How a no-fee campus is addressing SA's rural development

How a no-fee campus is addressing SA's rural development

Johannesburg - Martha Phora matriculated with grades good enough to get her into an IT college. Like so many in South Africa's townships, however, her dream of escaping a life where odd jobs and living on the breadline are norms came to a dead stop when she could not afford tertiary fees to continue studying. Then, WeThinkCode_ (WTC_) came along.

In less than a year, the non-profit organisation raised the R10 million it needed to achieve its mission -- a no-fee school that would train any person with the aptitude for computer coding and place them in an institution with a full paying job. The thought-process being if education is free, it presents the unemployed with an opportunity to acquire in-demand skills and that process would begin to tackle the cycle of poverty and unemployment in the country.

Applications flooded the institution via their free online game which promised those who cracked it, a spot in bootcamp. According to WTC_ co-founder Camille Agon, more than 25 000 test submissions were received. Among them, Ms. Phora's. She eventually formed the 2% group of applicants who demonstrated the ability to solve, innovate, and motivate their way out of a problem.

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Camille Agon, one of four co-founders of WTC_. Credit: Benita Enoch/Newsful

In October last year, StatsSA released their third quarter unemployment rate. It revealed that the country's unemployment figures sat at 5.4 million people without jobs and 2.2 million more who classified as "discouraged' job seekers, meaning that while they had skills, they were not necessarily applying for posts.

Said Arlene Mulder, the second of four co-founders: "Many people living in rural areas demonstrate the ability to problem solve, given the daily obstacles they have to overcome." She said the aptitude to solve problems was not governed by a person's residential address or tertiary qualification. "This is why wemade it such that anyone from the age of 17-35 years old can apply to WeThinkCode_. You don't even need a matric pass to apply."

Ms. Argon said the curriculum taught at WTC_ comes from an institution in France called 42. Agon is in negotiation with 42 for an overseas exchange programme with the students at WTC_.

"Here, we're not teaching you code. We're teaching you how to learn. In a few years time Java might be obsolete. What then? We believe if we teach your how to handle code, you'll be able to problem solve in any [programming] language." WTC_'s boot camp tests candidates in C, a versative versatile programming language. The rest of the course teaches students all the main languages including Java and PHP.
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Post It notes form WTC_'s 'Wall of Wisdom' where students write about how they've grown. Credit: Benita Enoch/Newsful

"Our coporate sponsors all have a need for coders in their firms and our students will spend a year with them, as an employee, after graduating.So, not only have they funded us, but they've also got positions waiting for those who make it through the exams," said Ms. Agon.

Ms. Phora said there was nothing anybody could offer her to dissuade her from continuing on this path.

"I have sacrificed my time, my social life and everything else to succeed at this. Opportunities like this don't come around in South Africa," she said.

The 25-year-old said her eventual plan was to go back into the township she lives in and mentor African women to take up positions in technology.

Her goal may very well succeed. According to Agon, in South Africa, 70 000 positions for coders need filling. That was the conservative estimate. She said if other factors were considered, about half-a-million coders were needed in the country.

For now, WTC_ is conducting its bootcamp. Those who pass this round will enter the programme and be taught Algorithms, Artificial Intelligence, Database Design, developing programmes that offer cyber security and so on.

The push to see technological development in rural areas is apparent among the ANC's detractors. Former Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi noted the World Bank's Gini coefficient for South Africa to be 0.77 "...on a scale of 1 (where one person has all the income) to zero (where income is equally shared) making us the world’s most unequal society." In fact, government had placed rural development in its Millennium Development Goals in which it said a strategy would be put in place to build sustainable livelihoods, particularly for African women, in the country's poverty stricken zones.
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A student at WTC_ ploughs through the course work at boot camp. Credit: Benita Enoch/Newsful

WTC_ seems to have taken that focus personally. Said Ms. Mulder: "We can't wait around for someone else to solve this problem. We are that 'someone else'." For them and those who were born to code, the solution to our depressed economy is in education. Certainly for Ms. Agon, she believes that fees must fall, but, we must be careful to maintain respect for teaching institutions. "The concept of things being 'free' is really complex. We run the risk of being unappreciative if we don't work hard for what we have."

This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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