A Conversation with Mariam Luyombo

An accomplished leader in the education space and an entrepreneur, Mariam currently lives in Ontario, Canada and in Kampala, Uganda. She is an outstanding fellow of the Africa Leadership Initiative-East Africa and a moderator for the Aspen Global Leadership Network.


I had the pleasure of speaking with her on matters of leadership. Our conversation was through phone calls and emails, across different time zones. Below is our conversation:

Hi Mariam, thank you so much for speaking with me today.

What would you say has been the highlight of being a fellow first of the Africa Leadership Network and second the Aspen Global leadership network? How have these two networks added on your experience as a leader and an entrepreneur.

The biggest overall highlight, and there are many, is recognizing the fact that leadership matters and values based leadership in particular, matters even more because it creates many winners.

I have seen this first hand in my own organization, thanks to these fellowships. The first of the series of seminars entitled “The Challenge of Leadership” consists of case studies of leaders like Lee Kuan Yew, Gandhi, Jean Monnet, Margaret Thatcher, Martin Luther King Jr., and so on. This was a great eye opener as this is content I would never have read out of my own volition even if I am an avid reader. Second is the privilege of discussing these readings with remarkable, highly accomplished leaders, each bringing their authentic voice to the table. During this process I have grown friendships and strong networks that are bound by our common fellowship experience. This has been particularly good for me as an Educational Entrepreneur as I have had rich conversations with other educationists from all over the world about the direction we educationists should take in this increasingly fast changing world.

Rehman Kasule (left) and Mariam Luyombo of the Africa Leadership Initiative – East Africa

I call my ALI EA and AGLN fellowship a gift that keeps giving! Every reunion inspires me to find my true North and inspires me into action. I believe I am a better human being and a better business leader because of this association.

Please share with us what it means to be an Aspen AGLN moderator, how did you get to be selected among other fellows to join what is a very small select group?

Becoming a moderator is by invite. You go through training which I found very grueling and stressful. On the surface moderating seems easy but it is in fact a complex exercise. It is a delicate balance between guiding the conversation to a particular destination and at the same time remaining open to other destinations. It is about enabling authentic conversations. It is about drawing everybody to the table. Everybody around the table is highly intelligent, accomplished and knowledgeable. No two sessions are the same. As a moderator you always have a plan and then sometimes it gets thrown right out of the window as the conversation grows a life of its own. Sometimes you have the conversation you wanted to have and sometimes you don’t.

Overall moderating cannot be winged. You have to put in the time and work. I have managed this challenge because I have the luxury of time and flexibility, but more importantly I am passionate about this work. I take it very seriously and I strongly believe in the significant role that values based leadership can play in making the world a better place.

I am a very social person. I like people. Moderating gives me the opportunity to meet loads of different people from all over the world and from all walks of life. I get to moderate in different parts of the world in beautiful venues and there’s always the fun that goes with all this. I consider my role to be a privilege and I am very grateful for it.

As an educationist, with investments in schools in Uganda, what are your thoughts on the state of education in East Africa? How do you think it can be improved to contribute to a more promising future for our societies?

We have had formal education for over a century in the whole of East Africa and yet today we have some of the highest levels of youth unemployment in the whole world. This is a glaring red flag. It shows that education is not doing what it should do. Leaders in the education public sector need to ask the question: “what needs to be done in school that will enable the majority of a country’s youth to work as soon as they have completed compulsory education?” Focus on this question will enable countries to concentrate their resources on getting youth to become productive as soon as they finish school.

But as I mentioned earlier, leadership matters and unless we have leaders that have the intellectual capacity to come up with a blue print to follow, the commitment to execute and the resources to support the blue print, we will continue to wallow in the mediocrity that we have experienced for the past 20 or so years which is marked with poor access to and poor quality education at all levels.

Pasi Sahlberg is the leader behind Finland’s education success story. He came up with the blue print for his country, was well resourced and he executed and the results are evident. More recently, Indonesia a country of 260 million people that had a GDP per capita not too far from the East African countries in the 1960s, came up with its own education blue print. It passed a law that required all teachers to have a 4 year university degree. This was closely followed by doubling teacher remuneration. In addition Indonesia changed its standardized tests from testing rote learning to testing competence and has insisted on teachers using learner centered methodology. Within 10 years of these reforms 80% of Indonesian teachers have degrees; teacher student ratios  have come down to an average of 1:40; and recently Indonesia was ranked 2nd in education innovation in OECD countries after Norway, surpassing the UK and USA. Leadership matters!

As a leader in private education I appreciate the autonomy I have and this enables me to pursue quality relentlessly. Unfortunately the percentage of children that benefit from this education is miniscule. We need to go for wide spread-high impact strategies at national level.  Goh Chok Tong the 2nd Prime Minister of Singapore said: “A nation’s wealth in the 21st century will depend on the capacity of its people learn.” The capacity of people to learn is created in quality education institutions. We in East Africa can achieve progress in education in the next few years if we commit.

One of the central focus of the AGLN fellowship is contributing towards achieving a “good society”. How do you assess possibilities of East Africa emerging as a good society, where citizens live a “good life”?

Again, leadership matters. If we can get a critical mass of leaders that genuinely care for the wellbeing of their people, then we will be within reach of a good society. Leaders that genuinely care are guided by their values and these values lead them to enact inclusive economic and political policies. Inclusive economic and political policies are the foundation of countries’ economic growth. This explains the difference between North and South Korea; USA and Mexico; Western and Eastern Europe; and Botswana’s being one of the few African countries to achieve the $6000 GDP per capita mark. We have the potential.

How do you handle leadership challenges?

Every season in a leaders life comes with different challenges. So I have been through all manner of challenges from running an organization on shoe string budgets to breaking into a market with a new idea to balancing a busy family life and career. Whether the challenge is big or small, my strategy is to always understand it’s root cause and then proceed from there.

Thank you for sharing these great insights, Mariam.

My pleasure.