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Supporting STEM in Southern Africa

Despite all the challenges that Africa as a continent faces, one doesn’t need to look far to find an organisation, a community or an individual who is playing their part to try and bridge the social and economic divide. One such organisation that reached out to our Johannesburg office is Taungana, which means “we have gathered” in Shona.

Statistics continue to show the under-representation of women in STEM fields, and particularly women of colour. Taungana aims to provide high school girls from rural and disadvantaged communities with world class access and exposure to education and career options in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM).

Thanks to organisations like Taungana, and their supporting partners, on 23 August 2014, 30 high school girls from rural South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe were able to travel from their communities and countries to Johannesburg, South Africa, for their first ever STEM career event. The week was jam-packed with visits to various South African STEM giants, including BMW SA, Nestle, Aurecon, FlySAA, Eskom, Anglo American, NECSA (Nuclear Energy Corporation of South Africa), Innovation Hub,  Sci-Bono Discovery Centre and South African Airways.

In the evenings the Ambassadors (a title the young women had taken for themselves) worked on their assigned projects and the sessions included workshops on business ideation and presentation and communication skills. The companies supplied them with lots of materials to assist them to study and excel in maths and science and also to aid their choice of future careers.

As a technology company, passionate about driving social and economic change, we were excited to show our support and decided to get involved with three key activities.

First up, our general manager, Kgomotso Sediane, gave an inspiring talk to the group of young women at the ICT lab at Sci-Bono's discovery centre in Newtown.  She spoke about her journey as a black South African woman, the challenges she has faced in her career, and her passion for IT. She encouraged the girls to consider studying STEM subjects and to pursue the career of their choice, to stand up for themselves and believe in their ability to succeed in a male-dominated industry.  

After Kgomotso’s talk, a group of developers ran a coding workshop for the Ambassadors, lead by one of our South African devs Kelvin Smith. The activity introduced them to the basic concepts of computer science and working in pairs. Despite an unreliable Internet connection, we managed to get onto code.org and work through some of the fun excersizes demonstrating some fundamental programming concepts through a simple drag and drop interface. Considering many of the young women had never even used a computer in their lives before, they picked it up really quickly and their eyes lit up when they figured out how to instruct the angry bird to catch the naughty pig.

After patiently waiting for reconnections after persistent disconnects the Ambassadors welcomed an opportunity for some Q&A with the ThoughtWorkers. The questions were varied and poignant, including: “Is it possible to be something like a professional gamer?”, “Should I become a Mechanical Engineer or a Software Developer?”, “How do I make my own website?” and “What are the challenges of working in the tech industry?”.

Fortunately, most questions could be answered with “yes” and those that couldn’t were fielded deftly and with enthusiasm by ThoughtWorkers Lebohang Danster, Nsovo Manganyi, Brain Leke, and others.

We later learned that some of the Ambassadors felt intimidated by the impromptu Q&A and had follow up questions for us on the Saturday. The interest and thoughtfulness was inspiring.

Finally, on the last day of the week-long event, we took part in the STEM careers expo. Held at the school of Industrial, Mechanical and Aeronautical Engineering Lab, the same group of 30 young girls, came to the WITS University and got the opportunity to engage with organisations and institutions promoting STEM fields.

This event was the first of its kind for Taungana and although the number of exhibitors was disappointing, it confirms the need for more support from both the private and public STEM sectors in South Africa. ThoughtWorks was the only tech company and the girls were asking loads of questions about studying computer science, how they can learn more about programming and what it’s like to work as a developer and a business analyst.

Personally, I found the experience to be an eye-opener, mixed with feelings of hope and promise for what the future holds for these young girls, but also frustration at the lack of facilities, information, role models,  and opportunities they have back in their hometowns. The one girl I spoke to had travelled 18 hours to get from her village to Lusaka, the capital of Zambia, and then another 48 hours from Lusaka to Johannesburg. A long journey but it was hopefully a life changing experience that may influence her future choices.

Thank you to all the wonderful ThoughtWorkers who gave their time to contribute.  I hope to see our relationship with Taungana grow from strength to strength and see more organisations contributing to this worthy programme.