Spotlight On: Uplifting STEM education and entreprenurship with ASEI

ASEI Uganda and Kirsten Ridley

What is ASEI and how was it formed?

ASEI plans to offer a maker-space, alongside education and skills development opportunities. It will expose local youth and communities to life changing technologies and innovations that have the potential to transform communities, with the goal of supporting youth and disadvantaged communities.

ASEI began with a conversation between co-founders Alicwamu Moses and Mayanja Andrew in October 2019, while the pair were still studying at university. They identified a gap; that, despite technology literacy and desire for innovation in Africa, there was a need for a platform to nurture, support, incubate and scale innovation to create tangible social impact. This idea resonated with other fellow students Sentamu David Davis, Omurunginoha Crevan and Abenaitwe Docus. Since graduating the team have come together, in collaboration with a number of advisors and supporters, to shape ASEI into a dedicated not for profit organisation.

Why is support for technological innovation needed in Uganda right now? 

The youth unemployment rate in Uganda is extremely high, between 64 - 70%.  One of the challenges young people face is that, even as tertiary education graduates, they may not possess specific skills needed for contemporary workforces. Currently STEM education in Uganda is more theoretical than practical, and enrolment in STEM programs at across all universities is low, sitting under 25%. Globally, innovation capacity in Uganda is also viewed as being quite low, with the country ranked 106th in the Global Innovation Index. These factors have constrained local capacity in manufacturing, health, agro-processing and energy.

Within this context, we have established ASEI to bridge the gap between the government, academia, the private sector, humanitarian organisations and local communities. ASEI will provide a link through skilling potential employers and employees and also implementing collaborative projects with innovative solutions.

The challenge of expanding access to high quality, relevant STEM education today is unprecedented, but if investments are made now, STEM education has transformational potential. We believe now is the time to rethink what skills young people require and to intentionally design an approach with those skills in mind.  Recently we have developed the ASEI CODE program to teach basic systems-building computer science skills to students in secondary schools.  We are working with schools initially, because they are the start of any career, and it is important to foster interest in STEM at an early age.

A laptop is in the mid ground facing alongside the camera. In the background is a takeaway coffee and in the foreground is a pair of glasses. Two hands extend from the left side of the image - 1 is holding a phone and the other is using the keyboard.
Image: Christina @ via Unsplash

What are ASEI’s goals for the future?

We know that digitisation, automation and technological advances are changing the nature of work globally, including in Africa. Equipping youth with those skills will help drive productivity gains in both the formal and informal sectors, improving livelihoods and potentially spurring productivity and economic transformation.  Provision of relevant skills through secondary education is crucial in order to ensure young Africans are well equipped to take advantage of new opportunities in an increasingly digital, automated and connected world. Furthermore, this approach is central to achieving the African Union’s Agenda 2063 and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. 

Eventually, ASEI hopes to refine and uplift STEM education in Uganda, and across Africa.  In the nearer term, some of ASEI’s specific objectives include:

  • To enhance the innovation capacity through provision of equipment and space to experiment. 
  • To acquaint the youth with current employable skills through practical exposure to using lab equipment.
  • To improve and widen the scope of STEM education in Uganda through more engaging, project-based learning.
  • To promote and fine-tune locally developed technologies so as to penetrate local and international markets.

What has been achieved and what are the next steps?

ASEI was officially registered and incorporated by the Uganda Registration Services Bureau (URSB) in late 2020. The organisation has also been officially introduced to key local stakeholders – for example the local administrative district leaders; a Member of Parliament and District Education Officer, as well as the Director of King Solomon’s College, one of the local schools from which we intend to deliver ASEI’s CODE program.

We have already had some early successes - the Member of Parliament for Fort Portal City has pledged to support ASEI on future projects that can be funded through government. He has since connected ASEI to a local NGO Kabarole Research and Resource Centre (KRC) of which he is a founder. Several engagements between ASEI and KRC are ongoing. Additionally, King Solomon’s College - Kyatega pledged to partner with ASEI for the CODE program to be implemented in the school.

Next steps include piloting the CODE program in April 2021 in three schools in Fort Portal. We are also currently negotiating local partnerships and collaborations, conducting internal staff and instructor training, and developing ASEI systems and policies. 

Of course, there have also been challenges, including financial constraints and limited access to resources and equipment. COVID19 has meant higher costs of living and has delayed school openings, all affecting the CODE program commencement.

What is ASEI’s connection to UNSW?

Our first connection with UNSW was in 2018, when some of the ASEI Co-founders visited UNSW on a study tour.  We have since met with several UNSW students and staff to discuss ASEI, including the President and Vice Chancellor, Professor Ian JacobsAdjunct Associate Professor Julian Cox (who led the study tour in 2018), Dr Selena Griffith, former Senior Lecturer and current member of the ASEI Board, as well as others in the Institute for Global Development and the Faculty of Engineering. 

We are in contact with the UNSW ENACTUS chapter through their current President and Vice President, Samantha Yun and Helen Park. We are delighted that ENACTUS are currently running a crowd funding campaign to support ASEI’s CODE program.

How can students, industry partners and the UNSW community engage with and support ASEI?

There are many different ways people and organisations can support ASEI! Some of these include:

  • Crowd funding: Supporters can contribute to the ENACTUS-led crowd funding campaign to support ASEI’s CODE program. You can find the campaign link here.
  • Training & Mentorship: Offering training opportunities for internal capacity development, training and mentorship of ASEI staff.
  • Donations & Networks: Establishment and facilitation in the setup of the Innovation lab/makerspace through donation of equipment (machines, tools, laptops).
  • Grant Information: Sharing upcoming grant submission opportunities and/or partnering with us on grant submissions.
  • Technology & research collaborations: Availing already developed technologies/prototypes for implementation and pilot studies by ASEI in Uganda, offering expertise and help on possible innovations to be implemented in the context of Uganda and the developing world, providing support or partnering on key innovative, industry-aligned projects (such as green communities, agriculture and the CODE program),
  • Student collaborations: Students might be interested to engage in collaborative research with ASEI during their course or final year projects, and possibly at some point to visit ASEI to get hands on experience.