A home-grown science lab in a box

A home-grown science lab in a box

Countries that study basic science enjoy faster economic growth, believes Klaus Jaffe, coordinator of the Centre for Strategic Studies of Simón Bolívar University in Venezuela. In his study of World Bank GDP data and scientific publications in poor and middle-income countries, Jaffe and his team as found that scientific productivity in basic science – including physics, chemistry and material sciences – correlated strongly with countries’ economic growth over the following five years. 

But in South Africa, science education is wanting. The apartheid legacy left SA with an unequal two-tier school system. Research by the Institute of Race Relations’ Thuthukani Ndebele shows that private schools and former Model C schools are well funded and well equipped. But township and rural schools – often run on a ‘no-fee’ basis – typically do not have money for expensive equipment.  

The vast majority of South African schools have no science laboratories, according to statistics released by the department of basic education in 2015. In number terms, 86% of this country’s 23 589 public ordinary schools do not have science labs. 

In most rural and township schools, science – which begs for experiential learning – is taught from a textbook. This means many young black learners don’t get hands-on tuition in a subject where learning is far more effective when it is demonstrated and practised. As a result, many young first year students who enter a university to study science have never even been a lab. 

 

“I remember the first time I went into the lab, I thought: ‘What do I need to do here?’ It was quite an intense and nerve-racking experience,” says Bathabile Mpofu, the founder of Nkazimulo Applied Sciences, a company that develops science labs in a box for underserved high schools. After her experience of being taught science using only a textbook at school in Mahlabathini near Ulundi, the Durban-based scientist-cum-social entrepreneur decided to step into the breach. 

While studying for a BSc Chemistry and Biology in 1997, Mpofu discovered she wasn’t the only person who didn’t have hands-on science experience. “We had practicals that started at 14:00, and ended at 17:30,” she recalls. “People who went to private or Model C schools were finished with their projects by 15:00. At 16:30 I, and the other students like me, were still trying to figure out what needed to be done. This really knocks your self-esteem and you actually start to think you’re stupid, even when you’re not,” she says. 

Mpofu graduated and started working in a commercial laboratory where she supervised interns. She noticed that despite graduating from universities, the young black scientists were under-experienced when it came to basic laboratory tasks.  

Science in a car boot

In 2015, Mpofu and her husband decided to do something about the situation. “We bought chemicals, glassware and other equipment,” Mpofu says about her first efforts to try and get basic lab equipment into underserved schools in KwaZulu-Natal. “I’d prepare everything, put it in my boot, go to a school, and try and explain basic lab equipment and processes to students.”

This pet project was financed by Mpofu and her husband. After seeing what a difference this made to students studying science, she knew she had to try make this project more impactful.

“The kids became enthusiastic about science, but after I left with the equipment, what then? We needed a sustainable solution.” That’s when Mpofu came up with the idea of making science kits for schools. She’d do the demos, but would leave a kit behind so the students could keep learning. 

The first ChemStart kits were developed with the aid of seed funding from the University of Cape Town and the SAB Foundation. Later Mpofu applied for funding from Lifeco Unlimited, which enabled the kits to be tested in schools. Next she entered Total’s ‘Startupper of the Year’ and won a prize of R600 000. This funding gave Mpofu the initiative she needed to quit her day job and start producing and marketing the kit full time. 

The kit comes with all the glassware (test-tubes, beakers and measuring tubes) and chemicals needed for a variety of experiments, and there are even safety goggles for the learner who is handling the equipment. Everything is housed inside polystyrene compartments, which fit into a sturdy cardboard case. A booklet is included that describes the experiments, which are based on the school curriculum. The idea is that there should be no more than five learners per kit, to maximise the hands-on experience. It is currently available in 15 schools. 

Mpofu believes that science and technology are critical to building the economy, because innovation is founded on scientific discovery and original thinking, which in turn are founded on a good foundation in science education. “If we can’t get that right,” she says, “then we’re going to remain the way that we are – always dependent on someone else, some other country to create something new, which we then buy.”

This article originally appeared in the 30 March edition of finweekBuy and download the magazine here.

