When Princess Amarachi Okeoma-Ihunwo was four years old, she asked me some interesting questions with the curiosity of a child but the expectation of an adult. How did going to school come about? What was the world like before the advent of the telephone? I was intrigued by her beautiful mind and knew right there that she was born a star girl.
And I was not wrong.
“I can help you do your office work, you know,” she boldly told me when I was worried about some backlogs I needed to clear before going into leave mode fully. Her voice did not betray a plea; she was not asking if she could help me, she was telling me she could do my work! So much self-confidence and assurance in her own abilities. I would later learn that her father seldom allowed her do ‘work’ on some of his real projects to quench her insatiable appetite for coding.
“I searched on Google to learn how to add a pdf file to my website, I didn’t know how to do that, my father didn’t teach me that… But I chose to learn it because I want to create tutorial videos with download links, I can host on my website so viewers can download my videos.”
“You know, it’s a digital world, so I just thought to expose her and her only brother at the time to basic computer applications like Microsoft Packages like Word, Excel, & PowerPoint,” Mr Okeoma Ihunwo, Princess’ father narrated, “But she picked them up too fast and I was like, okay girl, maybe we can do more programs. And she impressed me beyond my expectations.” Mr Okeoma is a programmer who has experience working with top IT firms like Intel.
Based on her father’s recommendation, Princess took online courses from Harvard University on Game Development and has now developed her own games. The role parents or guardians play in shaping the interests of children can significantly reduce the deficit in learning opportunities available at school. Princess is gradually learning that tech education is still infantile at the early education levels in Nigeria. “I tell my classmates in school about the programs I am learning and they look at me like I am saying something strange,” she tells me I ask her if she wished she were in a circle of friends that code like her.
This low adoption of tech education at the primary and secondary education levels in Nigeria betrays the popular narrative that Africa’s tech ecosystem is growing fast. Tech is still being introduced to primary education curriculum in Nigeria like a vaccine is to a diseased host. The ideal expectation, which resonates with current global realities, is that tech should be an essential nutrient in the educational feed given our children. There are limits to how much Capital (explained as multimillion dollar series funding) can do to help develop tech, but better use of human capital nurtured from childhood is key to sustainable growth and development of the tech ecosystem in Nigeria and Africa.
“I searched on Google to learn how to add a pdf file to my website, I didn’t know how to do that, my father didn’t teach me that… I want to make some tutorial videos I can host on my website and create links that viewers can go to for download of the videos,” Princess said while explaining to me the workings of her website. Perhaps Jean Piaget’s theory is true, that everything we do for children deprives them of the opportunity to do it for themselves, summing up intelligence as not something a child has but something a child creates. But I’m intrigued by the passion she exudes about this her new found love. Whether we were about to build houses with toy blocks with her siblings or go over some problems in mathematics, her best subject, in preparation for her common entrance examinations, she would first inquire whether she could work with a laptop in the house after all work or play. I am also impressed that her love for mathematics is a fine complement to her good communication skills. We exchange emails, place calls to each other, and oftentimes I forget we’re not of the same generation.
Whether coding will turn out to be Princess’ future career is still probable. When I asked her, she noted she would like to become the CEO of a bank someday, something she is enthused about given that her mother is a Relationship Manager in one of the leading commercial banks in Nigeria. Becoming a bank CEO with a background in tech is something rare or, perhaps, non-existent in the traditional banking industry. The fintech industry, however, is fiercely challenging this norm in the competitive Nigerian financial sector with the rise and rise of young, savvy tech gurus leading tech start-ups.
Although it is hard to deny that women are grossly underrepresented as CEOs/cofounders when you consider the number of fintech founders/co-founders in Nigeria, role models like Fara Ashiru Jituboh, the woman behind Okra, Africa’s first API fintech “super-connector”, and Odunayo Eweniyi of Shapire Global Limited (the company behind PiggyBank) could be role models to help inspire Princess if she cares to dream in that direction. The right time to grow her interest and build her capacity is now, as a child. Naomi Dickson, a dental technologist-turned-software-analyst based in Lagos, Nigeria, echoes this by reliving her own experience:
“At the start of my journey I almost quit because I thought it was impossible… I encountered in a funny way most of the things I learnt as a child and realized no knowledge is a waste. I think the girl child needs the right information and encouragement. She needs to know that she can do it—and if these things are introduced to her early, she’d get a better grasp of it,” Naomi replies me when I write to her about Princess.
“I tell my classmates in school about the programs I am learning and they look at me like I am saying something strange.”
When I ask Princess the question again, if she wished she were in a circle of peers that code, and further explain the benefits of belonging to a community of kids with like interests, she nods her head. A few ideas come to my head, but I am worried about the constraints of geographical boundaries. Warri as a city is unpopular when it comes to bootcamps for coding. Edna Okeoma-Ihunwo, Princess’ mum, tells me that she wishes her daughter could be a part of a project where her coding capacity can be fully harnessed for global competitiveness. Oluwafunmilola Kesa, a software engineer that enjoys teaching kids how to build applications, thinks Princess has got the right foundation to do so. Olufunmilola is currently a PhD candidate in University of Warwick, I met her through a mutual friend when my mind was snapping with ideas about Princess.
Well, I think Princess and other kids her age need to find coding as natural and fun the same way they find themselves mimicking characters or events that they relish. Once, I found Princess in the sitting room wielding a TV remote in the approved manner of a microphone in the hands of a preacher, bouncing about the area of her imaginary stage and introducing to her imaginary audience the beneficiary of an imaginary award. I watched her furtively, awaiting the decision from her lips. “And the Best Player in the Universe is… Cristiano Ronaldo!”