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‘How we clinched gold at Silicon Valley contest’

With not so many women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) in Nigeria, five students from a Catholic girls’ school, Regina Pacis Model School, Onitsha, beat 114 other contenders to clinch gold at the World Technovation Challenge 2018 (Junior Division), which held in Silicon Valley, San Francisco, USA. The students speak to Daily Trust about from not knowing anything about computers to creating the much celebrated mobile app – FD Detector – for fake medicines.

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Prior to researching and creating the FD Detector app in January 2018, Team Save-A-Soul had no knowledge of computers or the internet. However, Vivian Okoye admired computers and liked everything about them. She liked the way people typed fast and accurately. The 14-year-old wanted to be like these people.

The SS1 student who wants to become a computer scientist said her love for STEM was self-influenced and fuelled by guidance from her mentor, Uche Onwuamaegbu-Ugwu.  

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She said the ripple effect was what motivated her and the other members of her team: Promise Nnalue, Adaeze Onuigbo, Jessica Osita and Nwabuaku Ossai, to design and create the mobile app, Fake Drug Detector, popularly called FD Detector, to enhance the fight against the fake drug menace bedevilling Nigeria, adding that the app helped users, through a drug’s bar code, to validate its expiry date and authenticity. 

The team was motivated to create the app due to deaths from fake drugs

“It was like I was mad. It felt like a dream when we were announced winners of the competition. We really had beaten the other teams to it. We won China, US, Turkey, Spain and Uzbekistan. I was so happy,” said a very excited Okoye.

 For 15-year-old Jessica Osita, who aspires to become a pharmacist and produce authentic medicines, the project was more than being a scientist. It was her way of preventing other deaths like her brother’s as a result of fake drugs.

Nnalue (14), who wants to become a doctor, said the number of deaths in Nigeria due to fake drugs motivated them to embark on the project.

She said, “What we have now is a demo and we have been given permission to go ahead to produce it.”

For her, “It was good to see young people like us come up with brilliant ideas to resolve problems they were encountering in their respective countries.”

From the regional contest which held in Abuja in May, 2018, Okoye her team members have become icons. 

Stella Uzochukwu-Denis of Odyssey Educational Foundation is the Regional Ambassador of the Technovation competition and conducted the regional pitch in Abuja where the Anambra girls won gold, pushing them to the next stage at Silicon Valley. 

She said, “I knew and saw them making waves because they were super great at the Regional Pitch. Even when we had 13 other apps presented by the junior category from schools in Abuja, Minna and Suleja and its environs, the team from Anambra had an outstanding app and presentation. 

“Two teams moved to the semi finals, where there was another round of judging. The Anambra girls moved to the finals and eventually became the finalist. I saw them clinging to the gold because their app and presentation was stunning.”

In the light that Nigeria has consistently battled fake drugs, Uzochukwu-Denis, an advocate for more female participation in STEM, said, “The FD-Detector stood out, especially with the menace of fake drugs and the fact that Anambra State’s late Dora Akunyili made it known that there were a lot of fake drug dealers there. It was only a viable app for the student to produce now.” 

The team showing off their certificates after the Regional Pitch in Abuja, in May

With STEM not being an area many women apply themselves to, Denis said, “It is a great thing that girls at this age have become producers of their own technology.” 

Technovation is an initiative of Iridescent, a non-profit organisation founded by Tara Chklovski. It challenges teams of young women around the world, aged 10 to 18, to identify a problem in their community they want to solve using an app they have built. The girls also develop a business plan and a pitch presentation to prepare them to bring their app to the market. 

In recognition of their feat, the Anambra State Governor, Willie Obiano, feted the girls at a ceremony on Monday, where he decorated them with the Crest of Anambra State, issued them a Certificate of Merit and N1m. 

Describing them as “a group of amazing girls who recently dazzled the world with their talent,” Gov. Obiano observed that “they have, therefore, turned this special day into gold. They did it with their outstanding brilliance, their quest for knowledge and their search for a happier world. And I am immensely proud of them.”

. Their mentor Uche Onwuamaegbu-Ugwu, told Daily Trust that she was not just happy the team won, but that the team would motivate other girls into STEM and also make them believe in the possibilities that abound. 

The Edufun Technik boss said she identified the girls while giving free lessons at the school and began with about 50 students. “Many dropped off because they couldn’t cope and we were left with these.” 

She added that, “Winning for me is a vocation. When we repeat this feat next year and two years from now, that is winning for me. We cannot win just once. But we need a lot of support to keep winning. I love the celebration that has gone on across the world, but in my head, I am thinking, how do we duplicate this? How do we reach other girls? We can be champions forever. We cannot be champions today and it stops here.

“At the regional pitch which brought together over 100 girls, including the Regina Pacis students, to Abuja’s Archive House, there was no supporter for us to have this pitch. We had over 300 girls in attendance.

“One more thing is that we invited so many MDAs, the turnout was so low. If we do not run a regional pitch, how can we be represented, because to run a regional pitch your region must have at least 10 teams.”

Speaking to Daily Trust, Archbishop and Metropolitan of Onitsha Ecclesiastical Province, Most Rev. Dr. Valerian Okeke, said, “One major aspect that struck me is that these girls are normal children from a normal Catholic school with fees among the least in Onitsha. They don’t pay more than N20, 000. The school was built in the early 60s and was made affordable for every single person interested in giving their children quality education.

“If they, from such backgrounds, can achieve this feat, then it means other children, with proper guidance, structures and environment can be trained to achieve even more.”

Going forward, the girls said, “The next step is for us to develop the app to start doing what we built it for. The next is also to encourage other girls into the tech world because talents that are waiting to be unleashed abound among us.”

While the likes of Nigeria’s Vice President, Yemi Osibanjo, have commended the girls for making the country proud, it is important that these commendations transit to sustainable actions.

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