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Shifting the Way Ghanaian Students Think About Innovation: Project iSWEST

· Africa,Entrepreneurship,Innovation

During a recent conversation with my grandfather Papa, he shared with me quite a fascinating story. According to Papa, he graduated from a Ghanaian university with a technical background many years ago. During this period, the population of Ghana was shy of 6 million and jobs were in abundance. As a result, he had to plead for an additional two weeks of home-stay prior to commencing his post-graduate career. Fast forward to the 2000s. The narrative has been completely shifted. Most high school graduates are fighting for the chance to pursue their higher education studies abroad because the job market isn’t as merciful as it once was. The educational system in Ghana, for the most part, is flawed and most graduates are at a disadvantage as a result.

Discussions about the rising unemployment trend in Ghana is what led founders George Boateng, Isaac Sesi, John Kotey, and Victor Kumbol to connect at Aikins Educational Consult, an innovative consultancy that equips high school students with the resources and understanding needed to excel on college admission exams. Although these young men spent a lot of time studying for the SAT and applying to college abroad, they couldn’t help but brainstorm ways to provide value to the Ghanaian society during their study sessions. Coincidentally, their discussions mostly pertained to the flawed educational systemic practice where students often memorized their class notes as opposed to deriving the process behind their answers. This, in turn, disabled students of the capability to acquire the skills needed to effect change and provide value in their respective communities.

The government in Ghana currently employs about half of the labor force. The rest of the jobs are mostly filled through nepotism, considering if the firm has processes in place to even hire locals. Due to an inadequate hiring process, job seekers may often secure a career in banking, however, may have rather studied a totally unrelated major while in school. After consistent meetings and perseverance to see change being implemented, their forecasted goal was to shift the way students think about innovation in Ghana by equipping aspiring entrepreneurs with the tools needed to be more technologically adept. In addition to implementing elite programs such as Innovate Ghana and Ashesi Innovation Experience, the founders maintained a competitive edge by including an artistic component in their model. By being equipped with backgrounds in Computer Science and Engineering, they realized applications need to be infused with an artistic point of view to aid in a top-notch user interface and design. Their ever-reaching dream to encourage investors to take the African market more seriously resulted in creating a dedicated group of tech evangelists who would build scalable tech solutions to Ghana and Africa’s problems; creating an organization to catalyze an Innovation Revolution. And thus, NSESA Foundation was born.

Year 2012 - 2015

During the summer of 2012 and their gap year prior to college, the founders – then known as Team X and now famously known as Team Nsesa - begun having meetings. It wasn’t until 2013 when they came up with an idea of a summer workshop to introduce students to basic coding, robotics, and innovation. During the same year, they successfully bootstrapped and served 12 students. The following year, they fundraised from Dartmouth College and incorporated as a non-profit in Ghana. This is when the impact of their work truly begun. Every year since, with the exception of 2016, there has been a summer innovation workshop that caters to high school students who do not have the opportunity to interact with technology. Moving forward, as a means to make this model sustainable, they intend to establish college clubs on campuses such as Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) and University of Ghana to give students extended exposure to their curriculum and resources to support their entrepreneurial ambitions. From January to March 2015, their initiative, “STEM Woman of the Day” was established where 8 women expanding the frontiers of STEM in Ghana were highlighted to encourage young girls to go into STEM fields.

Year 2017 Onwards

From 31st July until August 19th, the founders set out to change the way people think about entrepreneurship and innovation by continuing their flagship program; Project iSWEST (Innovating Solutions with Engineering, Science, and Technology) in Accra-Ghana. Project iSWEST is an annual summer program in Ghana to encourage high school students to solve problems by inspiring them to be creative, equipping them with the requisite tools, soft and hard – basic science, engineering and technology (SET) – skills, while coaching them to develop innovative solutions to problems in their communities. Through this subset initiative of NSESA Foundation, they worked with twenty-seven (27) students, comprising 17 boys and 10 girls from different high schools across the country, after filtering through 40 applications. As most ambitious start-up organizations go, they did not have the resources, such as computers, to meet their demand. And as most creative entrepreneurs thrive, they discovered an alternative route by teaching participants how to code through their smartphones. The reason this is a very innovative approach to coding is twofold; (1) A disproportionate number of students have better access to smartphones than laptops and (2) Students are subconsciously more engaged as research shows that we touch our cellphones 2,617 times a day on average.

Over the three weeks of the program, the selected students were privileged with intensive trainings on subjects spanning Programming in Processing (a Java-based visual language), Arduino Programming, Innovation (the engineering design process based on Design Thinking and augmented by project management) and Entrepreneurship (Creating business models for their agritech solutions based on the Lean Startup Model). The program is broken into two main parts; the Workshop Phasewhere students received hands-on training in four courses: Computer Programming, Arduino, Innovation and Entrepreneurship, and the Innovation Phase where students received funds and were mentored to develop solutions to real-life problems in Ghana’s Agricultural sector. The students also had online mentorship sessions with 6 young African professionals who have either worked at or are working at Amazon, Microsoft, Intel, IBM, Google and Facebook, and are alums of Grinnell College, Stanford University, Princeton University and Dartmouth College respectively.

The climax of their program occurred on August 26th at Impact Hub in Accra, Ghana where four student teams pitched their ideas. These teams included:

· Paragon which prototyped AQuarius, a smart irrigation device for greenhouse farmers.

· Genius 5 which prototyped Farmerton, an online organic grocery store for health-conscious consumers

· AgroModo which prototyped DuaYie, a personalized virtual Agric extension service for local farmers.

· AQUAtech which prototyped StemAq, a smart fish pond management system for fish farmers.

The impact of the program is so powerful that one of the students testified during pitch day that she was never into the sciences or programming, rather her academic growth strictly pertained to the arts. And yet her accomplishments throughout the program has motivated her to register for a programming class to continuously nurture this newly found passion for programming.

We can see the success of Nsesa from carefully assessing their top-notch results. With an alumni base of over 100, Project iSWEST has produced notable young people such as Eric Vondee who founded My Home Teacher, a social enterprise that connects parents with teachers to get quality, private tuition for their wards at home at moderate fees; Princess Allotey who founded Kids and Math Organization, a social enterprise with other alumni dedicated to the advancement of math education among students in Ghana; and Jude Asiedu, Leader of the winning team of the MTN Apps Challenge - High School Category. With such a reputable track record in an incredibly short time frame and the overflowing testimonials shared by student participants, there is no doubt team Nsesa Foundation is on their way to redefining the wealth creation model on our African continent.

- Jeph Acheampong

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