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‘Our girls need to be exposed to modern problem-solving tools like coding’

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Abisoye Ajayi-Akinfolarin, founder of NGO, Pearls Africa

Abisoye Ajayi-Akinfolarin is a Nigerian social entrepreneur passionate about quality education in technology and promoting the cause and advancement of vulnerable young girls and women in underserved and underprivileged communities in Nigeria. With her NGO, Pearls Africa, she has the vision of adding at least 20,000 young girls into the technology space by 2020.

A leader, mentor, ICT consultant, women’s right activist, businesswoman and change agent, the graduate of Business Administration from the University of Lagos is the first Nigerian to be featured as a CNN Hero for her passion in teaching young vulnerable girls coding. She has also made the Top 10 CNN Heroes List to be honoured as “CNN Hero of The Year” in December. This year, she joins nine other people the world over, who will receive $10,000 in support of their heroic endeavours. One of the 10 will be chosen as the “CNN Hero of the Year,” and will receive the sum of $100,000.

Speaking about her cause, CNN said: ‘Abisoye Ajayi-Akinfolarin left her career to teach computer programming to girls in Lagos, Nigeria where Facebook and Google opened offices earlier this year. A 2013 survey found that less than eight per cent of Nigerian women are employed in professional, managerial or technology jobs. Ajayi-Akinfolarin hopes to change that statistic.’ The “CNN Heroes: An All-Star Tribute” will air live on Sunday, December 9, where Ajayi-Akinfolarin, along with the other nine heroes, will be celebrated.

In this interview, she speaks with IJEOMA THOMAS-ODIA on her humble beginnings and passion to teach girls coding.

Tell us about your growing up?

I learnt to survive and cater for myself from a very tender age, with the support of my siblings.

My mother passed on when I was four years and it caused us a lot of hardships financially, physically, and emotionally. We were all we had and we supported each other.

As a child, I knew I had to work really hard to succeed and this I did. My brother became my father even as he tried to survive in the university without support from anyone.

After fleeing home, I was adopted by a loving family, who took me in and ensured that I finished my secondary school.

It was a major struggle gaining admission into the university and when I eventually did, I combined it with work in an IT audit company and business in school.

What influenced your passion for teaching disadvantaged girls coding?

After my secondary school, my brother got me an internship at an I.T audit firm. This was where my interest in coding began. I was excited that I could actually develop a skill and earn with it, so I plunged myself into coding.

In a short while, I started earning with my skills and eventually it was with this skill that I paid for my studies at the University of Lagos.

From this experience, I realised that young girls from poor backgrounds and children, who grow up without their parents, go through a lot of challenges and hardships. I termed them “vulnerable.”

All they needed was economic empowerment at an early age like I did. And for me, digital technology was the key. This is why I have been using programming and other digital skills to thicken the economic veneer of their lives.

Coding is a very important and lucrative skill in today’s world and it can be used to solve a lot of problems in the society. Our girls are the future of the society and they need to be exposed to the modern problem-solving tools like coding.

At what point did you set up Pearls Africa?

Pearls Africa was established in April 2012, with mentoring and life skills to empower young girls to enable them to gain economic independence and have better opportunities in life.

Specifically, it started as a response to the inequality and injustice observed with the lives of girls and women in marginalised communities in Nigeria. Our biggest project, Girls Coding, started three years ago.

Why the choice of coding, how do you get these young girls and know their interests?

When I got into technology, females were really under-represented. You find very few girls in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM)-related areas because they have been made to believe that it’s not a field or sector that they can go into based on their gender, which is a lie.

Even though some developed countries face similar challenges, the ratio of women in science and technology is still fair and not as bad as here in Nigeria.

Coding is an important skill for every young person in the world, especially as the world grows into a global city everyday. When we started, it was and still is community-based (correctional centres, transit homes, orphanages and IDPs), then public schools.

We started advertising for students to join our classes on our social media platforms, by speaking to those who knew of girls around them, who could not afford to pay for the programmes we offer. They go through our screening process, we meet their parents/guardians, then they are enrolled.

