Adebanjo: G4T Initiative Will Address Gender Imbalance in Tech Education 


Vice President and Area Business Head, West Africa at MasterCard, Omokehinde Adebanjo, spoke with Emma Okonji on the organisation’s plan to train 200,000 girls globally on technology skills and Artificial Intelligence through its Girls4Tech initiative. Excerpts:

MasterCard recently launched technology skills acquisition initiative for girls in Nigeria. What is the initiative all about?

It is an educational programme called Girls4Tech, simply known G4T, which is Mastercard’s signature education programme designed for young girls around the world. By leveraging our employee expertise in payments technology, our goal is to inspire girls to build STEM skills to become leaders of tomorrow. The programme showcases our payments technology and engages our employees as role models and mentors. This hands-on, inquiry-based programme connects the foundations of our business to Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) principles and shows students that it takes all kinds of interests and skills to pursue a career in STEM. The curriculum is based on global Science and Mathematics standards and was created in conjunction with our top engineers and technologists. That is exactly what we have launched in Nigeria, as part of our global initiative.

What does MasterCard intend to achieve with the G4T initiative?

Girls4Tech is a global program with a footprint that’s beginning to match that of MasterCard itself. More than 100 G4T events have been organised across five regions. The goal is to train 200,000 girls with the Girls4Tech programme by 2020 by continuing the expansion within communities as well as through partnerships. In addition, the Girls4Tech programme will add an advanced curriculum, focused on cyber security and fraud detection.

What exactly does MasterCard teach the girl child and at what age?

The idea is to catch the girls young and we are working with primary school pupils, as well as secondary and tertiary school students. What we are teaching is about technology and technology awareness. At the launch of Girls4Tech in Nigeria in River Bank School, Victoria Island, Lagos, the girls were taught coding and how to break codes. They got an answer in the coding test given to them by following cryptography and so they were looking at signs and letters to break the code, which they actually succeeded in doing. It builds them up on how to crack codes and this is where technology is shifting to.

Why the emphasis on coding. Is it in line with the current global technology trend?

The global trend is around Artificial Intelligence, using robotics and coding. The world is currently moving to a future where the language will be technology programming language irrespective of people’s native language like Igbo, Hausa and Yoruba. It is important therefore for our pupils and students to understand programming language and that is where the world is tilting towards. Coding is about the next era where robots will be doing some essentials of human beings.

The reason we are interested in this training is because the world is going into digital transformation and the skills required are STEMS skills.

Why the emphasis on girl child training?

Global research has shown that about 70 per cent to 80 per cent of the available future jobs, will need people with STEM skills and if you take a global look at the percentage of girls that are interested in STEM skills, you will find out that the percentage is low at about 30 per cent or less globally. So we need to beef up the percentage of girls in STEM skills and that is what the MasterCard initiative on Girls4Tech is all about.

What we are doing with Girls4Tech is to reengineer the minds of young girls on technology skills. They need to focus on engineering, they need to focus on Mathematics and Science, because we need these skills for the future of Artificial Intelligence (AI), where we as humans, we will be coexisting with machines.

We want to use the initiative to encourage girls into technology education and disabuse them of the erroneous belief that technology education is meant for the boys alone. At River Bank School in Victoria Island where we launched the programme in Nigeria, a question was asked on how many people believe that technology education is meant for only the boy child and several girls raised up their hands. So we need to correct such erroneous belief and encourage the girls to be interested in acquiring STEM skills while in school.

But the boy child also needs encouragement. How do you intend to balance the gender inequality?

Boys are important, and so are girls and the girls need to be encouraged to compete with the boys.

We are focusing on girls because we see some form of inequality in gender education, and this could be the reason why you find fewer girls offering Science and Technology related courses in tertiary institutions. So in as much as we do not want any form of discrimination, we also need to encourage the girls to address the gender imbalance.

What is the Nigerian target in this global initiative?