 

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How To Be A Social Entrepreneur

Social Entrepreneur A social enterprise is an organisation that serves a social and/or environmental purpose, generates income from business activities and reinvests its profits back

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How To Be A Social Entrepreneur

Social Entrepreneur

A social enterprise is an organisation that serves a social and/or environmental purpose, generates income from business activities and reinvests its profits back into driving its mission.

Examples include African Schools of Excellence (provide world-class schools to poor communities at a low cost); Hands of Honour (upcycles waste and provide employment for former drug addicts and ex-convicts); and my own social enterprise, Nkazimulo Applied Sciences (helps young people become scientists regardless of their background).

Some people say most of the profits should be reinvested into the mission, but others say a worker is worth their wages. 

Doing business differently

Social entrepreneurship is a different way of doing business. Previously, few people cared about whether a company did good or not. Today, food outlets that serve healthy eating options are growing their market share because consumers now care about their health.

Related: Eva Longoria And Social Entrepreneurship

Farming responsibly opens the growing market that cares about the environment. More people care about the quality of education South African children have access to and support the efforts in this area. This is where social entrepreneurs can make a real, sustainable difference.

The entity can take any legal form, from a non-profit organisation, to a private company, a trust, or adopt a hybrid structure. Each has its pros and cons. Social enterprises take attributes from commercial entities.

They generate income from business activities. They also take attributes from non-profit organisations and government departments by tackling challenges previously addressed by these organisations, such as poverty, inequality, poor education and unemployment.

They run more efficiently, and are more accountable and transparent than public sector organisations. They are less dependent on external funding than non-profit organisations and charities. Worldwide, there is not enough grant funding for all the non-profit organisations looking for it.

Sustainable social models

An important element of successful social entrepreneurship is social impact monitoring and evaluation. The enterprise must constantly improve on delivering its mission and communicating the results of the impact to all its stakeholders.

Measuring impact may seem difficult. How can you tell a child became a doctor because they had access to lab facilities they previously had no access to? Maybe they were influenced by another factor. There are several tools to help a social enterprise focus its activities on outputs that will lead to the intended outcome which can then be measured.

These outputs become inputs that form a series of outcomes that, together, achieve the intended overall impact and become indicators the enterprise measures. Instead of measuring the number of learners who become doctors, the measure is the number of learners with access to lab facilities where none existed before. This is better than looking at the number of lab facilities provided, which is an input.

See the bigger picture, collaborate and achieve collective impact

These tools are called Logic Models. Demonstration of impact communicates why an enterprise should be supported by stakeholders. The use of Logic Models envisions the bigger picture and identifies other players to collaborate with to achieve collective impact.

Thompson Reuters Foundation reported that South Africa comes third in Africa after Egypt and Nigeria as the best place to be a social entrepreneur. This is very encouraging and is much needed in not only boosting the economy but addressing social and environmental issues.

Related: Busi Skenjana’s Two Core Rules Of Entrepreneurship

IN ACTION: Using a logic model to prove your impact

A logic model is a visual representation of how day to day activities of an organisation relate to their overall mission or long-term goal. The model is key in deciding what to measure for impact evaluation.

It has six components:

1. The current situation: The problem being solved.

2. Inputs: Resources used to address the problem.

3. Outputs: Activities and services delivered by the enterprise.

4. What outcomes will come about because of the inputs?

5. External factors, or circumstances in the environment that influence the problem but which the enterprise has no control over.

6. Assumptions that are conditions needed for the success of the programme.

Getting started

Involve all stakeholders in drawing up a logic model. The different perspectives help draw a complete picture. Impact measurement indicators are then based on these inputs and outcomes.

Adding value

Logic models link inputs, outputs and outcomes and ensure that the correct indicators are monitored and measured as an enterprise achieves its mission.

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How To Be A Social Entrepreneur

Social Entrepreneur A social enterprise is an organisation that serves a social and/or environmental purpose, generates income from business activities and reinvests its profits back

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How To Be A Social Entrepreneur

Social Entrepreneur A social enterprise is an organisation that serves a social and/or environmental purpose, generates income from business activities and reinvests its profits back

Read More »