- Girls remain grossly underrepresented in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics education courses, especially in tertiary institutions and consequently in related careers.
- The need to promote STEM education cannot be overemphasized given that over the next two decades, an estimated 20 million young people a year are expected to join the workforce in Africa.
- Research shows that an average STEM worker earns double the amount of a non-STEM worker and this trend is bound to continue.
Today, Africa joins the rest of the world in marking the 2023 International Girls in ICT Day with the overarching theme being ‘Digital Skills for Life’. The celebration could not have come at a better time as the continent dives deeper into the adoption and full realization of the fourth industrial revolution (4IR), in which digital skills are key economic drivers; pertinently in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).
The International Girls in ICT Day is helps inspire and encourage girls and young women to pursue STEM education, to guarantee not only lucrative careers but also a future in ICT and encouraging them to acquire the necessary skills, confidence, and support to achieve their goals.
Girls remain grossly underrepresented in STEM education especially in tertiary institutions and in turn in the related careers; due to gender disparity whereby biases and societal norms dictate certain expectations on the education they receive and courses they pursue.
The need to promote STEM education cannot be overemphasized given that over the next two decades, an estimated 20 million young people a year are expected to join the workforce in Africa. By the same token, this will guarantee that the continent is not left behind, as it was in the previous three industrial revolutions, and tap into the opportunities for growth and development in the 4IR.
The continent needs to promote gender equality across all platforms and upskill girl-child by investing in and encouraging them to take up STEM disciplines. Soaring STEM industries in Africa will come about by first eliminating stereotypical prejudices in the continent, and supporting young girls who wish to study and work in STEM fields. Globally, its estimated that only 20 percent of engineering graduates are women, with those of colour comprising of less than two percent of all engineering professionals.
In an age of digital disruption, only a skilled workforce can drive Africa not only towards the attainment of the 4IR, but also spearhead economic transformation and competitiveness. Several countries in the continent have already established their Centers for the Fourth Industrial Revolution (C4IR), but the pressing concern has been whether the continent has a skilled workforce to drive the revolution or countries will inevitably be forced import talent.
Significance of STEM in Africa
According to a study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), many of the jobs in highest demand today are likely to disappear by 2030, and be replaced by jobs that are directly or indirectly related to STEM fields.
In reiteration, during the 2023 World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos Switzerland in January, the need for equal representation and women inclusion in STEM was heavily emphasized. To realize this, STEM role models coupled with education programmes among girls came highly recommended as vital in bridging the gap. By the same token, it was established that STEM jobs are set to be in high demand, and will be well-paying to perpetuate a sustainable future.
Further, during the Forum it was underlined that economies are set to be dominated by STEM industries at the heart of technology advancements, such as engineering and computer science; projected to record the fastest growth and consequently become the highest paying jobs of the future.
Already, research has revealed that a typical STEM worker earns double the amount of a non-STEM worker and this trend is bound to be continue. Currently, one-fifth of the global population under the age 25 residing in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), will need STEM skills to drive economic transformation and competitiveness.
The STEM education landscape in Africa is still at its infancy and needs to be developed. Some of the challenges ailing the sector have been a shortage of teacher expertise, wanting curriculum and inadequate investments to support the field. In many institutions, for instance, computer laboratories might exist but nearly half are functional which impedes practical learning.
According to the 2022 ADE and ACET report, the two greatest barriers to STEM education are inadequate facilities and sub-optimal teacher classroom practices. Therefore, there is need to increase the budget allocation for STEM disciplines in schools. Moreover, the under representation of female teachers further widens the STEM gender gap.
Technological innovations have been identified as the key components to address Africa’s existential perennial problems such as poverty, the climate change crisis, inequality, among a string of other hurdles. Africa can be a global leader in scientific discoveries and technological breakthroughs, therefore bolstering its economic prospects.
STEM skills and education will form the foundation of the future workforce, being key levers of economic transformation, to support sustainable growth and development, in a continent that still lags behind albeit wielding massive potential. Furthermore, specialist skill shortages remain as a major roadblock that needs redress beginning with STEM education among young Africans.
ICT Adoption in Africa
Today technology has taken over every economic sector, and a significant number of Africans are now consuming technological products and services which were previously executed manually, but have currently been fully automated, with a great voracity.
From the deployment of financial services, education, healthcare, manufacturing, warehousing-commerce and so much more. Artificial Intelligence, Big data, Metaverse, Internet of Things (IOT) and Green Technology, have become the hallmark of this revolution.
Equally, Africa has been making great strides in the adoption of space technologies, as evidenced in the recent establishment of the $1 billion orbital spaceport in the Republic of Djibouti, the first on African soil. This was preceded by the establishment of the African Space Agency (ASA), in Egypt to advance space exploration on the continent, through training and collaborations in January 2023.
Space technologies have been the spark that is reigniting economies across the continent, through applications in different areas such as agriculture, disaster management, environmental management, transport, natural resource management and modern lifestyles on the whole have become heavily dependent on space products and services.
