This month we got the opportunity to speak to Prof Fanelwa Ajayi, an Associate Professor in Physical Chemistry at the Chemistry Department at the University of the Western Cape. Prof Ajayi is passionate about education and is using that passion to pave a way for learners from impoverished communities – just like the one she hails from in Khayelitsha – to gain exposure to the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields, popularly referred to as STEM, while still in school.

She specializes in research on the development of drug metabolism nano biosensors for HIV and TB drug treatment using a platform developed by using green method nanoparticles. Prof Ajayi was a 2019 Next Einstein Forum (NEF) Fellow of AIMS and in the same year received a National Research Foundation (NRF) award in recognition of excellence in research in South Africa. In addition, she served as the Co-chair of the South African Young Academy of Science (SAYAS) and still is a member of the academy. In 2017, she established AmaQhawe ngeMfundo, a non-profit organization (NPO) that promotes and enriches STEM by providing assistance with STEM academic resources and infrastructure at schools in marginalized communities. She also joined forces with four other women in the STEM field in 2017 to establish KasiMaths, an NPO focused on improving the mathematics skills of learners in marginalized communities through scalable, low-cost Maths Enrichment Hubs where tutors help learners in South African townships to become competent in and develop a love for mathematics.

Prof Ajayi has won numerous awards and was part of the six-member female team from South Africa that completed a five-week TechWomen Mentorship Programme in Silicon Valley and participated in its 2017 TechWomen Pitch.  The team walked away with $3000 to implement KasiMaths. She was also chosen by the Netherlands Consulate as one of the #InspiringFiftySA winners in STEM in South Africa in 2018.

Prof Ajayi has served as a visiting professor at the University of Missouri in the United States and at Universite de Cergy Pontoise in France.

We sat down with this formidable #WomanInTech recently to learn more about her life path, her journey into science, what drives her, and why she is dedicated to exposing learners from impoverished communities to the STEM fields and empowering them to follow careers in those fields too.

Question 1

Prof Ajayi, please tell us more about who Prof Fanelwa Ajayi is and when her love for science and technology began?

I am the eldest of four children born to a mother who worked as a domestic worker and raised all of us single-handedly. Now I am a wife and a mother of three beautiful children. As a child, I was taught that I could only have a comfortable life if I got an education. My mother instilled this belief in me because she didn’t have an opportunity to complete school. In Grade 6 I realized that I enjoyed teaching others, which led to me becoming a mathematics and physical sciences volunteer tutor in my community of Site C in Khayelitsha, Cape Town. I did this until I left home to attend university. The challenging part about tutoring was the fact that there was no form of support when challenges arose with the work we did during our sessions because the majority of the community members and our parents didn’t have any educational background surpassing Grade 8. Additionally, those of us interested in the sciences had the added challenge of not being able to see and experience the scientific processes taught at school due to the poorly resourced schools we were taught at. When I entered the chemistry laboratory for the first time, I felt completely lost. I was able to touch a computer for the first time at university and I felt like a failure because I did not know how to use it. University was particularly challenging because I held two jobs as a domestic worker and hairdresser to fund my undergraduate studies.

My love for science started in Grade 10 when I realized that chemistry was very easy for me to understand. I had always enjoyed explaining things to others and it just felt good to be able to explain a subject that I understood so well. This continued into university, which led me into academia and to the development work that I do at AmaQawe ngeMfundo. The NPO aims to provide on-site science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) experiments, workshops, and resources while also promoting STEM in marginalized communities.

It is through these sessions that I also share the importance of conducting research in a country like South Africa riddled with diseases such as tuberculosis (TB), HIV/Aids, and diabetes. As a previous TB patient, I know too well what the side effects caused by TB medication feel like. This is the reason why I selected research in the area of drug sensor development to one day be able to provide healthcare practitioners with the ability to monitor the metabolic profile of patients so they may prescribe appropriate regimes well-suited for each type of patient.

I believe learners should be taught how to innovate at an early age and the importance of those innovations in making our societies better. As such, I take it upon myself to ensure that I do my part so that the next generation of learners do not experience the hardships caused by inequalities in our society. This entails sharing my knowledge and also sourcing resources and funds so they may have the opportunity to excel in their studies and to also further their studies. This is my contribution towards creating a positive change in society rather than waiting and blaming someone or the government for shortfalls.

Question 2

What would you say are some of the challenges you have faced as a woman in the STEM field and how have you overcome them?

The major challenge for me has been the inability to find a balance between family and work life. This is mainly due to the fact that I strive to be a good mom, wife, and sister while also doing my best to be good at my job. Academic work never stops; there is always something to be done or someone to be taught. To mitigate this issue, I have learned to prioritize and focus on the things that are most important to me. As much as my work is important, I have learned to put the needs of my family first.

Secondly, I have also learned to mentor others, such as my postgraduate students, so that they may have the skills to take up some of my academic responsibilities. Furthermore, when it comes to my research work, I rely a great deal on my research collaborators who ensure that certain aspects of the work we do are completed, especially those activities that require their expertise.

