Meeting the DIY coders and gurus of the future

A child with a model at the Stem Impact Center in Nairobi, Kenya

In our series of letters from African journalists, Ismail Einashe goes for some tech lessons in Kenya.

Short presentation gray line

Short presentation gray line

On a balmy morning in Nairobi, a group of children build robots using motors and wires, while in an adjacent room a child learns how to use software to type his name into a computer.

This hive of tech activity takes place at the Stem Impact Centre’s headquarters, a two-story bungalow in the center of Kenya’s capital.

Founded in September 2020, the center supports schools by providing their students with a space to learn coding and robotics and take a DIY approach to learning technology.

A child learning at the Stem Impact Center in Nairobi, Kenya

Alex Magu wants to encourage more homegrown tech entrepreneurs by encouraging kids to get interested at a young age

The center is the brainchild of Alex Magu, who founded it with a passion to “democratize computer science” in Kenya.

He believes that giving every child access to technological resources is vital to Kenya’s development.

And it seems the Kenyan government agrees with him.

In April, it announced it would implement a new technology curriculum for primary and secondary schools that would teach coding and technology skills.

Kenya has long been known as one of Africa’s biggest tech hubs and is often called the ‘Silicon Savannah’ as ​​many global tech giants have set up shop here, including Amazon and Google.

Physics matters

Mr Magu’s own passion for computer science was sparked in his teenage years.

He was doing poorly in school, so to motivate him, his father promised to buy him something.

Mr. Magu desperately wanted a mountain bike, but in the end, he opted for a computer, a bulky early 2000s Compaq.

Alex Magu at the Stem Impact Center headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya

Choosing a computer over a mountain bike as a teenager changed Alex Magu’s life

Playing games on it was a revelation and he didn’t sleep at all that night.

He then decided at the age of 13 that he wanted to study computer science at university.

But at school he didn’t see the connection between studying physics and computer science, so he dropped out.

“I almost collapsed as I got the shock of my life that I couldn’t study computer science at university without physics,” he said.

This experience taught him the importance of instilling a passion for science and math in children from an early age.

In the end he studied political science, although he spent his spare time learning about electronics – and after graduating, he worked for a Danish technology company in Nairobi as a project associate.

It was during this time that he honed his skills and took part in a pilot school program for coding and robotics that inspired him to found his centre.

Putting local first

The tech scene in Kenya is often associated with foreigners, who run the majority of startups and attract the most funding.

Its center acts as an incubator for local tech startups. These include a digital marketing company in Turkana, a new group that burns waste and uses water hyacinths to generate electricity in Kisumu, and an artificial intelligence (AI) company that builds translation apps for the deaf in Nairobi.

Close-up of the wiring at the Stem Impact Center headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya

Children get hands-on experience at the Stem Impact Center

Some of them are based at Stem with some of their employees also acting as mentors to the kids.

One of them is John, a recent graduate and research engineer – whose name has been changed due to the sensitivity of some of his work.

His family fled the conflict in South Sudan and was born in the Kakuma refugee camp in northwestern Kenya.

When he was about five years old, his family moved from the camp to Nakuru, a town in Kenya’s Rift Valley.

His father couldn’t afford to send him and his sister to university at the same time – so while his sister studied, he managed to convince his father to give him his laptop.

John bought himself a portable dongle and was buying internet bundles for about 50 Kenyan shillings ($0.40, £0.35) for 24 hours to get online.

He soon came across a free online computer science course offered by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US.

He spent his nights downloading the course and his days learning everything from computational thinking and data science to software.

John never had any direct interaction with MIT, nor did he get a certificate, but this course deepened his interest in science and math. When he finally got to university, he studied for a degree in aeronautical engineering.

In early 2021, a classmate of his started working at the Stem Impact Centre. Intrigued by the work they were doing, he asked the friend to take him there – and ended up doing his homework there before taking a job at one of the startups after graduating.

He is excited to share his passion for technology with young students – and his ideas that can help tackle problems in rural areas such as locust infestations.

Inspired by the success of John and others, Mr Magu is looking for opportunities to expand his program and is currently setting up a pilot program in Sudan, with the support of a refugee charity working in the region.

For John, his future ambitions are clear: he wants to study applied mathematics at MIT.

More letters from Africa:

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