Category: Interviews

Q&A: Project Lead Irena Bakić

Project Lead Irena Bakić spent a hundred days on the road to coordinate CodeBus Africa in ten countries. Now she answers questions about the initiative’s outcomes and next steps.

The CodeBus Africa 100-day tour had three key goals: to support equal opportunities in technology, to build local capacity for youth tech education, and to boost cooperation between Finnish and African innovators. Have these goals been reached?

The goals for this project have been met and exceeded. I especially hoped to see a lot of girls involved and to truly change their preconceptions about what they can be and do. The instructors interacting and connecting with the youth all day puts them in the best possible position to positively influence them, so I’m really happy we had a lot of female instructors that translated to powerful role models to the youth.

I was positively surprised to see that the local tech hubs also had a strong drive to work for the betterment of the gender gap issue. It wasn’t just a goal pushed from our end, but the partners personally saw the low amount of girls in technology as problematic. I guess I had some prejudice stemming from how prevalent hard values are in the Finnish tech and start-up world, but our local partners proved me wrong with their compassionate approach.

Could you tell more about what kind of value CodeBus Africa delivered?

The value we created together is, first and foremost, human. Facilitating rewarding learning experiences through team teaching, forming global partnerships and collaborating to introduce more youth to technology, and co-creatively building tools with the hubs for their continued use are some of the main things. A few of our partners had long wanted to cooperate with local schools. Now they have a new tool and the in-house know-how to utilize it.

But what stands out most for me is the value we’ve offered the youth. We’ve provided hundreds of youth with the opportunity to explore technology in a safe and encouraging environment. Hopefully having a first or at least an entirely new kind of touch to technology has opened their minds to see that they can learn anything.

How would you estimate the success of this project and what would you contribute it to?

Speaking subjectively from the project coordinator’s point of view, I think all 45 workshops were successful. Despite a lot of challenges behind the scenes, any issues we had never disturbed the flow of the workshops. The feedback from CodeBus’ instructors and partners has also been very positive.

The primary indicator of CodeBus’ success is the children’s reactions. As the students’ first beats and melodies started forming, you could see them laughing and smiling together and slowly starting to move to the music. To see that joy of discovery taking place right in front of you is pretty amazing. The youth would also return from recess much earlier than they had to. At times, it was even hard to get them out of the class. And when they worked, they were highly focused. A lot of teachers commented that it was something quite special.

In a lot of ways, this project has been a leap of faith to all its beneficiaries. While basic preparations had been taken care of, the intense 1-2 week periods of daily challenges really required trusting each other and trusting that things will work out. What enabled the success of this project was that we had a cohesive team. A uniform sense of the project’s goals allowed teaming up to happen really quickly in each country, and the strong team spirit carried everyone through.

Now that the first chapter is over, what are the next steps for CodeBus Africa?

On the Finnish front, we’ll spend the next few months writing project-related reports to help us plan the future of CodeBus Africa. We’ve surveyed our partners to get an idea of what their hopes are. In the fall, we’ll have more discussions about the next steps with them. We’ll also be having discussions with our sponsors on whether they wish to continue to support this project.

Right now, Tunapanda is creating an open source digital version of the creative coding workshop curriculum, which all our partners can give feedback on. It’s a new aspect to co-creation and the next concrete step for our partner tech hubs in what comes to CodeBus. Many other African countries have also shown interest in the initiative, so coming up with a way to share our knowledge and teaching materials even to places we cannot go to is another thing that’s ahead. I think technology can play a central role in the solution.

How will partnerships with African education and innovation actors be maintained?

During this intense tour, we managed to form very strong ties to our local partners, and we’ve stayed in touch through social media. I feel like it’s every day that I’m chatting with someone on WhatsApp or Facebook. A strong team spirit is still present.

In the fall, many of our partners will be attending the Slush conference in Finland. It’s a chance for the partners to meet each other and exchange experiences and ideas. I hope meeting face-to-face can lead to a more interlinked connection between the different partner hubs.

On this note, CodeBus Africa’s social media quiets down for the summer. Thank you for following this year’s most exciting adventure in technology, and stay tuned for more in the fall!

Q&A: Local Instructors

The CodeBus Africa workshop concept was adapted and implemented to fit various local needs by a global team of 62 instructors. No matter the students’ starting level, instructors made sure that each and every attendee finished with a creative outcome – their very own song. Altogether 50 African instructors received training in running Sonic Pi coding workshops. We had the pleasure of interviewing three of them about their CodeBus Africa experience: Georgia Rwechungura from Tanzania, Jacky Kimani from Kenya and Leonel Tuto from Mozambique.

