Njideka Harry’s unbridled passion about 3D printing technologies and its future in the industry is quite contagious. The Founder of Youth for Technology Foundation (YTF) recently added the innovative model to the list of strategic programs her organisation offers to young Nigerians and Africans. And she is excited about the new program. Currently, YTF is the only social enterprise in Nigeria at the forefront of 3D printing and other such related technologies.

The addition of 3D printing technologies to the programs at YTF is in line with the organisation’s aim to inspire Science, Technology, Engineering & Math (STEM) careers and promote micro-entrepreneurship in Nigeria, thereby helping to make a significant social impact through the creation of youth and women entrepreneurs in the Nigerian technology industry.

For Ms. Harry and YTF women, youth, and their distinct but combined role in improving the ecosystem for entrepreneurship in Nigeria is the primary focus, although improving the socioeconomic status of women and girls is at the core of their set objectives. With the introduction of technologies such as the 3D printing, the industry has opened up yet another avenue for women across Nigeria to be impacted upon.

With their innovations, women such as Maureen and Aisha, and young girls such as Precious and Treasure are already leading the charge towards not just popularising 3D printing technologies and learning ways to make it economically viable, but reiterating the fact that the technology industry is indeed for everyone.

In this interview, she talks about the need for inclusivity in the technology industry and the many potentials that exist in 3D printing technologies.

Ventures Africa (VA): So, gender roles and certain specialisations and technology. We’ve broken a lot of moulds here in the country, but there’s still the issue of technology being a ‘man’s thing’, as far as some people are concerned? What’s your opinion about that and addressing the issue of thinking in that manner?

Njideka Harry (NH): I think the issue of women in technology still remains a very prevalent one in the Nigerian economy today. Historically, technology-focused subject areas or courses at the university level – even at the secondary school level – have been perceived to be masculine and mostly pursued by males in essence. It is the role of not just the government, but also private sectors as well as civil society to encourage the ‘other half’ of the population. Of which no nation can be successful without, of course, the input of women and girls into the sector.

It is important to encourage them to pursue science, technology, engineering, and math careers. And there are several ways that we can do this. The first thing is by looking at the curriculum in the education sector to see if there are any existing gender stereotypes within the curriculum, and how we can look at ensuring the curriculum, as it’s developed and implemented, takes the role of girls and women into consideration. Secondly, I think the power of mentors cannot be overstated; women and girls in technology need women leaders working in the technology field, or running technology enterprises. They really need them as mentors. They need to see people in the industry and in the classroom that are pursuing tech careers that look like them.

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And thirdly, we know that cultural stereotypes, as well as societal norms, continue to penetrate societies in Nigeria. As a civil society organisation ourselves, we think it’s important to really engage the families and the communities, where these girls come from, from day one. So that they understand the benefits of pursuing or continuing in science-related education, as well as pursuing technology-related careers.

VA: So, telecommunications is one of the biggest areas in which ICT is implemented, and Nigeria is one of the biggest markets on the continent for ICT and telecommunications. Do you think that this reflects in our GDP, in terms of ICT contribution?

NH: So, Nigeria, over the last year or so, received about 19 billion dollars in terms of ICT investment – one of the largest investments when you look across the sectors. The ICT area has a huge role to play when it comes to the gross domestic product and driving that in terms of creation of jobs, rehabilitating the educational sector, etcetera. First, not just providing the core technical skills to young people, but also teaching them how to monetise these skills in the market place, by selling their skills to create more self-sustainable communities.

VA: Do you think that there’s anything else that can be done to improve the [technology] sector that isn’t currently being done?

NH: An enabling environment is key. And that enabling environment can be supported, not just by the government, but also the private sector has a role to play with civil society organisations. Take a look at the education system in Nigeria, for instance. The education system is not just broken, it’s actually obsolete. Where you have hundreds of thousands of young people graduating from secondary schools but they are not able to find jobs, or they are not able to continue their education at the university level.

It is important that the private sector – working along with civil society – come in and empower these young people by investing in them, even before they transition into universities. So, rather than take education, acquisition of skills, and employment as three different, discrete areas, the ability to converge these areas from a private sector perspective, where a company can see potential in a young person, train them, and provide them with the skills, and then support their education in some way, so that they’re able to complete their education, and then take an established job within the company.

