wo promising trends are making the news from Africa more hopeful. One, technology giants like Google and IBM are making big investments, providing new opportunities for employment. Two, Africans are permanently returning home (contributing to the “Brain Gain” phenomenon) and helping the economies of their native countries by transferring the skills and knowledge they gained. They are doing that through a renaissance of startup companies focused on STEM—more specifically, women and girls in STEM.
Education is empowering girls throughout Africa, specifically in the “Giant of Africa” Nigeria. I had the privilege to work with one organization, Women’s Technology Empowerment Centre (W.TEC), a nonprofit located in Lekki, Lagos, Nigeria. W.TEC is breaking barriers by training girls to become technology leaders.
The mission of W.TEC is to provide “technology literacy training, technology-based projects, mentoring. and work placement.” The organization researches and publishes work examining issues related to how African women use technology, barriers preventing or limiting technology use, and strategies for more efficient technology use.
Ore Somolu Lesi, the Founder, CEO and pioneer of W.TEC, with the help of her staff, established and built Nigeria’s first STEM organization in 2008. Lesi’s dedicated journey was long but worthwhile. Lesi stumbled across technology the summer before starting university, when she decided to pursue a diploma in computer programming. The course opened her eyes to the world of technology, and she decided to pursue studies in information technology (IT). The Nigerian school system follows the British System, requiring university entrance exams, which Lesi had already taken and was accepted to study Economics at Essex University. While studying economics, she spent her free time learning IT. Her passion grew stronger as she dreamt of starting her own organization teaching girls and women STEM. While completing her Masters in IT from the London School of Economics and Political Science she learned about the gender gap between women and men studying and working in IT. She envisioned starting a girl’s technology and empowerment program, a resource missing in Nigeria at the time.
Her ambition grew as she studied for a graduate certificate in Applied Sciences at Harvard University’s Extension School, volunteered as a web developer for a nonprofit and at an IT help desk assistant in a women’s shelter. She explored the gender gap in STEM and became an online mentor. Upon returning to Nigeria in 2006, she began conducting blogging classes for girls. While working in Nigeria, Lesi answered a call for proposals. Her application was ultimately selected for funding, which she used to start W.TEC. Lesi found funding, a hard-working staff, wrote an evolving training curriculum, and started a partnership with education institutes like Laureates College. W.TEC’s doors opened in 2008 with three staff members, and has grown since. Currently there are six full time staff members, two interns, and 25 volunteers.
With its programming W.TEC is indeed doing what was once thought impossible: bridging the gender gap. Lesi’s objective is to strengthen the organization’s alumni network and support future generations of females in STEM by creating advanced and interactive classes. After graduating W.TEC, 80% of alumni study or work in STEM.
Lesi, is an inspiring and dedicated leader. She returned to Nigeria to transfer the knowledge she obtained studying abroad to improve the lives of youth in her country. With more trailblazers like Lesi, countries in Africa will undoubtedly prosper.
How to Bridge the Digital Divide in Africa
The challenges facing girls in Nigeria are both societal and structural.
Even in the oil rich country of Nigeria, electricity is sporadic, with power outages occurring during classes, making the use of generators essential. Without paved roads and traffic lights students can’t go to school.
Compared to their male counterparts, girls are forced into early marriages. According to Human Rights Watch “more than 49 million girls are out of primary and secondary school in sub-Saharan Africa, with 31 million of them out of secondary education, undermining their rights and limiting their opportunities.” Girls not attending and graduating from school lack confidence and the will to excel, to become independent, and to lead in society.
It’s not enough to provide “free” education. These entrenched challenges have to be addressed at the policy/governmental level. Here are three things African governments can do now to bring about positive change.
1. African governments should link with the Diaspora to provide training.
African governments need to provide financial resources and facilities to girls who do have the opportunity to succeed in school. They can provide incentives to college graduates studying and professionals working in STEM abroad to return to their countries temporarily or permanently and invest in their youth. This investment can include teaching and training youth in technology, computer basics, coding, and emerging technologies like AI, IoT, and machine learning. This can be done by connecting the technologists with primary and secondary schools, and universities where STEM instructors are needed.
2. African governments should enable the establishment of STEM nonprofits.
African governments, in collaboration with African technology businesses, can subsidize STEM programs and non-profits, providing free classes and career placement. The staff at W.TEC said they were fortunate to work there, and previously had difficulty finding employment at giant tech firms like IBM and Google because they were not connected to the right people.
3. Increase scholarship opportunities.
STEM camps are expensive and only economically privileged children have the opportunity to attend summer camps. By increasing the amount of scholarships for girls interested in attending STEM camps, African governments are de facto closing the gender gap in STEM.