Could you please briefly introduce yourselves – who are you and what do you do?

Georgia: My name is Georgia, and I work as a developer and tech trainer. I am a co-founder at Kuza Codes Africa.

Jacky: I’m Jacky and I’m 22. I’m a self-taught web developer, a technology enthusiast and an aspiring hacker. I began my journey into tech a year ago and now teach at Tunapanda Institute in Kibera, Nairobi.

Leonel: I’m Leonel, a 31-year-old communications and multimedia graduate, YouTuber, filmmaker, DJ and digital content creator. I’m self-employed and focus on producing videos and other online marketing content.

Georgia teaching the use of a keyboard in Dar es Salaam © Roope Kiviranta

Quite versatile backgrounds then. Well, the CodeBus has crossed the finish line after an intense 100 days. Do you remember what your feelings were prior to your first workshop? How about afterwards?

Leonel: Things started out a bit funny, as I was only supposed to document the workshops but ended up finding myself taking part in the instructors’ training session. I had plenty of previous programming experience, so I caught right up however. The workshops were amazing – the kids really exceeded my expectations and I’m really proud of them.

Georgia: Programming music was something entirely new to me, so I was excited to learn more about creative coding. The first workshop had me feeling a little nervous, because even though I had experience in teaching coding to beginners, I had never done so within the constraints of a language barrier. Managing to teach the students regardless has been the greatest ‘woohoo’ of my career.

Jacky: Teaching coding through music sounded crazy, yet interesting at the same time. The success of the workshops really showed that technology fits with everything.

So what would you describe as the most memorable moment of your CodeBus Africa experience?

Leonel: Definitely teaching my first coding class to public school students who had zero programming experience. Their commitment to learning was impressive.

Georgia: I second Leonel. Helping kids overcome both computer literacy and language barriers is one of my best memories.

Jacky: The youth producing their own songs and then dancing to them was a moment that stood out for me. It’s also been wonderful to see that some of the children recognize me on the street. Their remembering me means we’ve learned together.

Jacky instructing with Sonic Pi in Kibera © Anssi Grekula

Interesting! You’ve all really helped CodeBus’ mission to get youth and especially girls excited about technology transform from words on paper to something concrete. But why do you think this is an important objective?

Georgia: Youth have a fresh and creative mind and a world of opportunities ahead of them. It’s important that the technology sector is not ruled out. Girls are such a minority in tech, and we need to encourage them to take more science subjects.

Leonel: It’s important that youth get involved in technology and have a chance to master computer skills, because technology is the key to the development and transformation of our country. As for girls in particular, it’s important they have a chance to compete on an equal footing in life.

Jacky: Before I got a computer of my own, I would frequent cyber cafes. More often than not, I would be the only girl there. It is rare to find girls associating themselves with computer science. Providing a safe space and mentorship for girls to learn about technology can break down prejudice they have towards tech and boost their motivation to learn more.

Leonel lecturing at the start of a workshop in Maputo © DeJerson Maçanzo

At the core of CodeBus Africa are the youth, but the initiative has a lot of great lessons in store for everyone. How have you grown during this experience and how will you apply your new learning going forward?

Jacky: I’ve gained new perspective to life. In my community, most people lack access to information found outside social media pages. I’m privileged to have had a chance to learn and advance in technology, so I want to give back by helping especially youth to gain more knowledge and information. There are so many youth who could do more with their lives, but a lack of knowledge of what exists limits their opportunities. I think that Sonic Pi can help more people become problem solvers through a fun and musical approach, regardless of age or level of experience.

Georgia: I’ve grown very concretely. Through dealing with challenging classes, my teaching skills and self-confidence have improved. I now also have experience in a new coding language, Ruby. My friends and I have started our own STEM education initiative, Kuza Codes Africa, which targets orphans and abandoned children. We use Sonic Pi as one of the tools in our curriculum.

Leonel: I’ve discovered the pleasure of making a positive societal impact and I’ve become more informed about and involved within my community. I used my platform on YouTube to showcase this project and spread tech awareness. I hope for more partnership initiatives like CodeBus, so we can have even more positive results.

CodeBus Africa’s commitment to a 50% participation by girls also applied to the team of instructors. Out of the 50 local instructors, 26 persons or 52% were female. We want to thank our local partners for rounding up such an incredible bunch, and our instructors for giving this project their all!