Some of our current students also tell their friends who are interested in learning to code about our classes. We know their interests by studying their performance and observing their passion and dexterity as regards learning all they are taught.

What has been the impact so far?

With Girls Coding, we have been able to boost our girls’ self-esteem. They now believe in themselves and know their rights.

By learning how to code, they have been able to develop their critical thinking ability, which is one very important skill people need to think reasonably and clearly.

Girls Coding gives them a stronger voice in society because they now have skills aside from their formal education, which is economically viable. They are able to build mobile and web applications, which are very relevant in this digital age.

Today, we also have a safe space called the Lady Labs Innovation Hub located in Yaba, Lagos.

It was launched last year. It’s a space, where we connect our girls with mentors and experienced professionals, who can give them talks and career advice as well as discussions on making the right choices in life.

The hub also serves as a space where young women in tech can come to hone their skills and learn more aspects of the tech field.

Also we’ve been able to get scholarships for some of our girls and given them international exposure.

The greater impact is bridging the divide between the poorest communities and the middle-class through the exposure that Girls Coding gives them.

Today, these professionals have little sisters in the slums and other marginalised communities to whom they have committed their love and support.

What other projects is Pearls Africa focused on?

At Pearls Africa, we run a number of projects to address the issue of gender inequality, especially as regards employment opportunities and they include; Girls Coding, Empowered Hands (vocational skills), GC Mentors (mentorship and career days) and Girls In STEM (Tech for 18-25 years in university).

At the moment, we’re taking Girls Coding to other states in Nigeria, especially the northern part. We run summer programmes for them for now, we are yet to start an afterschool/regular ones.

What is your take on Nigeria and the appreciation of technology?

We are still behind developed countries in the promotion of technology in Nigeria. The Information Technology (IT) space is fast becoming very important and indispensable in every sphere of society, ranging from business to health, agriculture, entertainment etc. Its importance makes it imperative for Nigeria to place much value on it. I see a lot of young people being innovative with technology and I’m very proud of how fast the young ones are catching up with global trends.

Tell us about the International Visitors Leadership Programme (IVLP) you attended, and how it has influenced your work?

It’s an exchange programme by the US Government and lasted for three weeks; it was in form of meetings and tours around four cities in the US.

It broadened my perspective on the work I do currently and made me realize that girl child education most especially in tech is a global issue. The theme was, ‘Education and activism for young women’.

You have made us proud being the first Nigerian to emerge a CNN Hero, how will it further impact your work with young girls?

I hope that every young girl will see herself as great even before the greatness comes. It serves as a form of validation for my work. I hope this honour will help young girls know that wherever their backgrounds are, they should never determine their future.

I hope that they can use my story and journey as an example that anything is possible and they can fulfill their destiny in life, regardless of where they are coming from.

I hope young girls can see that they are enough and there is no limit to what they can achieve in life. To be interviewed by CNN International for doing humanitarian work is a big honor in itself!

I believe it’s the biggest form of exposure anyone can get.

If you eventually win the ‘CNN Hero of the year’ award, what will you do with the money?

Winning this award will increase my ability to impact more girls and women with valuable technology skills by expanding our training facility, increase the size of our faculty and be able to equip more girls across Nigeria.

Above all, this will get us closer to our dream of having a girls’ village, which will be an incubation hub for these young girls and women.

Other African countries will also be able to benefit from this. And to get to be one of the top 10 CNN Heroes for 2018 brings about a feeling I cannot describe, really I did not see any of these coming.

It’s such a big honour and most especially for Nigeria and Africa. It’s the first time a CNN Hero is emerging from Nigeria in 12 years, I pray for more people to emerge from Nigeria and Africa

What is your advice to young people and how can they pursue their passion?

There is no limit to what you can do with your creative and innovative mind. No matter what challenges you may face, or whatever background or circumstances of life you might have gone through, never give up on your dreams.

Always do your best to see that your work can solve problems and add value to the society. You should endeavour to make a difference in whatever field or sector you find yourself. We can make the world a better place if we can give a helping hand to other persons in need.

QUOTE: I hope that young girls can use my story and journey as an example that anything is possible and they can fulfill their destiny in life, regardless of where they are coming from


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