STEM champion wants to support young innovators in Africa

When the University of Zambia fifth-year pharmaceutical student Florence Jedidiah Mulenga was given an opportunity to address a United Nations conference in 2020, her main message was very clear: let’s take STEM – science, technology, engineering and maths – to girls in rural areas.

It was not by accident that Mulenga was chosen to represent young girls virtually during the UN Commission on the Status of Women conference which was, at the time, held in New York in the United States. Mulenga had worked to prove that she was a STEM champion.

Since her first year, the 23-year-old has won a number of STEM-related awards, the signature one being her winning concept of a body spray that can prevent asthma attacks.

Although some people have expressed an interest in her product, for now, it is just a concept that still needs more research to make it safe for customer use before it can be put on the market. Hence, she has appealed to research institutions, donors and well-wishers to come forward and support the project to produce a package that is safe and effective for public use.

“I chose asthma [as a focus] because I had a friend who never used deodorant because she was asthmatic [and body sprays and perfumes would contribute to asthmatic symptoms] and I felt it was really unfair for her, so I thought there must be a solution out there. But, unfortunately there wasn’t.”

During her work on the medicinal spray, she discovered ingredients that have properties that could help lower blood pressure. As a result, the focus of her work is both asthma and hypertension.

“I had friends and family members who had asthma and I felt we live in a generation where there’s so much advancement, therefore, asthma should stop being a problem in the next few years. It really affects a lot of people globally,” she said.

Solving problems in Africa

According to Mulenga, as a child, she had always dreamed of providing solutions to Africa’s challenges, and she is now following that dream.

As a result, some of the awards she has won due to the concept are Best Student Start-Up at the Zambia Entrepreneurship Summit by Women’s Entrepreneurship Access Centre Zambia; Young Pharmaceutical Innovator of the Year awarded by the Pharmaceutical Society Of Zambia; the National Youth Award for Medical and Technological Innovation awarded by the National Youth Development Council in partnership with the government of Zambia and the Economics Association of Zambia Innovator of the Year 2021.

Her achievements also saw her getting a sponsorship through the Southern African Network for Biosciences (SANBio) for a trip to South Africa to attend the Africa Women Innovation and Entrepreneurship Forum summit (AWIEF) in 2019.

In an interview with University World News, Mulenga said most of her family members are IT experts, hence it was easy to drift into STEM. She added that family support is vital on such a journey.

“I’ve grown up in the STEM world. My mom is very supportive. She shows up for every event whenever she can. My dad died when I was four, but I’m sure he would have been happy, too,” she said.

Mulenga said she has been fortunate because she has not faced challenges with payment of university fees as she is on a government scholarship.

Service and volunteerism

The pharmacy student is doubling up as the current programmes officer at the Zambia National STEM Foundation where she wants to use the platform to empower and equip young women and girls to pursue science in line with her message delivered at the UN conference.

The foundation is a registered non-profit organisation dedicated to the promotion and development of STEM education in Zambia.

She is also a communications assistant at the organisation When Females Lead, a network that aims to build ambitious, confident women who are passionate about achieving excellent careers and becoming leaders in society.

The organisation works on mentorship and career guidance and prioritises helping females in innovation, technology and agriculture.

Through her work with the two organisations, Mulenga wants to empower young people in science and technology and help connect them to different opportunities to grow their innovations into marketable products that can hopefully one day even compete on international markets.

“My message still remains the same as in 2020 when I delivered that speech to the UN. I said to the UN conference, let’s involve girls in the rural areas as well because most of the work we have been seeing in STEM is mostly urban based.

“So my message is, let’s involve girls in rural areas as well. Are we reaching them enough? What’s the visibility in rural areas? Let’s reach out to girls in the rural space because, once you give them an opportunity to dream, once you give them exposure, they are capable of dreaming bigger,” she said.

Most of the organisations the student works for operate without pay. According to Mulenga, her volunteer work is “worth more than money”.

Mulenga said the organisations she volunteers at help her to gain knowledge and experience that will be valuable when she leaves university.

She said few females in Zambia, in particular, and in Africa in general, pursue STEM subjects because young girls are not given enough confidence to work in science subjects.

She believes the gender gap can be solved by starting to instil confidence in the girl child at an early stage in life, making her aware of the STEM fields of the future.

What can be done to advance STEM?

Mulenga said a lot of career expos for both girls and boys in STEM are needed because the young ones know of only a few career options in STEM, yet they can even dream about working for NASA or Google or TESLA or, better yet, build their own tech companies.

Mulenga said that, in Zambia, young innovators do not receive the required support, especially from organisations and local companies. She said innovators need a pool of investors who can help them realise their dreams.

“Most innovators are not connected to the right investors. A pharmaceutical company may see value in my innovation, but a tech company might not. And, mostly, innovators are made to compete, which is good, but the competition is also often based on who spoke well.

“Some innovators are not well spoken but they have genius innovations. So, how many times are they going to lose these competitions and get frustrated?

“Innovators just need a pool of investors who can hear them out without having to compete. That way, investors get to make a clear decision as to whether they can invest or not, but this direct linkage between them and the main investors does not exist,” she said.

Mulenga said that, for now, she has not developed her asthma and hypertension concept further as she wants to complete her studies first, but even then, she is focused on the bigger STEM picture and not on her project only.

“In the next five years, I want to be in a position where I can help push forward the innovations in Africa to the global markets.

“These people need someone to open the space for them. My innovation may not continue but, at least, the experience has made me realise the gap around my people and exactly where I can help out,” she said.