We are still working on global target and we have not split the goal into country specific target, and we have a global target to train 200,000 girls in technology skills by the year 2020, even though every country is making efforts to train as much as they can. We need the support of everyone, including parents to help MasterCard achieve this goal by also taking part in encouraging their girl child to take courses in STEM.

People should also join in the campaign to educate our girl child in technology skills. We should let them know that technology could be demystified like the use of mobile phones, and what matters is the interest and need for it.

Looking at your target of 200,000 by 2020, how much has been covered since the inception of the initiative?

We just started and we have been able to cover 30,000 within the short period of time. The 200,000 target, although looks big in number but could also be seen as small in number, when compared with the global population. So the awareness of STEM education for the girl child, should be seen as the responsibility of all Nigerians and everyone in the world. We are hoping that by this awareness, other companies will join in the struggle to encourage our girls acquire skills in technology education.

Since MasterCard wants other organisations to join in the struggle, are you in any way, partnering the federal government, state government and local government to further drive the initiative?

We are open to partnerships to drive this initiative and we will be glad to partner government at all levels on this.

In as much as Nigerians appreciate the MasterCard initiative to develop the girl child in the area of technology, majority of Nigerian companies and multinationals that operate in Nigeria, do not believe in the quality of products locally developed  by Nigerian technology startups and still depend heavily on foreign software. What is your take on this?

For MasterCard, that is not our perception about the Nigerian technology startups because we are already doing business with them and one of our partners called Netflux, is doing business with us. MasterCard has a global programme where we pickup technology startups, mentor them for a six month period and we take them around the world to meet our partners and also position them globally to enable them interact with our global customers.

Netflux is in partnership with MasterCard and they use our intellectual property to develop products that make perfect sense for Nigeria. When we got to Latin America, the product makes sense to them as well. So we have confidence in the quality of solutions developed by young Nigerian startups and we encourage and support them to improve on their solutions.

We have fantastic tech startups in Nigeria and MasterCard will continue to partner them and give them the necessary support.

The truth is that products from Nigeria could compete with foreign products anywhere in the world. What I think they need is the encouragement.

Since the target is on the girl child, is there any incentive for them and their schools?

The initiative is such that MasterCard is volunteering the time of its staff to educate the students and their teachers, and prepare them for the future. They should therefore be prepared to see the world in a different perspective and begin to think locally and act globally. New technologies are evolving and today we are talking about Internet of Things (IoTs) where virtually everything is connected to the internet and people can communicate with their electronic gadgets like the refrigerator that can prompt people that certain items are getting out of stock in the refrigerator and needed to be replaced. So we need coding to understand all of that and that is the essence of teaching the girls about technology skills from the beginning.

With this lofty initiative of MasterCard, how will you project the students in their future career in the use of technology skills to achieve a lot?

We see the future of the girls without boundaries and we see supper girls and supper boys in the future that will be cracking difficult codes that will drive development across countries. Developing them at the early age is developing them to become problem solvers. They will be solving existing problems, using technology.

Are there plans to extend the initiative to public schools?

The initiative does not exclude public schools because we are willing to partner both the private and public schools on this.

So how will schools have access to the training programme?

What we have done so far is the pilot launch of the initiative and we are coming up with a major launch that will further create the awareness we are looking at.

What are the success stories so far with the G4T initiative?

Since the inception of the implementation of the initiative, we have launched more than 100 events and reached more than 30,000 girls in 17 countries, including Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Bulgaria, Colombia, China, England, Germany, Italy, India, Ireland, Poland, Singapore, Spain, United Arab Emirates (UAE), and the United States so far. We have also launched in France, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, New Zealand, with over 1700 MasterCard employees serving as role models and mentors, resulting in more than 5,000 hours of hands-on STEM volunteering to benefit underserved youth.

So far, 97 per cent of the girls surveyed said they learned something new, 94 per cent said they were interested in pursuing a STEM career and more than 86 per cent employees said they even learned something new about our company.