Kabul University sets up new innovation centre for women

The Afghan government has laid the foundation for a new technical and innovation centre for women and girls at Kabul University under the leadership of Roya Mahboob, head of the Afghanistan all-female robotics team.

The new centre dubbed ‘Roya Pardazan’ or Dreamer Centre aims to provide technical and vocational training for girls in all four zones of the war-ravaged country, hoping to rebrand Afghanistan as a hub of technical excellence.

Mahboob, an Afghan IT entrepreneur, heads the non-profit Digital Citizen Fund based in Herat, which teaches girls coding and IT skills. More than 3,000 girls in Herat have studied at the Digital Citizen Fund, and the city’s university now has its largest number of women computer scientists.

Mahboob is best known for setting up a team of 20 girls aged 15 to 17 three years ago who made international headlines when they were refused visas to enter the United States for the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) global robotics challenge for teenagers, in 2017. They were allowed in after an international outcry and went on to win a silver medal for ‘courageous achievement’ in the competition.

Mahboob’s Digital Citizen Fund will collaborate with the Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) Authority to establish the pilot project at Kabul University and later with branches in the four zones of the country. The whole project is likely to cost an estimated US$20 million, according to officials.

According to Nadima Sahar, the female head of the country’s Technical and Vocational Education and Training Authority, the centre will offer high school diplomas and degree-level courses in various fields of information technology, including artificial intelligence, new media and robotics.

“In my view, Afghanistan’s greatest national wealth is not its strategic location or the mineral resources worth trillions of dollars, but the youth and their untapped potential. With this institute we, in collaboration with the robotics team, aim to train and support this untapped potential for the welfare and development of the country,” she told University World News.

The blueprint for this institute has been designed by the Yale School of Architecture at Yale University, Mahboob said during the signing ceremony at Kabul University at the end of December.

Need to develop youth’s skills

“We need to focus on developing the skills of our future generations in advanced science and technology, as the future is going to be entirely about artificial intelligence and modern sciences,” she said, while deploring the state of illiteracy in the country.

The all-girl robotics team of Afghanistan, also known as the Afghan Dreamers, has already won praise internationally with its invention of an affordable open-source, low-cost ventilator using old car parts to combat a severe dearth of ventilators in the country’s fight against COVID-19, as well as other inventions.

According to official estimates, some 13 million Afghan citizens, or just under 50% of the population, are under the age of 20.

A young information technology expert and independent programmer, Ajmal Ahmadi, told University World News relative peace in parts of the country over the past two decades has helped Afghans experience and explore modern technology.

“Hardly anyone knew of telecommunications in Afghanistan a little over a decade ago, but the younger generation can now enjoy broadband experiences in major cities such as Kabul and are quite aware of developments in the field of information technology,” he said.

Ahmadi, however, expressed cautious optimism over the prospects of the new institute at Kabul University in helping Afghan youth with job opportunities in the short-term. “Firstly, it would take years to complete,” he said referring to the construction and equipping of the centre and commencement of courses.

“Secondly, deep-rooted issues of corruption and nepotism would mean very little trickle-down effect for deserving youth,” he warned.

However, those behind the initiative, such as Mahboob, inspired by the rise to fame of the robotics team, remain hopeful.

“Women and girls remain the most deprived segments of society in Afghanistan, but the past two decades’ relative peace has offered great opportunities to them in terms of health and education… the technology has made physical distances and gender and other barriers irrelevant so all can have equal opportunities to learn basic science as well as complex knowledge of code-writing, programming and even robotics,” she said.

TVET officials said a number of Gulf countries had offered job opportunities for Afghan IT experts equipped with modern tools and knowledge of the industry.