Bringing the power of technology to rural Africa

Isaac Damian is transforming lives in rural Africa by enabling young people to pursue a career in computing and technology.

by Nikhil Sreekandan

Isaac Damian receives the Queen’s Young Leaders award from Her Majesty the Queen. © British Ceremonial Arts Ltd

Isaac Damian Ezirim grew up in a low-income community in rural Nigeria. He lost his father at a very young age, which made things extremely difficult for the family and eventually forced him to give up on his education when he was just 11.

It was during his teenage years that he came in contact with technology for the first time. On the streets of the large Nigerian city of Lagos, Isaac stumbled into the owner of a ‘cyber-cafe’ who decided to take the teenager under his wing.

It wasn’t like he was making money by working at the cafe, but his mindset had changed. From the cafe, he was able to interact with people from all over the world and he had access to so much information. He started learning graphic design from tutorials online and soon started earning and taking care of himself and his mom. His tryst with technology had completely changed his life.

Today, Isaac harnesses the power of technology to transform the lives of youngsters in rural Africa through his non-profit organisation – Teens Can Code. His work with teenagers from low-income rural communities in Nigeria has earned him international accolade, recently receiving the prestigious Queen’s Young Leaders Award at the Buckingham Palace in London.

INKLINE talks to Isaac Damian about his journey thus far with Teens Can Code and what he aims to achieve in the future.

The 2018 cohort of Queen’s Young Leaders award winners poses with Her Majesty the Queen at the Buckingham Palace in London. © British Ceremonial Arts Ltd

INKLINE: How huge a gap is there between urban and rural Africa in terms of opportunities and the quality of education that is available to the youth of the nation?

Isaac Damian Ezirim: There is a huge gap between those living in rural communities and those living in urban areas in Africa. For instance, those in the urban areas have access to quality private education which is different from what we have in rural areas where most of the schools don’t even have a working computer.

With the importance of technology in our world today and how it is shaping our world and enabling a lot of industries, we as an organisation are looking at the kind of equipment that is available for students to learn technology because that is what we are focused on.

When we go to schools and when I speak with young people and ask them what they want to be in the future, nobody is saying anything about technology and it is really not their fault because you cannot aspire to be what you do not know.

Most times it’s through our programs that they get to hear anything about technology. So, there is a huge gap and that is what we are trying to bridge in Nigeria. We believe that the opportunities that are available to a child should not be determined by where they live or the status of their parents.

A small group of The 2018 Queens Young Leader award winners attend a workshop of activities at Media City with author, broadcaster and podcast host, Emma Gannon. © British Ceremonial Arts Ltd

I: What are the skills that you teach them?

I: When we started in 2016, it was just a small office that could only take about I think seven at a time with their laptops. We started that way and later on, we thought we could reach more young people if we go into schools. So we decided tot ake free computer programming into schools and now we are in three states in Nigeria and we are trying to expand into Kenya.

There’s an application called Scratch, so we start with Scratch with them. But a lot of them don’t even know anything about computers, so we do computer appreciation with them. After Scratch, we do HTML and CSS which is basic web designing tool and then we take them into more advanced software language, either Javascript or Python. We let them know what these tools can do and they then decide what they want to do.

We are not only teaching coding to young people, but it is also a network where these young people are being mentored and there are people we connect them with for internship programs.

I: How do you get the word out there of the work that you do?

I: We also conduct conferences, we had two major ones last year. We do that because we may not be able to reach a lot of people in the schools that we are in and our community centre in Lagos, but through the conference we have thousands of students that come together in a one-day conference and we try to inspire them to see how technology can be exciting and fun and to inspire them to take on a career in technology.

So what happens then is that we have seen kids who go back home and then write to us telling that they have started learning to code. That is what we want to do, we want to inspire as many people even though they are not being trained by us, we are inspiring them in large numbers.

That is where we bring technology founders from Africa to come and speak to young people so they also see what technology is doing. It is also an opportunity for technology companies to exhibit their products, students also get to experience some of these technology tools like virtual reality etc.

Students try out virtual reality for the very first time at a Teens Can Code conference in Lagos, Nigeria.
© Teens Can Code

I: What has been the most uplifting part of your journey so far?

I: Meeting the Queen at the Buckingham Palace for the Queen’s Young Leader’s programme was a massive experience for me. Looking back, that is number one because it has been a game changer for us. Since I received that award in the UK, it has opened up amazing opportunities from around the world, we have even had new companies join us.

Bringing it back home to the kids that we train, last year, during my birthday, it was really emotional for me when I got a lot of SMSes and messages from the parents and kids.
What was possibly outstanding for me was when some of the kids came to the office to celebrate my birthday.

One of them started talking about his experience when he met me and where he is now, and as he started talking I started crying and everybody started crying with us. These people can be so much more if they have the opportunity to strive.

I: What has been the most challenging?

I: It has been funding, very straightforward really. The other issue, also related to finance, is the issue of talent because we are not able to pay some talent that we want to have on board. We are working to get more partners to work with us, so that’s been the biggest challenge. We want to reach out to more people.

I: What is next for Teens Can Code?

I: Right now we are moving from Teens Can Code and we are registering another initiative called Steamed Lab. Steamed as in science, technology, entrepreneurship, arts, maths, engineering and design; so that’s the next thing for us.

We want to start investing in solutions. We have had hackathons several times in Nigeria and we see that ideas dwell in some of these young people, ideas that can transform their community, the nation, and also the continent at large. Of course, they don’t have the network or funding. So we are opening up Steamed Lab to incubate some of these ideas for these young people.

© Teens Can Code

It is also to reach out to people that are not teenagers. A lot of people have been saying that we don’t have something for adults so Steamed Lab will do the same thing with adults that we are doing at Teens Can Code. Again, we are able to spread our tentacles into things like entrepreneurship and arts, where we have a lot of ideas.

With Teens Can Code, it looks like we are limited to coding alone and this is something we want to do, so we are setting up an innovation centre for young people.

I: What advice do you have for people who would like to start their own non-profit?

I: What I’d say is to ask yourself why are you doing what you are doing? If you are able to answer the why, I think it will guide you through, because there truly are a lot of challenges you are going to have.

Your why is what is going to take you through all this. Because, when the challenges come, you are telling yourself this is why you started this and until you achieve this purpose you are not backing out.

Define the why and everything will fall into place.

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