Robotics: Preparing Kenya’s young minds for the future

Qayyum Shiraz, chief technology officer of Qbyte Africa explains to an attendee how the robots work at the Sarit Expo Centre in Westlands on April 2, 2022. PHOTO/ FAUSTINE NGILA

At the Sarit Centre expo area in Westlands, Nairobi, dozens of educational technology companies are exhibiting their latest innovations. They all compete to capture the attention of parents and schools.

But what invokes the curiosity of many attendees is a 10-year-old Grade Six pupil who is controlling three robots from his tablet.

Men and women watch in consternation as the boy commands ‘Minie’, a grey robot with the physical countenance of a beautiful girl, to sing and dance to the ‘Baby Shark’ baby song.

Minie rolls her eyes, croons two more songs as she gyrates while shaking legs and hands rhythmically, but in 20 minutes she announces: “Please charge me, I am running out of energy.”

Dev Shamji, the pupil who assembled her, connects her to a charging port. He now turns to demonstrate how his ingenuity can help industries save billions of dollars through better efficiency.

On his tab, he operates an excavator, before he shows the cluster of people gathered around him how buildings can be built by robots, thanks to 3D-printing technology.

“We are living in the future now,” Qayyum Shiraz, founder and chief technology officer of Qbyte Africa tells parents and teachers watching every move of the robots at his exhibition stand.

He tells Afcacia that he began the project of preparing Kenya’s young learners for the future of industrial automation in 2019 and has since entrenched Artificial Intelligence and robotic training in 20 schools in Mombasa County and even holds robotics competitions.

“We enhance the thought processes of learners from pre-school level up to universities. It is a journey of improving critical thinking so they can build the digital economy of the future,” the robotics engineer says.

To him, technology needs to be productive for kids to strengthen their problem solving abilities, and understanding robotics from a young age is a good foundation.

So far, he divulges, his firm has equipped 45 public primary school teachers with robotics skills that they will now pass to their pupils.

“We teach them modern programming languages and certify them to qualify to train even in international schools for free,” Mr Shiraz says but to make his project sustainable, he sells the robotics kits to schools.

While he notes that Kenyan pupils are brilliant, the challenge in helping them grow in a technology dominated world has been acquiring the materials to sharpen their creativity.

“They have the interest, they can create good designs but they need to be supported within the new curriculum,” he says.

Currently, wealthy parents take their children to schools in developed economies to acquire Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) skills, which further widens technological exclusion.

With local public schools doing the same, Mr Shiraz remains confident that a future where school children understand technologies seen by many as complex such as quantum computing, is not far away.

“We want every child to get these skills. The Competency Based Curriculum needs this,” he says as he holds sensors, circuits, mother boards and cables in his explanation sessions at his stand.

The Private Schools Expo and Conference organized by the Nation Media Group and Kenya Private Schools Association brought together Kenya’s top edtech schools and companies in a period where university and college curriculums have been overtaken by time and continue to teach obsolete courses.

At Qbyte Africa’s Parklands office, we find the firm’s chairman Iqbal Kassam busy crunching robotics data on his laptop.

“By introducing children to robotics, programming with AI in their curriculum with crucial problem-solving skills, we are furnishing them with a foundational skill set that is essential to them right now,” he tells us.

Not only is it giving them a head start in interests that could develop into a very lucrative career, he expounds, but also helps them get accustomed to dealing with electronics and technology constructively and prepare them for the future.

Robotics manages to combine engineering and programming with creativity and problem-solving, and at the end of the company’s training, learners have an interactive little toy that they can play with.

If Kenya wants to reach the tech prowess of the United States and China where they are introduced to modern coding from the age of five, Mr Kassam says teachers must stop teaching pupils how to memorise facts.

“We need to educate children about how school subjects integrate with the future of work together. They need to develop diverse skills sets and a passion for exploration and growth,” he notes.

How to apply knowledge, research and solve problems has been Kenya’s and Africa’s biggest pain point, leading to the importation of simple products that can be manufactured locally.

The absolute lack of modern industrialisation power has led to the weakening of African currencies and the neo-colonianism of the African mind through data.

No African country can manufacture a simple Simbian phone, despite the fact that key minerals that run the global tech industry are mined in Africa. 

Africa habours the largest deposits of silicon, the main element in the manufacture of semi-conductors, but no single country manufactures world-class electronics.

Through the thick cloud of tech dolour in Africa, Qbyte Africa, however, remains optimistic that if more efforts are put in place to introduce children to robotics and AI, the narrative that Africa cannot concoct any world-shaking innovation can change.

“It is time the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development (KICD) embedded robotics and AI into the new curriculum,” Mr Shiraz hopes.

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