“It’s impossible to imagine the future of science in outer space, or embrace its challenges, without the talents of women being at the heart of it.” These powerful words come from the astrophysicist Ersilia Vaudo of the European Space Agency. Placing women front and centre in the crucial development of technologies, medicines, engineering and digital industries means doubling the intellectual capital in those sectors (which are dominated by men) and enfranchising women with unfettered freedom to achieve their wildest dreams. It is a global challenge – but in Africa it is absolutely critical for the development of the continent’s societies and its economic future.
Building that bright and productive future starts in the school classroom. Girls must be taught STEM subjects at school and educators must approach the way they engage with girls in those subjects with the same seriousness as they do boys. Every schoolgirl should be told that she can be a scientist and – if she desires, an astronaut. Sadly, Africa does not have a robust strategic plan on STEM policies for boys or girls, or even a clear framework for implementing them. Most STEM-based jobs, such as the engineering of infrastructure, is outsourced.
In 2014, Kenya hired 87 Chinese companies to construct a railway – because most Kenyans couldn’t do the job. If you look to the USA, billions of dollars are invested in STEM education and workplace development – because over two thirds of their entire workforce at home and abroad need skills and understanding of STEM. If African countries invest in these areas for boys and girls, they can address a number of issues: more well-paid skilled jobs, domestic and regional economic growth and less reliance on foreign brains, equipment and expats.
One barrier to achieving these objectives is the fact that many African governments lack people qualified in STEM subjects to teach them. The good news is that there is a growing ecosystem of non-state players committed to the cause, including organizations whose entire focus is on women in STEM. Soronko Academy is the first coding and human centered design academy in West Africa. It is part of a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to use technology to drive human potential. The academy was started to scale and sustain the impact of a project called Tech Needs Girls.
‘Tech Needs Girls’ is a movement and a mentorship program to get more women & girls to create technology. Its approach is to teach and encourage women & girls to lead and innovate through learning to code. To date, it has trained 5500 girls and it has over 200 mentors who are all either computer scientists or engineers. They serve as educators and role models and teach the girls to code – including those from the slums and ensuring that each girl gets to go to university instead of being forced into early marriage, which continues to act as an enormously damaging social and cultural practice in some African communities.
These (and other) cultural attitudes towards a woman’s role in the world are dangerous to social, economic and personal progression, which is why providing girls with coding skills is not enough – the real challenge is social. Within the education system (whether public or private), girls must be taught skills such as entrepreneurship and finance, perhaps to start their own companies and forge incredible careers. However, building those careers remains a challenge for women in Africa (and the rest of the world) because of the many hurdles that exist within a male dominated corporate world.
For girls and women in Africa, who face exploitation, lower job security, and are largely excluded from the formal sector, coding offers them a promising way into a nascent industry. It also enriches the mind and instills a powerful (often newly found) confidence – so even if they do not pursue coding as a career, they can move on to other exciting professions.
Whilst the social and economic benefits are of enormous consequence, so too is the impact on a woman’s physical and mental wellbeing. Insight from the World Bank illustrates how better educated women tend to be healthier, participate more in the formal labor market, earn higher incomes, have fewer children, marry at a later age, and enable better health care and education for their children, should they choose to become mothers. All these factors combined can help lift households, communities, and nations out of poverty. The teaching of STEM subjects is, therefore, not only a route towards social and economic growth – it is an enabler of individual liberty and the very best way to show every girl in Africa that the sky really is the limit.
Author: Regina Honu, Founder, Soronko Academy