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It’s not a lack of talent but a lack of opportunity that is holding back Africans, argues Lindiwe Matlali, the leading light in a not-for-profit organization which helps young people to reach their potential by teaching them how to code.
Your birthplace does not have to determine your destiny. I am proof of that. So is Cidra Mthembu. One of Africa Teen Geeks’ most committed students, she joined us when she was only 10 years old, spending each Saturday in our coding classes. Despite growing up in Johannesburg in an environment marked by poverty and instability, she’s a very determined young woman. She is more likely to be found participating in a global hackathon than chatting with friends over a cup of tea. And now she’s heading off to study computer science at South Africa’s most prestigious academic institution, the University of Cape Town. Thanks to Africa Teen Geeks, she is defying the birthplace lottery.
However, it’s not only coding skills that we strive to instill in young people like Cidra but also confidence. What has made the real difference in her life is what made the real difference in mine: the knowledge that you can study whatever you want, wherever you want, to become whoever you’d like to be. Most children don’t have that.
The COVID-19 pandemic has closed schools all around the world. For the first time, children from the United States to the United Kingdom are suffering education poverty. Yet in Africa, crises that shut down learning, leaving long legacies of inequality, are nothing new. When Ebola erupted in West Africa six years ago, children were confined to their homes for many months. In Cameroon, children have gone more than three years without schooling due to the civil war. Eradicating the coronavirus pandemic won’t change this, but it could be the defining moment to reset education on the continent that needs it most.
We need to think beyond COVID-19 and create the infrastructure necessary to provide all African children with a real future. While South Africa is often lauded for its higher standard of living on the continent, we can only sustain our so-called success if our neighbors do well too. For too long the world has spoken of Africa’s potential. Now it’s time to make these necessary changes happen.
Have no doubt about it: the state of tech in Africa is abysmal. Most of the tech and the platforms we use were built elsewhere. This isn’t due to a lack of talent – it’s lack of exposure that holds us back. African kids don’t grow up thinking they can build a Facebook because they don’t see role models who look like them. This will only be remedied when we train our young people not just for jobs, but for inspiration and innovation.
It’s not just technology that eludes us; even our data doesn’t sit here. There is no African GDPR, no laws around how our data is used either for us against us. This is proof that we must get people thinking about technology by investing not just in Africa, but in Africans.
There is a common misconception that Africans lack tech talent. People look to Asia, they recruit in Silicon Valley, but Black women, especially, are so often overlooked.
This is a problem of talent cultivation. In fact, Black women have contributed in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), in ways that have fundamentally changed the world. Think of Marian Croak, vice president of engineering at Google. She has more than 200 patents to her name, including 100 related to Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP), which she developed, and which has allowed us all to Zoom and Skype, keeping our businesses afloat over the past year.
Marian is a corporate innovator who helps with Africa Teen Geeks’ Girl Geek program, and she inspires young women not just to study computer science but to make and create things. Girls like Cidra do not need special treatment – they have the talent – but they do need the chance to succeed.
That’s why I founded Africa Teen Geeks; to give our children the necessary skills and let them show us what they’re capable of. And they have. What began simply as an outreach program in 2014, has become a movement. Some 48,000 kids a year participate in our programs; we have a waiting list of more than 200,000 children. Our trailblazing collective provides young people access to the world of STEM, coding and robotics, no matter their background. Africa Teen Geeks is now the largest computer science non-profit on the continent. Through our strategic partnerships with the University of South Africa and the Department of Basic Education, we introduce computer science and robotics education in previously disadvantaged schools through teacher training and curriculum development. With programs like Girl Geek, STEM Digital School and Knit2Code, we have reached more than half a million children and our YouTube channel has had more than 470,000 views.
The next phase of our expansion includes the development of a coding and robotics curriculum that will eventually reach the 24,000 schools across South Africa, for which we have created 6,000 video lessons for Grades R to 12.
Africa Teen Geeks has had great success, but this only reinforces the fact that the lack of infrastructure – technical, educational and social – across Africa is holding us back. We could do so much more for so many more children if the necessary systems were in place. This will require big private investment and government buy-in, but it is not an insurmountable challenge. I founded the Education Africa Group to push this initiative forward. We are launching a special program that unites social entrepreneurs already working in the education space to collaborate and develop solutions together. These ideas will evolve into pilot projects and, later, randomized studies, leading to the formulation of specific plans to tackle the challenges of teacher qualifications, and lack of internet and access to devices. There is a focus on pedagogy and real-life problem-solving in this community of teacher mentors working to support other teachers who are struggling.
We are looking to make infrastructure development more community- driven in order to sidestep corruption. If we mobilize and support social entrepreneurs, we can come up with cost-effective solutions. Passionate individuals are already doing this, but we need to unite and empower them by bringing people together to share expertise and mobilize resources.
To that end, we work exclusively with local NGOs to provide tailored curricula in each setting. As a South African, I know I could not possibly develop and implement a program in Zimbabwe, for example, without the help of Zimbabweans. By engaging communities and countries and putting them in charge of their own decisions, we give them back the confidence and power they’ve been stripped of for centuries.
I grew up in poverty in Belfast, Mpumalanga, South Africa under the Apartheid regime as the youngest of seven children. My mother died when I was four years old and I was taken in by my grandfather, who was raising a dozen orphans under the age of 16. My grandfather alone was responsible for keeping a roof over all our heads. A retired gardener, he decided to go to night school to learn how to read when I was six years old, and I learned to read alongside him. He stressed the importance of education and told me that that if I studied hard, anything was possible. I am who I am now due to this encouragement.
My grandfather expected the same level of excellence from me as he did from my brothers; he treated us equally. This shaped how I saw myself: as an individual and nothing less than anyone else in the world. This was not a common attitude; in the rural area where I come from, most girls grew up thinking they needed to find a husband with a house and a car. That was the standard they aspired to. But for me, it was never “You’re going to marry a doctor!” it was “you’re going to become a doctor.”
Confidence is fostered, not born – and that confidence is exactly what every African child needs to succeed. Africa Teen Geeks helps children imagine the tech future, and then teaches them to embrace it. However, bringing STEM education to all African children depends on the success of organizations like Education Africa Group that are changing the face of education by influencing public policy and working hand-in-hand with governments for systemic change.
My grandfather was right: education is the key to eradicating the birthplace lottery. When you show a child like Cidra that she has options, you empower her to chart her own path. I want to bring the skills, learning and motivation to every child in Africa – because for every African country to succeed, every African child must get an education.
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