At the end of this week, 30 bright young high school girls from South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe will leave Johannesburg feeling inspired, empowered and equipped to take the next step in pursuing careers in science, technology and maths (STEM). Or at least, that’s what the organisers of this year’s Taungana Movement STEM Expo, which concludes today, are hoping for.

Taungana is a movement that provides high school girls from rural and disadvantaged communities with an opportunity to explore the fields of STEM. Taungana was founded in 2013 by Zimbabwean Sandra Tererai, who has worked as a lead auditor for various tech, engineering and science firms. It’s been set-up in partnership with three women-led non-profit organisations from Southern Africa: South Africa’s STEM IT Forward, TechWomen Zimbabwe and Zambia’s Asikana Network.

Taungana and the three organisations have a common vision of getting more young girls on the African continent to train in traditionally make subject areas and correct the vast – and almost incalculable – gender imbalance. According to some observers, for example, the number of South African computer programmers who also happen to be black women may be as low as less than one percent.

“Being in this industry, usually I’m the only female when I’m at meetings and it’s very rare to see females in companies’ management, I’m typically surrounded by males,” Tererai says. “So I started thinking about why there aren’t more women at the table? Is it that they were never exposed to the industry? The drop-out rate of women studying STEM courses? That’s where the passion to get young girls interested in STEM came from.”

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Sandra Tererai at the Sci-Bono centre.

Taungana works with the departments of education in each country to identify schools in provinces and select girls who have performed well in national maths and science exams in their respective countries, to apply for the STEM Expo. The girls also need to have a passion  for community upliftment and had to pitch a business project that would address issues in their communities. Seeing as the movement is still new, Tererai says they chose Zambia, Zimbabwe and South Africa because of the network and support she has established in the countries, but she adds that she does want to expand into other countries with the help of more partners.

Thirty girls arrived in Johannesburg last week to take part in the week-long Taungana STEM Expo that saw them visiting various companies in the fields and speaking to professionals. The girls went to companies such as BMW, Anglo American, SAA, Eskom, NECSA, Thoughtworks Africa and The Innovation Hub over the past few days.

Yesterday the girls, their representatives and various partners came together to close off the STEM Expo at the Sci-Bono Discovery Centre in Newtown, although they will still be heading to Wits University tomorrow as their last stop. Each girl received a certificate of completion at the end of the course.

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One of the factors that stand out about the movement is that Taungana will maintain an ongoing relationship with the girls by helping them get their projects up and running back home. They will also receive support from Taungana partners such as the Innovation Hub and UNICEF. Examples of some of the projects that are already up and running are one by Sibongumusa Xaba from Zimbabwe who makes shampoo at school for pupils using natural products and Precious Shipalane from South Africa who is working on an app offerings support and information for young pupils looking to pursue STEM career.

I had a quick chat with three girls from each country to find out what they learned and enjoyed the most about the expo and what their future plans are and this is what they each had to say.

Precious Shipalane, aged 16, from Mjokwane Secondary School, South Africa.

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Career choice: Civil engineering

“Being at Taungana showed me that people from different countries can unite, I made friends with girls from Zambia and Zimbabwe and I’ve been exposed to STEM careers. It’s a fun and encouraging learning experience and I’m excited about working on my project. My highlight was going seeing people in the career I want to go into.”

Sibongumusa Xaba, aged 17, from Solusi Adventist High School, Zimbabwe

20140829_132506Career choice: Gynaeclogy

“When I first applied for the expo I was embarrassed because my friends thought I was just coming here to hang out with other girls and that’s it. But when I got here I was determined to learn and be encouraged. What I enjoyed the most was yesterday’s seminar with Doctor Thenjiwe Hlongwane from a hospital here in Johannesburg because I want to become a gynaecologist. Now I really have a better idea of the career path I have chosen.”

Chipo Manda, aged 14, from Chibombo High School, Zambia

20140829_132733Career choice: Medicine

“The best part of the expo was the first day we came to Sci-Bono, we saw demonstrations where chemicals were mixed. I also enjoyed going to BMW and seeing how the make company makes its cars and the IT presentation hosted by Thoughtworks here at Sci-Bono yesterday. Doctor Hlongwane told us that being in medicine is hard, but if that’s what you want to do, then go for it, she really inspired me.

As another Women’s Month comes to an end in South Africa, it’s encouraging to see intitaives such as the Taungana Movement working to raise up the next generation of women in STEM on the continent and judging by the brightness and enthusiasm displayed by these young girls, the future of African women pioneers looks very promising.