Vision. That is how it started.
At the dawn of Namibia’s independence from South Africa in 1990, David Namwandi, a teacher, and his wife, Virginia, noticed a skills gap. They knew that education was Namibia’s future.
“IUM [International University of Management] was founded on a one-on-one basis: one student, one lecturer, one employee, one lecture room, one blackboard and a few hundred Namibian dollars,” says Namwandi.
“My husband was the first lecturer and I was the administrator, registrar, everything.”
This was in 1994, at their rented house on 12 Sauer Street, in Windhoek. Soon, the Namwandis had four students, which later grew to 10—so many that they could no longer be taught at their home. This led to the establishment of the first private university in Namibia.
“The gap was much larger than we had even imagined. People were so hungry for what we had to offer. It became increasingly obvious that we needed to give a qualification to the programs we were offering,” she says.
The driven duo gained accreditation and offered programs from numerous international academic institutions. Twelve years later, in 2002, the founding president of Namibia, Sam Nujoma, unveiled IUM at the Safari Hotel, in Windhoek.
“We receive good support from the Namibian government… without them we would not be where we are today,” says Namwandi.
Namibians didn’t think that a private university was necessary, since there was a public university and the polytechnic.
“At the beginning there was a lot of discouragement, especially when we had financial issues, which is common to any growing institution when you are starting. People discouraged us and said: ‘Just give it up, it will never work, it can’t work, not here,’” she says.
Criticism taught her that “you can do anything. If you set your mind to do something, you can achieve it”.
“When I look at myself, where I was 10 to 15 years ago, if you had told me that I would be doing what I am doing now, I would have not believed you. But the truth, is sometimes in life, we underestimate what we can do. So, it’s only when you are thrown into the deep end that you realize what you are capable of doing,” she says.
For the only private university in Namibia, this was unchartered territory.
“It has not been easy to access the funding. Public institutions are subsidized by government, so they are able to offer good remuneration, have the infrastructure and government, from time to time, will be able to come to their aid. But for ourselves, we have to fund ourselves,” she says.
In 2010, David, by then a PhD candidate, stepped aside as the university’s first vice-chancellor, after he was appointed the deputy minister of education. Earlier this year he was appointed the minister. It was only natural that his wife, who had shared his vision, would assume the role of vice-chancellor.
Thousands of graduation caps and five campuses across the country are a testament.
“When we moved to our present location in Dorado [Windhoek], the current president, his excellency [Hifikepunye] Pohamba, inaugurated the building. President [Sam] Nujoma was also present. It was an honor to have both the current and founding presidents there in 2010,” says Namwandi.
Nujoma also celebrated alongside the couple at the university’s 10th anniversary last year.
The newly-appointed minister is known for his stern stance against corruption and mismanagement, yet after 23 years of independence, the Namibian education sector still struggles.
“At the beginning of every year, it’s the same cry, the institutions cannot accommodate a lot of the students.”
IUM will expand to the southern and eastern parts of the country next year. These campuses will focus on non-degree programs such as tourism, hospitality and events management. The country’s landscape makes it a prime destination for international tourists. Namibia welcomes 1.2 million visitors each year—which is around half of Namibia’s population—and tourism contributes N$16.6 million ($1.6 million) to the GDP, just over 20%.
The university has four faculties: business information systems; tourism and hospitality; defense management; and a one-of-a-kind faculty of HIV/AIDS management.
“We felt the time had come for us to offer programs that were relevant to Namibians,” she says.
The students studying at the HIV/AIDS management faculty come from Namibia and the South African Development Community (SADC) region, specifically Botswana. Its graduates work at the United Nations, NGOs and faith-based organizations.
“The lady who is in charge of the HIV/AIDS program in the defense force is our alumni,” says Namwandi, with pride.
She continues to fight Namibia’s skills shortage with lecture rooms that create employment.
“We are still heavily economically dependent on South Africa and others. It’s a situation that I would like to see change. It’s important that as much as Namibia took the reins, in terms of its political independence, this should be the time that we focus on making ourselves economically independent.”
This, she believes, is possible through empowerment by means of education.
“Education is the key; it will be one of the main enablers to reach 2030, which is the national vision for the country. I have hope, I see some of the decisions that are being made currently, that are going to enable that to make it happen,” she says.
Namwandi is open-minded—she looks beyond conventional qualifications and the university offers non-degree qualifications too.
“When you need a bulb changed or a plumber, you don’t need to go to someone with a degree. We need to also upgrade the concept of vocational training because for the longest time people looked at it as a lower qualification but the idea is to give it that place, to lift the status that will equip us well for the future.”
IUM is building hostels to cater for international students, who hail from 14 countries.
“They are all my children, in fact I always say that the most emotional experiences for me is a graduation ceremony… I love being around young people. They keep one young and youthful,” says Namwandi.
The academic staff are also an international mix.
“We have an IT lecturer from Cuba. We have an IT lecturer from India. We have [many lecturers] from the SADC region, especially Zimbabwe, and at management level we have someone from Sri Lanka, our registrar is Scottish.”
Her mantra for entrepreneurial success is: “Don’t sweat the small stuff.”
“We need to step out of the box; we’ve been boxed and it’s time to get out of these boxes and say: ‘No I can do it, if this person can do it, so can I.’ There is a big change in Namibia now because if you look at women soon after independence and now, women are coming out and filling those top positions and its good for us.”
So speaks the only female vice-chancellor in Namibia.