Digital literacy can be a catalyst for curious youth

Chinenye Ezeakor is an electronic engineering graduate working at Microsoft Nigeria, who has set up her own non-profit organization mentoring young girls in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Earlier this year she was selected for the European Development Days Young Leaders Program. To mark International Youth Day 2017, she shares her thoughts on how digital education can empower the next generation.

I’ve wanted to be an engineer since I was 10 years old. I was a very curious child, always wanting to know how things worked. I had a great role model in my uncle, an engineer who was not only always fixing things, but also constantly coming up with new ideas. It made me think “I want to be like this!” This experience helped me realize the importance of role models and mentorship in encouraging young women to pursue careers in STEM. After all, we all need people to look up to, even as adults.

Another reason to focus on role models is that, when you look at STEM fields, they are currently dominated by men. When I was studying engineering, I was one of just 7 women in a class of 147! It would have been easy to look around and think “I don’t have a place here”. And making more women visible isn’t just important for showing other women the way; it also smashes stereotypes that men might hold about who belongs in STEM.

To fight the trend, you’ve got to start early. By the time a young woman is 16, it may be too late to foster her interest in STEM – she already sees herself in a different field. But children are very open-minded; they believe they can do anything. So if we can reach out to younger girls, under the age of 10 for instance, we can get them to see ‘this is interesting, this is possible.’

Most of all, children love to get hands-on, whether they are building sandcastles or playing with Lego. So it’s essential that we translate STEM subjects into practical, hands-on experiences. That’s the approach I took when launching my non-profit African Sisters in STEM.  Due to the type of education system we have in Nigeria, girls don’t really get to experiment with science. And when you can’t see the practical application of something in real-life, you’re not going to see the relevance or the possibilities it might hold for you. To tackle this, we go into schools, we study the curriculum, the subjects, and the courses – and then we aim to replicate them in a practical situation, giving girls the chance to get to grips with scientific concepts using everyday materials they could even find at home.

Chinenye leading an African Sisters in STEM session for female students in Nigeria.

There’s a huge need to get more African youth, including girls, into STEM subjects, particularly technology and computing. The truth of the matter is we live in a digital world. Companies of all sizes have a growing need for technology experts. And if we don’t get girls into this space, you’re going to see a growing gender gap. There’s an added socioeconomic benefit here too – when a woman works, 90% of her income goes back into her family. This creates a ripple effect of a better educated next generation, as well as feeding wealth back into the local community and economy.

The work I now do at Microsoft, a company I first came in contact with as part of the Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders, relates exactly to this topic. Within the Education team, I push for greater digital literacy in Nigeria’s schools via the Microsoft Imagine Academy. This kind of support is particularly vital in developing countries. When the education system provides students with the skills they need to thrive, they are more likely to stay and help their country prosper, rather than migrating for better educational or economic opportunities.

This takes on an added level of urgency when you consider how important digital technologies are becoming to Africa’s prosperity and growth. A few years ago, people in Nigeria were unsure about using e-commerce; now it’s a huge component of our economy. This is partly due to the rapid pace at which mobile technology is evolving in Africa, but it also comes down to digital literacy – Nigerians are more comfortable both creating and using e-commerce platforms. Similarly, digital technologies are having a huge impact on agriculture, a sector which contributes to around a third of Nigeria’s GDP. Farmers use mobile technologies to track their crop production, while data collection and analytics tools can help predict harvest yield. In this way, new digital solutions are helping maximize the potential of Nigeria’s age-old natural resources.

As technology evolves, so must policy. And in making policy for the digital era, governments and politicians must listen to citizens, particularly women and young people. Give them a voice at the table – just like I was given a chance to speak at European Development Days. Young people have an innovative mindset and often combine specific expertise with endless enthusiasm. Policymakers should encourage this next generation of leaders, by making it clear their views are valuable and their voices will be heard.

Chinenye Ezeakor
Education Programs Assistant, Microsoft Nigeria