Changing The Ratio of African Girls in STEM – Unoma Okorafor Talks to the AWP Network


Many of the girls in our program still worry that if they are too educated or smart, that they may not get married and would ultimately live unhappy lives and therefore bring shame to themselves and their families. Many girls are taught not to think, not to speak up and to just do what they are told without challenging authority. We have a responsibility to teach creative and innovative thinking and constantly battle these stereotypes by providing role models our girls can look up to. 

Her foundation, the WAAW Foundation is a 501(c) non-profit organization whose mission is to empower girls throughout Africa by increasing the pipeline of girls in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) fields. Okorafor has made it her life’s mission to increase the participation of African girls in STEM fields.

The WAAW Foundation does the following: provides college scholarships to African girls, organizes STEM Robotics camps and operates nine (9) STEM outreach and mentoring programs in University campuses across Africa to include Nigeria, Ghana, Cameroon, Togo, Kenya, Uganda, Malawi and South Africa, impacting over 6,000 African girls each year.

How did you come up with this idea?

Towards the end of my PhD program, I thought about what I wanted to dedicate my life to. After several months of soul-searching and looking inwards, I began to think deeply about what made me tick. It then became obvious to me that I had always been passionate about female empowerment. Empowering girls became something that I wanted to involve myself with – bringing meaningful change to girls in Africa.

How many jobs have you created so far?

We have created five (5) jobs and have over 120 volunteers.

Who inspired you to start this idea?

I have to say my husband and life partner, Dr Ekpe Okorafor. He is my inspiration. He always told me to follow my dreams. He encourages and lets me know that he is proud of me regardless of what I do. I also have role models who show me that it is possible to dream, to work hard towards those dreams and make them happen. Several of my professors and teachers have inspired me to keep pushing forward. In particular, my graduate advisor at Rice University saw greatness in me even when I could not in my wildest dreams imagine that I had anything to offer. That is why I believe so much in the power of mentors and role models for our girls in Africa. If they see others like themselves who have gone ahead of them and succeeded, they can dare to dream and push forward.

Who is your target market?

WAAW Foundation provides mentoring and training to African girls between the ages of 14 and 30. Our mission is to encourage more African girls to explore careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM), and more importantly, to think of themselves as leaders and change agents who could use technological innovation as a tool and effective platform to solve problems in their communities.

How have you financed the idea?

Personal funds – the savings we kept as graduate students helped launch this idea. We also had the support of close family and friends. As my team and I continue to implement our programs, we have demonstrated proof of concept and grown. We also find that we have attracted those whose vision closely aligns with ours. I can say that we are fortunate to find both institutional and corporate sponsors who have provided seed funding to help us to continue our programs.

What is your competitive edge?

We were founded by a core team of STEM and education-focused African women interested in building other African women. Over time, we have strengthened our programs and are operating in 17 colleges across 13 African countries. Without a doubt, we are focused on increasing the participation of African girls in STEM.

What is the long-term plan for this idea?

Our goal is to continue to expand our reach and impact across Africa especially in Francophone countries. We want to empower women and girls to become leaders in STEM fields. We hope to build a feed forward pipeline where more of our girls who graduate from college, continue to serve and give back as professionals. Over the next few years, we will have built a critical mass of African Women in Technology with a global voice and have the platform to effect huge and lasting change in Africa.

What five (5) key things have you learned since starting this idea?

I have learnt that:

  • Do: the journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.
  • Have Faith: when you step out in faith to pursue your passion, the universe conspires to help you along the way.
  • Create partnerships: in partnering with people, it is crucial to stop and make sure that there is an excellent alignment of values, otherwise you would both waste each other’s time.
  • Failure: there is no such thing as failure when you are pursuing your dreams because every disappointing experience is an opportunity to learn and come back better.
  • Embrace who you are: well-behaved women rarely make history. Embrace who you are – your uniqueness, your strengths and your weaknesses. Never apologize for who you are but rather step out boldly and declare, kind of like my first computer program “Hello World!”

What tips do you have for startup entrepreneurs ?

  • Startup entrepreneurs need to understand the problem that they are trying to solve and who their target market is,
  • They need to know how to articulate their ideas and tell a compelling story,
  • Also, strive to become familiar with technology tools and learn how to leverage technology to help scale.

What advice do you have for youths looking to start an idea but say ‘there is no money’?

The issue is often not a lack of money but a lack of ideas. Good ideas will have money following, sometimes even chasing after them. Technology and the Internet has also helped to significantly reduce start-up costs, leveled the playing field and opened up huge opportunities for entrepreneurs everywhere in the world. The barrier is often that youths in Africa need to learn how to access the global market and how to tell their stories in a compelling narrative.

How do you think African youths can continue to support each other?

Mentorship and volunteering should be key in our communities. We should inculcate a culture of giving back at every level starting from elementary school. Everyone can mentor someone and can give back in some way, no matter their level, age or social status. We need to train our youths to look around and find a way of getting them engaged in their communities.

How has technology enhanced your idea?

Indeed, technology has had a huge impact on our organization. From the tools we use to stay connected, to creating the community of girls who are spread out across different countries, to using these tools to translate between languages (e.g. French to English), and to using technology to provide lesson plans to teachers in remote villages throughout Africa. I find that technology plays a crucial part in helping us scale, communicate and reach girls in hard to reach areas.

How can we support and improve innovation in Africa?

The African educational system is mostly based on memorization, which I think stifles critical thinking and kills innovation. Part of the issue is that we are trying to import technology, training aids and systems from the Western world rather than developing our homegrown curriculum. In science for example, we import the curriculum and then find that the tools and equipment for hands on learning is beyond our reach, and so science becomes simply a classroom experience where our students regurgitate what they have been told by the teachers. We need to re-think hands on experiential learning and tie it to how the education would translate to impact and innovation in Africa.

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