September 8, 2020

​Building Africa's STEM Workforce​: Meet STEMi Makers Africa

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TECH TOOLS :

STEM education is the foundation of an innovative and highly productive workforce, essential to a country’s economic development.

Currently, over 78% of young Africans do not have access to STEM resources and 21st-century amenities that aid STEM education. Moreover, tackling Africa’s STEM education gap is a highly complex and challenging endeavor.

It starts with rethinking primary and secondary school curriculums, and upskilling teachers so they’re equipped with the tools to educate their students. Then, it continues with creating an ecosystem that includes mentorship opportunities, technical training, programs designed to encourage women to be in STEM, and more.

Often, organizations focus on one of these many challenges. Rarely, do you find one that takes a broad systematic approach, yet can still have a significant impact on the people they touch.

STEMi Makers Africa, is the exception to the rule.

With their six initiatives across 18 countries, in counting, STEMi is set to change the narrative of STEM in Africa.

Founded in 2018, STEMi Makers Africa aims to boost employment, innovation, and inclusion, by empowering 2,000,000+ young Africans with STEM tools and the problem-solving skills they need to excel.

I spoke with Amanda Obidike, Founder and Strategy Lead for STEMi Makers Africa, about the importance of STEM education and addressing Africa’s leaky unemployment pipeline.

How did your journey lead you to create STEMi Makers Africa?

My background isn't in technology or STEM. I graduated with a Master's in Business Management from the International Business Management Institute in Germany. After, I came back to Nigeria and even with my Master's degree I was underpaid.

I spent the first three years of my career, frustrated. But as time passed, I began looking inward. I realized that the world was changing, technology was here to stay, and Africa was behind.

In 2018, I participated in an IBM training on Business Intelligence and Data Analytics, which opened my eyes to see that technology is fun and has diverse opportunities.

After some personal research, I discovered that many young people were ignorant about tech. So after the training, instead of getting a job, I built an organization to create awareness and prepare young Africans for these opportunities.

I also gained access to a lot of free tools when I earned the Mastery Award of Business Intelligence from IBM. One of them was IBM Digital-Nation Africa, a platform where you can access online learning and job opportunities in new technologies.

Moreover, I didn't have a background in technology, but I knew I needed to develop my technical skills because Africa's workforce was changing.

What specific void or opportunity did you discover that inspired STEMi Makers Africa?

I started STEMi Makers Africa two years ago because there was a clear need for STEM education. In Nigeria and across West Africa, students graduate from school, irrespective of what they study, and often find out they're not qualified for the job they envisioned because they don't have the technical skills.

This reality creates a lot of frustration. You begin to ask yourself, why did I spend so much money and time going to school abroad. With STEMi, we're working to address the leaky unemployment pipeline and the underrepresentation of women and girls in technology and science.

Our growth over the past two years shows that the demand is there. People are constantly reaching out to us, asking if we can bring STEMi into their community. Yesterday, someone from Chad reached out saying he wants to start a STEMi initiative in his country.

Nonetheless, we're happy that we're doing great work, and people recognize us for it, but what's more important than expanding to new countries is measuring impact.

We're focused on the number of people that we can boldly say we've transformed their lives, the people who undergo our program and move from where they are to where they're meant to be.


STEMi Makers Africa has six different initiatives. Can you share how one of the programs is contributing to the tech ecosystem?

We offer skill-based training, mentorship, and various STEM outreach programs in different communities and countries.

Our approach is to catch them young, but one of the challenges is that the education system doesn't steer innovation and creativity in students. So, we created an initiative centered around training teachers, as many are still using the same old syllables they've been using for decades.

This initiative started when we received a grant from the U.S. Consulate here in Nigeria. We hosted a 4-day training for 100 teachers from underserved communities in Lagos using IBM's LMS platform. Our goal was to help them transition from theoretical teaching to practical teaching.

After the training, primary investigators randomly visited the teachers to see if they integrated the teaching and IBM tools into their classes.

Overall, the impact has been beautiful. Teachers are more motivated to teach, and many students who were not engaged in school are becoming passionate about learning. Over 35 STEM hubs were created in the schools for students to collaborate and bring their ideas to reality.

We're planning on doing another one, on a larger scale, in the southeastern region of Nigeria, which will cover six (6) states.

STEMi Makers Africa is in 18 countries. Can you pick one and share how STEMi is contributing to their tech ecosystem?

Our initiatives depend on the country's needs because each country has its constraints, challenges, and opportunities. We focus on the needs and whom we can partner with to ensure they move from point A to point B.

The country that has surprised me the most is Cameroon. Currently, there are many challenges due to the political climate, but irrespective of the present situation, the people are hungry for change.

We started our outreach in Cameroon seven months ago, and they've already done four projects, in which they got funding from local stakeholders.

Recently, they had a skill-based training event in Buea, Yaounde, and Bamenda, where they brought in 20 students and taught them how to code and build websites.

Compared to Nigeria, there is less talent coming out from Cameroon, but over the past seven months, I learned that they have the same quest and desire as we do. They just need the resources and training, which we hope to provide them.

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Can you share the importance of women in tech?

There is a strong need for women to take up tech roles and leadership positions.

I'll use the STEMi Women Initiative as an example. We launched our mentorship program this year, and we were overwhelmed by the number of applicants. After screening, we had a total of 600 girls looking for mentors, and we didn't have nearly enough mentors to pair them.

We promoted the program for another two months, making the requirements extremely flexible. Mentors only had to commit to at least two hours a month. We even tried to incentivize women by offering to be a liaison into the New York Academy of Sciences.

Still, we only had 30 women enroll.

I knew that women were underrepresented, but this process made us realize that, indeed, we have a huge gap.

On a positive note, we have a program where we connect girls to African women in the diaspora, looking for ways to give back. Recently, two Nigerian girls informed us that their mentors got them a remote internship at NASA.

Nonetheless, women are critical to the development of a nation. When women start creating businesses or being in tech leadership positions, young girls will feel empowered.


Do you have any success stories that you'd like to highlight?

There have been many success stories, for me personally, STEMi, and the people we're impacting.

First, I want to give credit to my team. They've made work seamless and our ambitious goals attainable.

Moreover, since creating STEMi, a personal accomplishment, I'm incredibly proud of being accepted  into 500 Women Scientists. Although I don't feel like my work is done, I believe it's a step in the right direction.

It also shows there is much work to be done because I'm the youngest and the only African on the leadership team. But I know ultimately, this will lead me to more opportunities that I can bring home to Africa.

Built In Africa. What does that mean to you?

It represents the "Africa by us for us" ideology, whereby whatever ideas or innovations we as Africans create, are used to advance the continent. It's not enough to say I'm skilled in technology or the sciences. You must be using your skills to change the system.

Built In Africa is a community of vibrant young people using technology, science, and innovation to change their community.

The mindset is not limited by today. Instead, focused on the future and what we can do to ensure the next generation reaches the Alpine heights, they ought to.


Closing words: The importance of mentorship

I want to encourage people to start serving as role models and mentors because the younger generation needs our reaffirmation. They need someone they can talk to, someone who can serve as a reflection of what they aspire to become.

As professionals, we often underestimate/ forget the power of mentorship. Sometimes, it's just one thing you say that could change the course of their lives. It's time that we step up to that plate because if we don't, who will?

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