No Party Without Music

CodeBus Africa is a celebration of technology and youth empowerment – and everybody knows there’s no party without music! From making songs on the live programming environment Sonic Pi to energetic dance-offs to the beat of freshly coded tunes and local bangers, music played a central role in CodeBus Africa. In Mozambique, local artists Regina, Klorokilla, Carmen Chaquice, Teknik and Stewart Sukuma visited workshops, performing their hit songs and inspiring the youth. In addition, concerts was organized by the Finnish embassies and local partners in four countries. In each one, a diverse line-up of musicians came together and provided a memorable evening to an audience of young listeners.

The first CodeBus concert took place in the Kibera slum in Nairobi, Kenya, where a bunch of local rappers and dancers got up on the busy stage one after another. Among the various performers were Kibera-born rappers Slavey da illest and Mikke Mzeyya, as well as Kenyan female rapper Pizo Dizo. A crowd of some 300 kids gathered ’round to enjoy the show. Slavey also acted as a MC in the workshops, getting the youth hyped up about creating their own songs by coding. Mzeyya, who is also a radio host, interviewed workshop attendees for his show.

The second concert was organized in Lusaka, Zambia. Local musicians Wezi Heartsound, Cactus Agony, John Chiti and Nasty-D joined hands with Finnish Paleface, Papa Zai and Biniyam on the stage of Manhattan Lounge & Restaurant in Mass Media. Two sets from the artists kept everybody dancing throughout the evening. Cactus’ upbeat reggae sounds literally got the youth jumping and Papa Zai’s more mellow tunes inspired swaying waves of arms. Later, the Finnish artists visited workshops in Livingstone, and Paleface MC’d a post-workshop jam session, leading the youth into a dope call-and-response.

In Windhoek, Namibia, an open air concert woke up the Namibia University of Science and Technology campus with flashy lights and cool sounds, as TheFutureIsGiggz, Bertholdt Mbinda, Samuel Myamba, Fesse Hamunyela, Rushour, Sakari Löytty and Ulla-Sisko Jauhiainen performed their music. Before her solo performance, a surprise guest appearance was made during Hamunyela’s show by local CodeBus instructor Stefanie Garsises, who moonlights as rapper RÖMI. Rumor has it even the concert organizers climbed on stage to sing a song or two.

The last concert was held in Cape Town, South Africa. After DJ sets by electropop artist Emma Kemppainen of LCMDF and Mehackit’s Tommi Toivonen, the evening culminated in listening to South African jams. The girls put on local tunes and got down on the dance floor to show off their best moves. “Hearing their favorite songs was what really got the party started”, Kemppainen says.

Before the celebration, Kemppainen held a 2-hour DJ workshop for a dozen girls. The workshop gave an introduction to a DJ’s work – what a disc jockey does and what the technical side of DJing involves. In addition to the girls getting to try out things like beat mixing on Pioneer decks themselves, Kemppainen talked about claiming space: being confident on stage and believing in yourself. “Kind of like coding, DJing is one of those things that’s seen as a ‘boy’s thing’, so empowering young women is especially close to my heart. I always try to encourage women to be bold – the space is there and all it takes to claim it is courage. It’s a message that can’t be underlined enough.”

Kemppainen believes that music is a great tool for youth empowerment because it brings people together and allows them to create something of their own. Her motivation to take part in the CodeBus Africa initiative was personal, as seeing an older female DJ was what once inspired her to give DJing a try herself. “The girls were really into it and they had their own taste in music and a clear musical vision”, Kemppainen says. “Based on the determination and self-confidence of the girls, I don’t see much getting in their way if they choose to pursue DJing.”

Check out LCMDF’s music video ‘Rookie’:

Q&A: Biniyam

21-year-old Helsinki-based Biniyam is an alternative hip-hop artist, writer and producer. The young rapper made his debut in 2014 by dropping a self-titled EP, and has since released several well-received singles and an album in 2016, The Abyssinian. On April 20, Biniyam takes the stage at the CodeBus concert organized by the Embassy of Finland in Lusaka. Biniyam shared with us some of his thoughts on youth, music, creativity and girls in technology.

In the CodeBus workshops, youth get to create their own songs by coding.
What does making music mean to you?
It’s definitely a means of self-expression to me, but it’s also a way to influence and convey different types of feelings. If I’m really happy and want to pass on my mood to others, music lets me do that. Sometimes I also let out steam through creating. Instead of hopping on Facebook and writing a long rant about something that irritates me, I can write a song about it and maybe find a fresh, more optimistic way of looking at the situation.