Africa’s Pan African Vision Agenda 2063 by the African Union (AU) largely recognizes the key role of science, technology and innovation, as encapsulated under aspiration two and six. The former advocates for “well educated citizens and skills revolution underpinned by science, technology and innovation, whilst the latter an Africa that is people-driven, relying on the potential offered by African people especially women, youth and children respectively.
Goal six of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), calls for gender equality in all spheres of life, recognizing that girls and women as indispensable actors in Africa’s development, where gender disparity persists given the patriarchal nature of most cultures.
Currently, Africa is still under STISA-2024, which is the AU Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy for the continent, which places the sector as the epicenter of Africa’s socio-economic development agenda. The STISA-2024 is the first of the ten-year incremental phasing strategies to respond to the demand for science, technology and innovation to impact across critical sectors such as agriculture, energy, environment, health, infrastructure development, mining, security and water among others.
The strategy is firmly anchored on six distinct priority areas that contribute to the achievement of the AU Vision. These include: Eradication of Hunger and Achieving Food Security; Prevention and Control of Diseases; Communication which is both Physical and Intellectual Mobility; Protection of Space; Living Together- Building the Society and Wealth Creation. Moreover, the strategy is anchored on four reinforcing pillars which include building and upgrading research infrastructures; enhancing professional and technical competencies; promoting entrepreneurship and innovation; and providing an enabling environment for STI development in the African continent. The implementation of STISA-2024 has been since inauguration, taking place at three levels; nationally, regionally and continental whereby member states have been incorporating it into their National Development Plans.
It is upon this backdrop that policymakers in Africa need to ensure more girls embrace STEM to ensure a sustainable future. So how can we get them there?
How Can Africa Promote STEM among Girls?
STEM careers are often referred to as the jobs of the future, driving innovation, social wellbeing, inclusive growth and sustainable development. Girls will be the next generation women who will be spearheading STEM fields and as such its important to promote these subjects and courses across the continent. Inevitably, a skilled workforce is needed to propel the sector, which has hitherto been the greatest concern. Africa can only overcome its existential development hurdles through breakthroughs in STEM.
Indeed, there has been progress made to drive STEM in the continent. For instance, the establishment of Centres of excellence such as the Centre for Mathematics, Science and Technology Education in Africa (CEMASTEA), which provide implementation support to countries. In addition, albeit at varying degrees, an estimated 10 countries in Africa have been implementing a competency-based curriculum (CBC) which emphasizes inquiry-based learning, STEM, and Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET). In Kenya’s CBC digital learning program, schools have inculcated coding and computer programming, of which girls also partake.
Similarly, there has been remarkable progress that has been achieved through various initiatives, which fight gender bias and fosters STEM education. For instance, “GirlHype” is an organization that aims to empower girls and youth in ICT in South Africa, to explore careers in STEM by supporting them to obtain STEM education and career mentoring. Global Engineer Girls (GEG) is another organization tackling gender bias, inequality and stigma; instead it boosts girls to attain STEM education globally. Into the bargain, “Girls Who Code” is also on a mission to close the gender gap in entry-level tech jobs by 2030.
A key step towards promoting STEM among the girl-child is encouraging them to take up STEM disciplines, by for instance, presenting them with role models that they can look up to for mentorship. Girls in the continent need to see and hear from these role models to demonstrate that STEM subjects are viable, inclusive and attainable.
The lack thereof, coupled with other cultural factors, all contribute to the dismal number of women gaining a STEM education and ultimately career. By way of example, Charlot Magavi’s ‘clean stoves invention,’ having won international awards due to her remarkable innovation that uses processed biomass to create 90 percent less pollution than open fire; makes for a good mentorship story that can inspire girls.
Early exposure to STEM-based courses and career opportunities can largely promote the field. For instance, Kenya’s digital learning program, that deems it mandatory for pupils to learn coding or Rwanda’s One-Laptop-Per-Child (OLPC) flagship program. These not only equip students with digital skills, but nurtures interest that ultimately culminate in the uptake of STEM programs at higher levels. Targeted scholarships in STEM related courses could also work towards attracting young people pertinently girls to the field.
Rewarding and nurturing excellence is key in boosting the morale of the young girls. For instance, competitions such as the Young Scientists Kenya (YSK), which aim to catalyze and spotlight the quality of STEM, have proved integral in harnessing the innovative potential of secondary school students. By the same token, promoting home grown innovations is also critical, such as Kenyan-based Norah Magero, who has won international awards due to her innovation dubbed ‘vaccibox;’ a small mobile, solar-powered fridge that safely stores and transports medicine to remote clinics.
STEM trainers and institutions also need to be empowered and investments deepened, especially in tertiary institutions that exclusively offer these programs. Classroom interactive interfaces have also been identified as key in raising STEM ambitions among the youth, and providing relevant work exposure in the field. Employers in STEM business can also play a pivotal role, in striving to attract and retain women to increase diversity. There is need to eradicate women as a minority in the field and represent them at all levels, including leadership where they remain markedly under represented.
To date, the words of one of Ghana’s renowned founding fathers, ‘Kwame Nkurumah’ in 1963, still ring true, “The infinite possibilities of science and technology will make the Sahara bloom into a vast verdant vegetation for industrial and agricultural developments.”