How Ethiopia’s ten year old came to be a coding champ

Much has been written about the importance of advancing digital literacy on the African continent, especially among its younger citizens. But more often than not, mobilising and inspiring the youthful population to be active participants of the global digital economy is proving to be the continent’s challenge.

For Soliyana Gizaw Hunde, ten-year-old coder and winner of the SAP Africa’s inaugural AfriCANCode Challenge, a love of maths and science and a strong community spirit inspired her to develop an educational game dubbed “Mathstainment” to create awareness about COVID-19 while offering a simple and fun way to practice maths.

Mathstainment asks a series of maths questions that leads a character on the screen ever closer to personal protective equipment (popular as PPE) for each correct answer. After a few incorrect answers, the player has to start over. Maths questions are posed at varying difficulty levels, ranging from “easy” to “difficult”.

“It has motivated me to do more and dream big,” says Gizaw. “Being part of the AfriCANCode Challenge has been fun, and winning the national and overall competition was very exciting.”

Ms Gizaw who lives with her parents in Addis Ababa, Ethiopian capital city, says she was inspired to learn coding after seeing the projects her cousin, a software engineering student at one of the local state universities, was doing. She was crowned overall winner at a virtual prize-giving ceremony in February 2021.

“When I was eight, my cousin helped me take a short coding training course at a local centre. Since then, I have watched instructional videos on YouTube, and I have been motivated to keep practicing,” she says.

Probably she is on the right path especially going by the fact that she has achieved what many people her age are dreaming of but does it mean that she will stay on the same path? Where will she be in future?

“I want to be an astronomer. I want to know how the universe works,” she notes.

After the pandemic forced the Ethiopian government to close schools, she decided to apply her coding skills as a service to her community by participating in a competition that attracted participants from 22 countries. 

The competition was introduced after the 2020 SAP Africa Code Week programme shifted to an all-virtual format in the wake of the global pandemic. It challenged youth aged 8 to 16 to develop a game using the Scratch coding language to reimagine school and education, or answer the question; “how will your tech change the future of education?”

Alexandra van der Ploeg, head of corporate social responsibility at SAP, says Gizaw and her fellow participants at this year’s competition are inspirations to youth across the continent.

“The innovation and community-minded spirit displayed by this year’s participants point to a bright future for Africa’s citizens. It is also hugely encouraging to see the high ratio of female participants, whose ingenuity saw all three top place finishes claimed by girls,” says Ploeg.

She points to progress over the past few years with expanding access to coding teaching and digital literacy opportunities for the continent’s youth.

“As we continue into an uncertain future, this investment into youth skills development will pay huge dividends over the coming years and decades,” says Ploeg.

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