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THE ACTIONISTS

‘Innovative solutions for African problems’ — Keke Malakele enables young people to grasp the future

‘Innovative solutions for African problems’ — Keke Malakele enables young people to grasp the future
Keke Malakele is fascinated by the intersection between technology and education. (Photo: Thom Pierce)

Although she has a full-time job as an IT support analyst at Baker McKenzie, a large law firm in Sandton, Keke Malakele spends the majority of her time outside work running her not-for-profit company United Siyafunda (United We Learn), teaching children robotics and coding.

It’s a story that many people will recognise. Stuck inside the house during the Covid-19 lockdown, with the whole family adapting to a new normal and the children forced to embrace new ways of learning so that school can continue.

Keke Malakele was no different. With three children and limited resources, she was forced to find a way to keep them from falling behind. Noticing that other children in her block of flats did not have the support and equipment that they needed, she reached out.

When regulations permitted, Malakele invited small groups of children into her home to study online, supervising them in maths and English. She took on 20 children from her block, keeping them moving forward while the world stood still. It was this kind gesture that ignited a passion in Malakele for bringing modern educational techniques to the most in-need members of society.

Malakele is a 35-year-old tech-savvy innovator who is fascinated by the intersection between technology and education. Although she has a full-time job as an IT support analyst at Baker McKenzie, a large law firm in Sandton, she spends the majority of her time outside work running her not-for-profit company United Siyafunda (United We Learn), teaching children robotics and coding.

“I am inspired by life itself. I believe that the beauty of life doesn’t depend on how happy you are, it depends on how happy others can be because of you.”

It was during the pandemic that Keke realised that coding and robotics could provide valuable, marketable skills to young people in a nation that has dramatically fallen behind in its quality of education to low-income areas.

“This is the time for South Africa. This is the time for us to bring innovative solutions to solve African problems. We have the youth but we need to upskill them because they are the solution.”

The skills that are taught in these courses are vital to staying relevant in a world that is developing so fast towards a technological future: creative development, engineering, computational thinking and problem-solving. But one of the biggest challenges is access to equipment. A robotics set costs upwards of R13,000.

Because of access to equipment and teachers, it is often only the children who go to the best schools that will learn these important new skills. Many others have the capacity for this new way of thinking, but few have the opportunity to find that they can do it.

“The limitation for human beings is not knowing. The difference between those who have answers and those who don’t is information. From that day, I wanted to share knowledge.”

Malakele devised a model to fund a venture that puts access to information for the poorest communities right at the centre. United Siyafunda delivers coding and robotics training to eight schools. Two are private schools and six are government schools. The private schools pay R200 per learner, which covers the operational costs so that the public schools can get the services free.

The programme provides an innovative environment in which children are encouraged to come up with real-life solutions to societal problems using coding and robotics. Over a short time, they have achieved a great deal, notably first place in the Unisa African Innovation Expo in 2022.

United Siyafunda offers three programmes:

  • A teacher training programme to upskill teachers and help them adapt to the coding and robotics curriculum.
  • A children’s programme of coding and robotics clubs for five- to 15-year-olds in various locations, from Soweto to Tembisa.
  • A youth programme that upskills young people to train and become coding and robotics coaches, deploying them in schools as coaches and facilitators.

“We want to become the key enablers in all of our communities, breaking the divide for those that don’t have access. We want to be the solution in this country.”

From its very beginning, United Siyafunda has focused on job creation at every level. Through her passion and vision for a technology-rich future, it is clear that Keke Malakele sees a bright future for all South Africans. DM

The Actionists was launched in early 2023 by photographer Thom Pierce. It consists of on-the-ground problem solvers, community activists, climate campaigners and human rights defenders who engage in direct action. They are people anyone can turn to in difficult circumstances: a growing community of people who care about the future of South Africa. Through a series of photographic stories, Pierce profiles these people. Through a website, discussion forum and social media, the aim is to provide ways for people to get involved.

Nominate Actionists in your circle at www.theactionists.co.za or email [email protected]

Read more in Daily Maverick: The Actionists

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.

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