We’ve seen this successful model in other countries, like Singapore. I think there’s a lot that Nigeria can learn from that one.

VA: How much of a role do you think that ICT plays in entrepreneurship and startups in Nigeria that are not necessarily tech-oriented?

NH: So there is a wide array of areas that information and communication technology plays a role. When you look at ICT at a broad level, it includes anything from basic Internet access, to digital literacy, to mobile and software application, and then to mobile banking, in essence. And entrepreneurs span across all these sectors. We also work with women entrepreneurs where we’re teaching them about mobile banking to become banking agents in their communities. Because one of the issues in Nigeria is the issue of access to banks.

Especially for women, where a large percentage of these women continue to remain financially excluded. And so teaching them how to use mobile banking technologies and access online banking tools has been extremely helpful. We’ve seen that some of these women have flourished as banking agents, and it has become a core part of their business model, and they’ve been able to generate enough income to support their families, their education, and the health of their children.

VA: What inspired YTF to take on technology, not just for youth, but for women specifically? I imagine it’s because the role of women in the economy is still being underestimated in the country, for example, because we ignore the contributions that they make from the traditional market settings to the bigger, more corporate ones. Was there any kind of inspiration for YTF, or it was the general “women empowerment is not where it’s supposed to be, and we’re just going to tackle that”?

NH: You know, when we began our work 16 years ago in Nigeria, I would attend different conferences, and speak on different panels, meet with people leaders within the government and the private sector… One of the questions that often came up was, “Why young people, why technology, why does it matter?” And today, that’s obviously pretty much a moot point, because everyone really sees the benefits that appropriate technology can afford young people, who are not just the future, but actually the leaders of today.

Today we have three billion young people between the ages of 12 to 24 across the world, and this is one of the fastest growing demographics in Africa (Africa is currently the youngest continent with the median age of somewhere around 19). And when we started to develop our programs working with the local population at YTF, a lot of the young people came up to us and said, “Our mothers could use this information. Our mothers could learn from the digital literacy education you’re providing us. Our mothers could learn from the entrepreneurship and life skills you’re providing us with.”

And so we know that women fundamentally are the backbone of the economic communities that we serve. Very often, reinvesting as much as 90 percent of their household income back into their communities. And so we heard the voice of our customer – the youth we serve – and we began to work with these communities to co-develop content that would serve mothers. And that has just proved to be wonderful for the last several years because we do fully understand the role that women play in the national economy. And when women thrive, entire communities win.

VA: Where is YTF currently, and what is the vision for YTF both in Nigeria and other African countries?

NH: At Youth for Technology Foundation, we really try to look at the appropriate technologies, and what technologies will serve development amongst the young people and the women. And looking over the course of history, of course, we can’t predict the future, but we know that in looking into the future, it’s important to look at what has happened in the past. We’re currently in the fourth industrial revolution where technologies such as 3D printing have taken a forefront in looking at ways in which countries using this technology can actually revolutionise the manufacturing industry.

For instance, the 3D printing industry is estimated to grow from somewhere around 3.1 billion in 2013 to somewhere over 30 billion in 2025 which is just a huge incremental growth rate in that industry. You see an extreme amount of potential in that industry at large. In 2014, about 133,000 3D printers were shipped worldwide, and that number is set to just grow incrementally.

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Now, where is the opportunity for young people and women entrepreneurs, specifically in the developing countries? We fundamentally believe that young people are creative. They want to create, they want to make, and they want to innovate. And by so doing they can actually transform our continent from “aid to Africa” to more of a “made in Africa” continent by creating the future that they want to see. And so, what we’ve done at YTF, through engineering prototype hubs is, we have started training young people and women entrepreneurs how to model, using AutoCAD and solidworks and some of the other modelling software to create products like small household consumables and jewellery.

So these products they can eventually put on online marketplaces and monetize their talents. They can monetize their talents through selling their digital skills or digital products to the global market. Specifically for entrepreneurs in the product space, we know that online markets allow markups from –30 percent of entrepreneurs have said that they can mark up their goods for as much as 25 to 50 percent. So, this provides a good revenue opportunity for young people living in developing countries, in terms of being able to 3D print products and make them available to the global marketplace for sale.

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