Ever since the tech world zeroed in on Africa as its next major growth area, the unstated expectation was that top engineers and executives from the world’s leading technology companies would soon set up shop in Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa and other sub-Saharan nations.
But a recent development suggests that a key to the continent’s long-term future as a technology hub may lie in the nurturing of a different power source: homegrown talent, including a demographic traditionally excluded from nearly all things scientific — African girls.
South Africa hopes to launch its first private satellite in 2016, but as RisingAfrica.org points out, one won’t find ringers from large tech firms at the helm. The Cape Town project features female high-school students as part of an initiative by the Micro Enterprise Development Organization (MEDO), an organization that helps small enterprises grow and connect with large businesses, to encourage girls and women to seek careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).
The program, Young Women In STEM, includes workshops, internships and hands-on training that acquaint the teenagers, selected from six schools around the Cape Peninsula, with all facets of science and technology.
The Daily Maverick reports that the girls built Jiggy Bots, tiny robots controllable via light, movement and sound, as a prelude to their ultimate goal: building the technology that will eventually enable South Africa to explore space.
But while this is an unexpected, positive step in a part of the world where tradition and fundamentalism are still cited as reasons to deny even a basic education to a sizable portion of the population, the struggle for these girls and their advocates remains uphill.
“The reality is half the young women in this room when they matriculate are not going to have formal jobs. We have to start a lot earlier,” said Judi Sandrock, MEDO’s chief executive, noting that only 7.5 percent of South African students in 2014 surpassed a score of 60 in math, and the score was even lower in physical science.
Add to that the expectation that 80 percent of all future jobs will require some level of STEM knowledge, Sandrock said, and it’s apparent that there needs to be an immediate focus on getting children, particularly girls, up to speed.
As Memeburn, a blog that addresses issues dealing with emerging technology, explained:
Across industries, gender inequality is a white elephant that comfortably [sits] and has always sat right in the middle . . . Science and technology is one of these industries. Companies like Uber and Microsoft and others have had to address this in different ways. MEDO’s [program] is along these other efforts to lure more women into the technology industry
It is worth noting, as MEDO did in its statement announcing the program and pending satellite launch, that of every 10 jobs most in demand in the country, eight are STEM related and that, as The Cape Times reported, in a recent study ranking science and math achievement, South Africa ranked 47th in math and 48th in science – out of 48 participating countries.
Nor is everyone in the scientific world ready to roll out the red carpet for female scientists, a depressing reality that recently got national attention when Nobel laureate Tim Hunt ignited an Internet furor last month by calling women “too distracting” in labs. In response, rebuttals from women scientists were swift (and often funny), and Hunt’s comments were widely condemned by the scientific community.
But on Friday, an article in the British newspaper The Independent revealed that University College, which fired Hunt after his sexist comments brought a wave of negative publicity, has itself been holding prestigious science events for at least the last two years at a London club that bars women from membership.
That such restrictions are still in place makes it easy to see why African girls in the MEDO program initially labored under the fear that, like so many other things in their everyday reality, STEM was for men only.
Program participant Aakifah Arulandu, 15, admitted that many of her peers believe that a life in science simply isn’t meant for them. As she told The Cape Times:
There is gender inequality. Many girls don’t believe in themselves. Girls at our school are into how they look. Not a lot of us are interested in physics and [math]. [These subjects are] difficult. But if you have an interest and apply yourself, you can be successful.
That confidence so clear in Aakifah’s last sentence is significant on a continent where women struggle daily to be treated on an equal footing with men on nearly every level. It echoes the sentiment of women in another country identified as a tech growth area who recently took to Twitter with the #BeingFemaleinNigeria campaign to vent over their treatment as inferior.
And while it may seem odd that this sentiment prevails in the blossoming technology scene that exists in South Africa, especially considering the rise in women entering the tech field across the continent, it is essential to understand why South African students’ poor showing in math and science is no coincidence but rather the result of social engineering by the country’s former rulers.
Under apartheid, science and math were excluded from the curricula of nonwhite students, a fact that MEDO stresses in its statement. And this systematic segregation and subjugation of black and mixed-raced South Africans was still in practice as recently as 1994.
And so the high school girls in the MEDO program and others their age comprise the first generation to grow up with access to a complete curriculum in the Age of Technology — only to be stymied by the fact that their elders have been rendered incapable of guiding them into a future that pretty much excludes anyone who was denied any classroom exposure to math or science.
Bjarke Gotfredsen, Sundrock’s partner in MEDO, expounded on this, saying:
Women in STEM is a problem worldwide. Our problem is not only that we don’t have youth going into STEM; we also lack teachers strong enough in STEM because of the legacy of our previous government.
South Africa’s future will be dependent on its young citizens and MEDO aims to fill that future with tech-savvy citizens, including women who will not only be capable of playing a major part in the country’s technological transformation but who will also help create a more welcoming atmosphere for future femaile scientists.
In the meantime, when the girls see their satellite launch early next year, their spirits, too, will surely zoom, for they’ll know that the vaunted new South Africa will be built and maintained in large part by their generation — the descendants of those who were long denied the opportunity to play any meaningful role in their homeland’s prosperity.