We choose to teach technology through music, because music is universal and intuitive. But it is not exactly the most intuitive thought that the two can go together. How are technology and music related for you?
You know, technology is actually how I got excited about making music in the first place. When I was in grade school, I would watch my dad make songs on the computer. I was curious and wanted to give it a go, so he set me up with something really simple, where I would just stack loops color-coded by key together. It was so much fun to just connect these colorful building blocks and have them come together to form a whole. Nowadays I use music making software all the time.

Wow, how cool is that! Who would have guessed the kid playing around was, in fact, a producer in the making? That joy of discovery and finding that technology can be fun is an experience we try to provide through our workshops. Why do you think it is important for youth to learn tech skills?
Technology is today, there’s no escaping that. We are constantly moving forward, and we are moving fast. The younger one learns basic tech skills, the greater and quicker their potential to develop those skills further and advance in that field is. If taught technological thinking at a young age, youth will be better able to harness their innovation.

We are committed to having at least half the participants in our workshops be girls. There is a notable gender gap in STEM-fields, just as there is in rap. How can we help bridge it?
The public opinion is that STEM isn’t for girls, which makes zero sense. So ultimately, what we need is a shifting of attitudes, and one of the ways to get there is through increasing the representation of women in STEM. Women have always been doing all kinds of amazing and innovative things, but their achievements haven’t been acknowledged by the media. Think Hidden Figures, the new film about NASA’s women in the 60s. These are role models we need to present to girls, so they can look at them and think “That could be me.”

I cannot stress the impact of that four-worded thought enough. I have first-hand experience of its power. I’ve always been fascinated by black American culture and icons, even though I have no ties to the States. I’ve only recently realized that it’s because hip hop artists were the only people on TV who looked like me. From a young age, rap was made accessible for me – and here I am.

Your music is multidimensional, fusing together hip hop and pop, and you say you are influenced by a range of artists from Michael Jackson to Missy Elliott. What does creativity mean to you?
Wow, that’s a big one. For me, creativity is turning the abstract inside you into something concrete. Everyone is their own individual with their own set of skills and experiences, so no one else can create what you can. In essence, creativity is telling a story nobody else can – creating your own world and bringing it forth. It’s liberating the you in you.

Lastly: what is your motivation for taking part in CodeBus Africa?
I think this is an awesome project. And I can’t lie, it’s pretty cool to get a chance to visit Zambia. My mom is Ethiopian, so I have a personal bond to Africa. But really, I can really appreciate the idea of co-operating cross-continentally to share knowledge and tools. It’s great that CodeBus seeks to empower youth to pursue technology and show a different side to coding. I wish I’d gotten a chance to try something like this when I was in grade school. I never knew that coding could be something fun.

Listen to Biniyam’s latest single “Watch Out” on SoundCloud.

Training Day Thrills

While they had dipped their feet in before, our fantastic Aalto University coding instructors – or our Band of Nerds, as we lovingly call them – truly took the plunge into the world of Sonic Pi at an intensive training camp held by Mehackit last week. With the guidance of Mehackit’s Tommi Toivonen and Mikko Eloholma, the group of 10 quickly learned to navigate the coding environment and create their own songs. They gradually moved up from dog-paddling to breaststroke in their knowledge of Sonic Pi, while also learning how to lead a workshop in an inspiring and fruitful way. “We could not have asked for better trainers than Tommi and Mikko. They are the best”, says Sonia, who will be instructing CodeBus workshops in May.

At the start of the one-day camp, a hint of nervousness could be sensed in the air. After all, it was a day of firsts: first time properly learning Sonic Pi, and the first time spending time together as a group. However, it did not take long for the butterflies to subside and be replaced with excitement and a strong sense of team spirit. According to Ronja, who hops on the CodeBus in April, there was a warm atmosphere at the camp. “We all had a blast and there were good vibes all around”, she says.

When asked to name one take-away they gained from the camp, both Ronja and Sonja stress the importance of letting go of one’s inhibitions. “I learned how important it is to be unafraid of making mistakes. Trying to figure out what went wrong and how to fix it is the best learning experience”, Ronja elaborates. “It’s all about self-expression, not perfection. We’re not here to create symphonies, we’re here to have fun”, Sonia adds.

The Aalto instructors’ enthusiasm and motivation to advance CodeBus’ mission seeps through their speech as they describe what they wish to pass on to the children. Their hope is that approaching an abstract thing like coding through an intuitive method like music will help the children understand that technology and programmatic thinking is for everyone. A strong desire to empower through encouraging creativity and facilitating feelings of accomplishment is apparent.

“I really hope this experience can have a lasting effect on the children”, Ronja says excitedly.