from Kenyan universities in journalism, quality assurance and biochemistry. Ochieng planned to follow that path, but when he completed two years of missionary work in Zimbabwe for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the pandemic had shuttered Kenya’s schools. The pandemic triggered a vast cultural shift in African education. Nearly overnight, online education became accepted, and Ochieng began Pathway. He and his Kenyan peers are impressed by the quality of BYU-Pathway’s education.

“Some in Pathway will tell you they’ve already finished university in their country, like the one in my study group from Nigeria, and yet they are back studying with BYU-Pathway, because they now are after quality, not quantity,” he says. “They finish studies at Kenyan universities and they find out there’s nothing much they can do. So they come and get these skills from BYU. That could have been me, too.

“Here in Kenya, education is more theoretical and less of practical. They focus on theory, theory, theory. We used to call it CPF. You cram. You pass. You forget. At BYU-Pathway, you can’t do that. They have a structure that helps you retain information, and you have to keep on studying, bit by bit. We have weekly quizzes, weekly assignments and, like, four exams in a semester, two of which are proctored. So you can’t hide, you have to read.”

For practical reasons, Ochieng wants to work for a while after he earns his degree. It’s why he sprinted so hard toward an associate degree. Most local job listings in his field require at least that much education.

“Actually, here in Kenya, there are people with a master’s degree, and they have nothing to do,” he says. “Getting jobs is quite hard. So I want to focus on getting a job, so I can have job security and then study as I go ahead.”

BYU-Pathway is deliberately working on job placement for its students and has teamed up with an array of formal and informal partners to do so. Pathway requires students to speak English, so it now offers EnglishConnect to prepare students to enroll in BYU-Pathway’s introductory curriculum. EnglishConnect quickly became popular in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo, the world’s largest French-speaking country.

Timothy Wanyonyi, who has two bachelor’s degrees from other schools, completed the introductory curriculum and has a project management certificate. He plans to finish an associate degree this year, then a bachelor’s in 2024. Meanwhile, he has become a key employee for Bloom, a placement company that is helping BYU-Pathway students find remote employment with U.S. companies while they study. Nicholas is one of several dozen students with one of these jobs.

Ashton, Makasi and Wanyonyi and other Bloom executives see a future for African graduates in remote work. “Africa is setting itself up as a place for customer support,” Wanyonyi says. “Bloom is trying to help students gain remote worker experience.”

The average wage increase for Africans through Bloom is 239 percent, Ashton says. BYU-Pathway has helped create a pipeline to 3,000 remote jobs worldwide, he adds, a fair number filled by Africans. Pathway is establishing other partnerships to help students find work while they study, both so they can support themselves and earn the experience employers require here. Another placement company hiring students is

“What I find is that over half of our students live in countries where labor markets are fairly inefficient,” Ashton says. “In some places, there really isn’t a labor market. This idea that you can now get a remote job really changes things. If you think about what BYU-Pathway is really good at, our students are getting U.S. degrees in English while working across borders. We’re really good at preparing people for remote jobs.”

“In Kenya, there are people with a master’s degree, and they have nothing to do. Getting jobs is quite hard.”

George Ogidi Ochieng at his home outside Nairobi. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
Boaz Okoth, 35, a recent widower with two sons, is studying in the Pathway program. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
The Ongata Rongai section of Nairobi, where Beatrice Saywa lives. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

‘Right now, my future looks bright’

Beatrice was with the children when the landlord came to repossess their laptop. She walked slowly to the chapel to tell Nicholas, who’d been up since 4 a.m. “I am the earliest bird,” he says. Laptops are scarce in this neighborhood. Three other Pathway students had scheduled time with Nicholas this morning to use the laptop. Now everyone’s course assignments will have to wait.

Before they had a laptop and before the chapel had Wi-Fi, Nicolas used to walk three hours to a chapel in Upper Hill that has a computer center dedicated to Pathway students.

This morning, Nicholas woke Beatrice before he left to have her lock their metal door behind him. He says it isn’t safe outdoors in the middle of the night. He keeps a bucket in the house in case little Martin or one of the girls need to relieve themselves before sunrise. Dogs barked as he walked. When he passed a small hotel, he could smell cooks making Kenya’s traditional chapati bread and mandazi, a Swahili fried bread.

Beatrice worries about the loss of the laptop. “I feel bad because we were depending on it very much,” she says. “I have to wait, but I don’t want to submit my assignments late. There are penalties.” She earned an A in PathwayConnect 101, a life skills class.

Beatrice stopped cleaning houses when water began to trigger her joint pain. Nicholas lost his jobs as a security guard and swimming coach to the pandemic. They couldn’t pay rent for a year but were protected by emergency Kenyan laws. When the restrictions were lifted, their previous landlord evicted them and sold their belongings. “It was hell,” he says. Now, all of the family’s clothing fits in a purple plastic bucket. They buy five buckets of water a day for 18 cents a bucket to use for washing clothes and utensils and to splash on themselves for bathing in the latrine designated for washing.

“I feel so much stress, especially when I wake up,” Beatrice says. “I wonder how the day will end. He is gone. We have no money. He has left us with nothing. I wonder when the kids will go back to school. Will my life always be like this? Will I ever have a house?”

Like most Kenyans, she speaks her native tribal language as well as English. She wants to earn a certificate in teaching English as an international language.

The landlord confiscated the laptop on Friday. On Saturday morning, Nicholas left early again to walk several miles to a store that gave him food on credit. This afternoon, he takes Beatrice to Clicks Cyber Services, an internet shop in an alley off Magadi Road. It’s small, stuffed with 13 computer workstations, each equipped with headphones hanging on hooks. They sit near a man placing small online football (soccer) bets. It’s an open-air shop. The only door is a roll-down metal one for locking up. “It’s not a good learning environment,” Nicholas says.

Beatrice sits on his right, and he helps her navigate the BYU-Pathway website. Two years ago, he didn’t know how to turn on a computer himself, he says. Soon, he is immersed in an introspection assignment, summarizing what he learned this week. Beatrice launches into math. She asks a bystander for pen and paper for a particularly thorny problem with a graph. Out the door and back up the alley, horns beep and motorbikes buzz. Shouts and chatter are occasionally drowned by machines clattering and whirring for the renovation project two doors down.

Nicholas Sadaka Okotch returned to activity in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints because of the Pathway program. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Nicholas finishes his assignment and transitions to his job with Bloom. He begins indexing, or digitizing, 1940 U.S. Census records. He works swiftly but carefully. “It’s not a very difficult job, but it requires high-speed internet,” he says. He is supposed to attach 800 records a day. He can do this in as little as three hours with strong internet. He often is stuck with slow speeds. On those days, “I can spend 10 hours and not get the target,” he says. He knows he needs to work fast and often to make more money to pay the bills.

The husband-and-wife team sitting shoulder-to-shoulder on black metal chairs with black cushions, working computer mouses back and forth and up and down, plugging ahead, is an image noteworthy to Makasi, the Zimbabwean BYU-Pathway director for central and south Africa.

Soon, Nicholas and Beatrice finish. Nicholas pays 67 Kenyan shillings, about 47 cents, for one hour of internet at speeds the shopkeeper says were 40 mbps.

Nicholas admits this is a “bad time” for his family, but the pandemic was worse. He has faith in this pathway. “Right now, my future looks bright, because I know I’m going to be someone who contributes to society.” It’s why he keeps his academic certificate in a safe place, a backpack hung high on the wall of their home, and why he displays it with pride for visitors.

“What BYU-Pathway has done for me,” he says, “I will never forget.”

This story appears in the September issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.