15 August 2017

Absa helps to build Soweto’s tech skills

Life at Absa |

Many schools all over South Africa are in desperate need of facilities, equipment and trained staff to develop the type of skills and knowledge that will move the country forward – and Absa has, over the years, committed to partnering with communities by providing the necessary support to address these challenges.

This support takes many forms in an organisation the size of Absa, but there is a golden thread running through all initiatives: our Shared Growth strategy, through which we aim to create long-lasting and sustainable solutions to the challenges South Africa faces, particularly in the key areas of education, enterprise development and financial inclusion.

Falling very much under the education ambit is the Absa technology team initiative to help two needy schools with big potential in Soweto, by not only building state-of-the-art computer and science labs, but also by supplying the equipment, necessary training and longer-term maintenance.

These schools are Sebetsa-O-Tholemoputso Secondary School and Tetelo Secondary School, which are the beneficiaries of high-tech computer and science labs respectively. The labs have been built specifically to drive youth skills development and empowerment through investment in the fields that need it most – science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) – and in communities where it will make a tangible difference.

“The Absa technology team ran a thorough analysis of all the schools in Soweto, as part of our technology citizenship planning,” explains Sandra La Bella, who heads up the bank’s technology citizenship activities. “Sebetsa-O-Tholemoputso and Tetelo were selected as the two with the highest maths and science results. As our chosen beneficiaries, the schools then informed us of their particular needs and the computer and science labs were chosen as the investments that would have the highest value to both the schools and their surrounding communities.”

The importance of sustainability

Each investment includes not only the equipment – collectively worth around R390 000 – but also basic training for the teachers to enable them to make optimal use of the labs and to ensure both are sustainable. The computer lab project at Sebetsa-O-Tholemoputso also includes lessons for the students’ parents to address a real need for computer literacy within the community. The knowledge passed on to the parents, for example, can then be used to help them with school registration for their children.

As the next phase of the project, Absa is working with a partner to install Wi-Fi to allow students to research and access broader databases and bodies of knowledge, which will give them a good grounding for university and the working world.

The bank’s technology team also intends to send its senior executives to visit these two schools to give lectures on STEM topics and provide mentorship to the students to encourage them to follow careers in these fields. The bank will monitor progress and supplement the centres with equipment or provide assistance with additional training as and when needed in both the medium and long term.

Altogether, these initiatives have the potential to grow and impact much broader communities. “Already the computer lab is helping the 1 700 students of Sebetsa-O-Tholemoputso and a number of their parents, while the science lab is expected to assist a further 825 Grade 8-12 life science and science students at Tetelo,” says La Bella.

Helping the youth with employability and entrepreneurial skills

It was in trying to develop the employability and entrepreneurial skills of these youth that the idea for the two labs originated, five years ago, as part of the bank’s ‘Bring a girl/boy child to work day’ initiative. This aimed to teach children what it would be like to work in technology in a corporate environment – and to bust the myth that working in technology only relates to IT.

The success of this initiative led to the introduction of a career day, which featured the bank’s suppliers speaking to children to build their knowledge of the sector and to inspire them to pursue study opportunities. That led to a project to introduce and update digital libraries at beneficiary schools. All of these interventions were so successful that they have become annual events.

But the bank found that there was still room for growth and so three years ago started Girls in Tech, a multi-year programme through which the bank engages with female learners on an ongoing basis throughout their high school careers to expose them to technology environments and opportunities.

As part of this, the students spend one week learning to code at the bank’s Digital Academy. While it proved popular with the learners, the students typically only had access to these computers to practice coding during that one week, which meant that their newly acquired skills could quickly fall by the wayside.

The building of the two labs means that students now have virtually year-round access. “Besides raising funds for the projects, we also re-purposed older bank computers to equip the labs, which ensures this intervention is low cost, but high value, and makes a real difference to the communities that require it,” says La Bella. “And we are already seeing the positive impact, with overwhelming feedback from the first school.”

These types of initiatives ultimately play a critical part in Absa’s Shared Growth strategy. “Shared Growth through education is a primary reason why we created the school labs,” says La Bella. “We believe strongly that infrastructure, training, inspiration and industry exposure leads to real sustainability and collective growth as a nation.”

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