With a mix of Arduino, Raspberry Pi and fun, Maker Box hopes to bolster Africa's future tech skills

Raspberry Pis, Arduinos, microscopes and soldering lessons to help children teach themselves the STEM skills that are vital for economic development.
Written by Adam Oxford, Contributor

A new Indiegogo project, Afrimakers, is hoping to bring a program of computers and creativity to children across the continent by crowdfunding for 14 'Maker Box' kits which will be distributed at seven tech hubs in seven countries, along with learning materials and training sessions, early next year.

The scheme is the brain child of Stephania Druga, a Romanian-born ex-Google engineer and founder of HacKIDemia, a network of schools and organisations across the world which teach children how to use low-tech tools to make computing fun, through hands-on practical sessions.

Each Maker Box contains a Raspberry Pi, an Adruino controller, an RFID starter kit, a soldering station and several sensors and other tools.

Druga says that the idea for HacKIDdemia was spawned while studying for a masters degree in Education and Information Technology in Peru. Visiting rural schools, she realised that teachers were being asked to teach computer skills to students without fully understanding them themselves.

It was a few years later that here ideas began to take real shape. After a short spell at Google, that the 26-year-old found herself working in Cambodian orphanage.

"The most beautiful thing happened," she said. "I was teaching the older children in English, and teaching them how to pass on their skills to the younger ones who spoke only Khymer — which is a really hard language to learn, even if you're good with languages."

Could, she wondered, IT skills be taught in the same way — a cohort of learners of all ages learning and experimenting together, and sharing their skills with others in an ever-expanding network of schools? Most importantly, could it be fun?

Thanks to a scholarship with Singularity University, Druga was given the opportunity to find out.

To date, HacKIDemia has reached more than 8,000 children in 25 towns around the world, with a program that is designed to inspire young minds to do more with technology than just access Facebook. Druga says that she's taught six-year-olds to solder and use Arduino robots, and their parents to do the same thing at the same time.

Like similar projects, such as Black Girls Code, Druga works to a deceptively well-formalised program which is designed for engaging children from underprivileged backgrounds who may have struggled with — or simply not had access to — formal education.

One early success story was in a Parisian community with a highly migrant population. "The kids who had dropped out of school were very intelligent," she said. "They just preferred to learn in a different way. They were very energetic, and may not speak French that well, but you could see the spark in their eyes when they said 'I made a robot, I did that'."

Unlike Black Girls Code, however, she was keen not to introduce a gender bias to HacKIDemia, although she does make an effort to involve girls by including courses in clothes making using local materials. Once they're in through the door, however, they often turn out to be better than the boys at building Arduino machines, she says. "The most important part is that every single time we train a team of mentors who can make the workshops sustainable."

Training the next generation of technicians and engineers is being prioritised across the continent by companies like Microsoft, which works through its 4Afrika project to boost skills development and entrepreneurship. The problem, identified in a report by the South African Centre for Development and Enterprise in a report earlier this year, is that most programs focus on older learners or graduate students, and are designed around filling in gaps left by poor quality secondary and tertiary education.

Really, though, the problems begin much earlier. Writing about South Africa — which despite its wealth and relative stability lags behind other countries in educational outcomes, the report author, Nicholas Spaull, says that: "Pupils acquire learning deficits early on in their academic careers, the current report proposes a new method for analysing the learning trajectories of pupils over the 12 grades of schooling.

"It shows that for disadvantaged pupils, the gaps between what they should know and what they do know grow over time. This means that as time goes on, children fall further and further behind the curriculum leading to a situation where re-mediation is almost impossible in high school since these learning gaps have been left unaddressed for too long."

By the time many skills development programs kick in, it's already too late. Getting children interested in science subjects at an early age is vital.

After taking HacKIDemia to Maker Fair Lagos last year, Druga set up the first African branch of the organisation in Lagos.

"The model we use is a bit like Robin Hood," Druga said. "You do it in the private schools who are willing to pay for it, and then use that money to cover costs in the public schools where we offer it for free."

It was meeting the heads of the tech hub network AfriLabs at RE:Publica conference in Berlin this September, and hearing about their challenges, that Druga decided to try and raise money to take HacKIDemia pan-continental.

Tayo Akinyemi, the director of tech hub network AfriLabs, says that her members are keen to bring Druga's team to their spaces.

"For some areas of expertise and in some geographies," Akinyemi says, "It's easier and more appropriate to source help locally. But with Afrimakers the hubs involved have met with Stefania, value what she's doing and want to partner with her in their communities."

DThe Indiegogo money will cover minimal expenses for the trainers, who will be mostly self-funded.

"I get into the same mindset as the kids when they play," she says, "I feel very lucky — it was very hard when I quit my job at Google; I got salmonella in Cambodia — but now I understand that when you take the leap to work on what you truly love it's absolutely worth it. I feel very privileged to do what I do."

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