On a personal level, I have experienced being ignored as well as my opinions being ignored in academia when I was much younger. Some colleagues would tell me that I am inexperienced and should not speak when experienced colleagues are speaking. This was very hurtful, but it strengthened my resolve to excel. I often insisted that despite being young that I too had the knowledge to share and that I too have a voice. I have learned to be assertive without being rude and I always ensure that I over-prepare for any situation before going into one.

Question 3

Do you think it is important to develop and equip learners with digital literacy skills as early as the Intermediate Phase and how will it help them in the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR)?

I think that this is very important to equip learners with digital skills as early as possible because the world of technology and innovation is changing at a rapid pace. Everything around us is evolving fast and we are seeing more and more innovative ideas coming from young people these days. In the world of social media and fake news, it is very important that learners understand the technology and learn how to use it appropriately. Most importantly, learners should know how to use technology to benefit them economically, academically, and not only socially.

We have already seen how much entrepreneurs and young scholars can achieve by using their mobile devices to learn, eliminating the need for example to hire specialists, which can be costly. Those who have used digital platforms appropriately have managed to live successful lives without the need to work for others. As such, the introduction of digital skills should be coupled with critical thinking programs and entrepreneurship skills-building programs to prepare learners well.

I do also believe that the introduction of digital skills should be complemented by the strong enforcement of reading and mathematical skills while learners are still young. Learners should have the ability to read well in order to follow instructions when these skills are introduced to them. This also provides an opportunity to other learners who may choose an academic route in the future.

The world of 4IR is upon us and it is clear that some fields of study will soon be dormant and some careers will be non-existent. The introduction of digital skills at an early age to learners will foster a culture of entrepreneurship since these young people will be taught how to solve the world’s issues using technology and innovation. Confidence in their skills has a huge potential to encourage them to initiate their own businesses in the future rather than finding jobs in the already saturated job market.

Question 4

You are committed to community development and upliftment, especially with regards to changing narratives and stereotypes about marginalized communities like townships. What would you say is the status of inequality in the South African education system between well-resourced and under-resourced schools at present, and more so in a pandemic? Also, how do you suggest we go about combatting that very same inequality?

There is a very clear and wide gap between well-resourced schools and under-resourced schools, not just in the infrastructure but also in the skills the teachers have. Well-resourced schools are bigger and have smaller class numbers to enable the teachers to provide individual attention to the learners. On the other end, under-resourced schools are smaller yet the class numbers are higher, often exceeding 45 learners in a class at times. There is no way the teachers would ever be able to give these learners any individual attention and yet these learners have to compete in the world with learners from well-resourced schools.

In a country like ours, which encourages science, technology, engineering, and mathematics at school, how are teachers at under-resourced schools expected to teach these subjects without fully equipped and fully functional laboratories such as those found in most well-resourced schools. Teachers at under-resourced schools are overwhelmed by a lack of resources and by the number of learners that they have to teach and often miss out on opportunities that would enable them to improve their skills.

It is the responsibility of those in power to ensure that all schools are built and resourced in the same manner. Also, more teachers should be placed in under-resourced schools to respond to the high number of learners. We should not have such inequalities at this stage in our country. Furthermore, all schools should have laboratories where learners can be equipped with skills they can use at tertiary institutions or post-matric or can access skills to initiate businesses. We are a country that struggles with mathematics literacy, which tells us that there should be a system in place where teachers from both sets of schools can meet and share skills and knowledge on how their learners are able to pass mathematics. Partnerships and resource sharing could also be a solution to ensure equality between these schools.

Question 5

The President mentioned in his 2021 State of The Nation Address (SONA) that the country is in the process of implementing the ‘Lanseria Smart City’, a city driven by smart technologies. In your opinion how realistic is this project and what benefit will this bring to the science-tech industry, especially for women and girl children?

This project is a great idea but to me, it is not realistic in South Africa we have now. Why not use that money to strengthen basic education and ensure that schools are fully resourced? Secondly, we are experiencing a crisis in higher education where students are struggling to enter institutions of higher education due to lack of funds and in some instances the lack of good marks. We need many experts to run this proposed smart city and that can only occur when we can take care of the foundation first and invest in basic and higher education as a country. This is not to mention the high rate of unemployment in our country and the lack of good healthcare facilities, clean water, and access to sanitation, which require a great deal of funding to fix.

Question 6

Lastly what words of encouragement would you give to young persons, especially girls, who want to enter any STEM field?

I would tell them to always work towards making their dreams come true. At times young people don’t share their dreams because they feel less worthy than their peers. I would tell them that there is nothing wrong with being different from your peers and striving for different things in life. They should never allow anyone to tell them what they can and can’t do with regard to their path in life, irrespective of how unsupported they are. People around us are fine when we select to do things that are known and have been done by others and they tend to feel unsettled when they come across persons with different ideas. They should strive to be themselves at all times.

Humility goes a long way in the journey to success. My other advice to young people is that they should always be willing to listen and learn if they want to be good at anything. Working hard is another good attribute. So I would tell them to always ensure that they give their best with every opportunity they get. Respect is also high up on my list of advice. Nobody wants to associate with a disrespectful person no matter how brilliant they are.

PHOTO: Prof Fanelwa Ajayi stands in front of the Chemical Sciences building at the University of the Western Cape where she lectures. (Harriet Box, UWC Media and Marketing Office)