The jobs of the future are in coding and engineering, but there exists a substantial skills gap in Africa. A host of startups, however, have developed solutions that are teaching children vital skills from an early age.
According to Code.org, 71 per cent of all new STEM jobs are in computing, yet only eight per cent of STEM graduates are in computer science. Meanwhile, it is predicted that over the next two decades machine learning, robots and automation will replace about 47 per cent of current jobs.
These figures present major challenges, which some African startups are looking to tackle by engaging people from their earliest years. Nathan Damtew, founder and chief executive officer (CEO) of Ethiopian ed-tech startup BeBlocky, says it is vital children learn skills that will be pivotal for their future success at an early age.
“Everything we interact with involves some kind of technology in it. We are living in a technological society, and it is only going to grow in the future. It’s becoming more and more important to gain skills in coding nowadays, especially for young kids,” he told Disrupt Africa.
“As technology continues to move to the forefront in our society, jobs requiring basic computational skills are soaring. Just knowing the basics of coding should give kids a set of skills that will be useful in almost every industry, and give them a huge advantage over those who don’t.”
Formed in 2018, BeBlocky has developed a gamified learn-to-code app for children that has already been downloaded thousands of times since its launch in June of last year. Aimed at kids aged between seven and 14, it presents code concepts in graphical puzzle-style programming blocks.
Damtew said at first glance it may seem teaching young kids to code is impossible, much like teaching them a new language. Yet, as with a new language, it is best to start when a child’s mind is still forming. There are wider benefits too.
“Learning coding at a young age helps them build critical life skills like creativity, problem solving and perseverance. When they code, kids learn through experimentation and it strengthens their brains, allowing them to find creative solutions to problems,” said Damtew.
“It also develops their persistence and perseverance – as they code, they learn that it’s OK to fail and improve. There’s no better way to build perseverance than working through challenges like debugging code! It makes kids better thinkers and communicators as well.”
BeBlocky makes learning these skills fun through gamification, which Damtew believes is the way to go.
“The aspect of games that makes them addictive and fun can be combined with learning, resulting in an increase in engagement, better retention, and a smoother process of understanding a new concept,” he said.
Hardware focus also produces benefits
Other startups are focusing on a combination of software and hardware. In South Africa, the developers of interactive engineering console SeeBox are also now producing SeeBlocks circuit builder kits, which come with fun and easy explainer videos to help users learn electronic and electrical technology skills.
“Teachers have told us that learners find building circuits difficult because they have to interpret the circuit-diagram and then translate that to actual components, which look nothing like the symbols,” said founder Johann Kok.
“They then have to take the actual components and build the circuit on a special prototype board, called a Breadboard, which is a whole other challenge in itself! SeeBlocks removes this barrier by integrating the abstract symbols and the actual circuit boards into one easy-to-use circuit-builder kit.”
SeeBlocks’ courses address the worldwide shortage of technical skills by introducing learners to electronics at a young age, Kok said.
“Most countries lag behind in the training of engineers and technically skilled people, and SeeBlocks offers a technological solution. It is uniquely positioned to benefit learners in Africa where there is a dire skills shortage and a lack of technical training capacity,” he said.
“SeeBlocks offer self-paced learning and progress tracking of each learner. We aim to impact thousands of young people by enabling them to enter the formal job sector with relevant and sought-after technical skills.”
Another company using hardware is Tunisia’s Evocraft, which has developed a range of build-your-own robots to help teach young people engineering skills. Co-founder Haythem Dabbabi said the startup prides itself on designing highly interactive and engaging courses through which kids learn while playing.
“Getting kids’ attention is a challenging job, and making them get interested in a subject needs careful and well-structured courses that stimulate their creativity and imagination,” Dabbabi said. “All of these goals can be efficiently reached by creating simple and funny tasks that makes the kids feel comfortable and interested.”
Evocraft provides easy-to-use robots that deliver a unique “learn by practice” experience Dabbabi says was carefully designed by its experts under the supervision of educational specialists in order to teach kids in a funny and easy way how to act as creators of technology and not just as consumers.
“It offers to the kids the opportunity to learn from their own mistakes through a kid-focused approach of trial and error,” he said.
Proving the effectiveness of new models
With learners today used to the online world, and immediate feedback and gratification from social media, Kok said teaching methods needed to change to hold their attention.
“If we can make learning fun and engaging for learners, they are motivated to learn. Experiential learning, the method of learning by absorbing a bit of theory followed immediately by practical application, has been proven to be the most effective method of teaching scientific subjects,” he said.
SeeBlocks, BeBlocky and Evocraft all take this approach, but does it take an effort to persuade parents of the value of their offerings? Damtew says though there is a growing understanding globally that learning to code is important for kids, this is less the case in most African nations.
“It’s currently taking a fair amount of effort to persuade parents into having our app for their kids, as most parents are not well aware of the importance and benefits of it,” he said, saying BeBlocky was trying to raise awareness by organising events.
Evocraft has found things easier, with Dabbabi saying parents nowadays more concerned about the future of their children due to the evolving and the fast changing world.
“Most of these parents are convinced of the importance of learning critical thinking and problem-solving tools, which they consider as vital and the way to succeed in the future world,” he said.
“The awareness of the importance of learning multidisciplinary sciences in order to survive the next challenges that we may not yet be aware of made those parents accept and appreciate very easily the importance of our offering.”
Acceptance and adoption of these offerings, and others like them, may be key to ensuring Africa has the skilled individuals necessary to compete in the tech-enabled economies of the future. The likes of BeBlocky, SeeBlocks and Evocraft are very much first movers in what could become a key space.