Applications for the 2024 Global Citizen Prize: Cisco Youth Leadership Award are open from Nov. 1, 2023, until Dec. 15, 2023, at 5 p.m. PT. Find out more and apply now.

Water level sensors that help to manage usage efficiently during times of water scarcity. A smart walking stick for the visually impaired that gives feedback to the user when it comes into proximity with obstacles or water bodies that’s now being donated to schools for blind children. A smart parking system that means less idling cars and less air pollution. 

These are just a few of the prototypes that Nkosana Butholenkosi Masuku’s students have developed since he was awarded the 2023 Global Citizen Prize: Cisco Youth Leadership Award for his work making STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education accessible to rural low-income communities in Southern Africa. 

“We want the students to be really creative and do projects that solve community-based problems,” Masuku told Global Citizen. “We want the students to appreciate engineering. We don’t want it to be just theoretical science.”

Indeed, the challenges facing the African continent today are far from theoretical. From the climate emergency and food insecurity to inequality, and poverty — the issues are many. But so is the opportunity.

STEM learning differs significantly from more traditional education by going beyond the theoretical and cultivating real-world problem-solving skills. That’s why Masuku’s students are closely involved with local community projects — so they can learn and attempt to engineer real-world solutions for issues affecting their communities. 

It’s estimated that an additional 2.5 million engineers are needed in sub-Saharan Africa alone to tackle its various challenges. 

Yet, in 2020, 4 out of 5 of secondary schools in Africa still lacked access to electricity and over 90% of schools lacked appropriate science labs. No wonder Africa’s children are severely lagging behind their global peers in STEM education. This means that ultimately, less than 25% of African higher education students pursue STEM-related career fields, according to the African Development Bank.

Masuku is aiming to change that. Before winning the Cisco Youth Leadership Award, his platform, Sciency, which offers applied and practical STEM education to pupils at a low cost, had already reached more than 65,000 learners in Zimbabwe. 

Since then, they’ve expanded their maker labs in Botswana and South Africa, increased the size of their programmes, introduced monthly hackathons in partnership with community organizations and local councils, and developed a low-cost robotics kit that students can take home to experiment with. It’s through these kits that the prototypes for the walking stick and water sensors were developed.

With Africa having the youngest population in the world, revolutionizing the continent’s STEM ecosystem would empower students to tackle even bigger challenges. As former Ghanaian President, Kwame Nkrumah stated back in 1963: “It is within the possibility of science and technology to make even the Sahara bloom into a vast field with verdant vegetation for agricultural and industrial developments.”

Masuku and his platform, Sciency, are planting the seeds for that verdant future — one in which Africans are solving Africa’s problems, driving the continent into its role as a global superpower.

The Cisco Youth Leadership Award — established by Cisco and Global Citizen in 2018 — celebrates and lifts up a young person whose leadership, dedication, and innovation is contributing towards achieving the UN’s Global Goals. The award includes a US$250,000 prize paid to the organization to which the individual contributes.


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