YAOUNDE – With a flash of green light, a robot sputters and whizzes across the room, obeying the remote control commands 15-year-old Xaviera Nguefo and her team send its way.
It is a scene that would not look out of place in a futuristic sci-fi fantasy, but is instead playing out in Yaounde, the dusty capital of Cameroon with its potholed streets and frequent power outages.
In a country where 1 in 4 girls do not even learn to read, Xaviera, one of about 20 young Cameroonians studying at the NextGen Technology Center in Yaounde, is picking up the basics of artificial intelligence.
“I love doing that because the physics that they teach us (at school) is all applied here,” she said. “And it makes me a little bit smarter!”
The center is the brainchild of Janet Fofang, a pioneering scientist and teacher who aims to train the future tech innovators of her country — with a particular focus on its girls.
It enables young Cameroonians to learn to write code, make robots and acquire advanced computer skills, and is one of a range of initiatives Fofang has set up, including a technological school for 800 pupils.
“We’ve seen technology prove to every one of us that it’s a good method to move away from poverty. And we all know that in these parts, women always remain at the poverty line,” she said.
Nearly 1 in 3 girls in Cameroon are married by the time they reach 18, according to a 2016 study by United Nations children’s agency UNICEF, and this often means they drop out of full-time education early.
In 2016, 95 percent of all children out of school were girls, and U.N. data for 2010 — the most up to date available — showed women and girls made up 60 percent of Cameroon’s illiterate population.
Studies suggest educating girls has a broader societal benefit that goes well beyond the individual child. If all girls had a secondary education, child deaths would be cut in half, saving almost 3 million lives across the globe, according to research by the U.N. cultural agency UNESCO.
Fofang says teaching girls about technology can help break the cycle of “poverty from generation to generation,” but says social attitudes, as well as a lack of opportunities, are still holding them back. “An overly ambitious girl in Cameroon is not a good one — if you’re too ambitious, society judges you,” she said.
One woman who has not allowed society to hold her back is chemical engineer Persis Mbangsi, one of a tiny minority of Cameroonian women who have broken through the glass ceiling. She is the only woman among 500 male engineers at the aluminium plant where she works. Together with other female engineers, Mbangsi established a social media initiative entitled Hidden No More Cameroon to showcase the achievements of women in technology. It was inspired by the Hollywood film “Hidden Figures,” which tells the story of three African-American female mathematicians in the 1960s who defy the odds by going to work for NASA.
“We have a cultural background that says that a woman sits in the kitchen,” said Mbangsi. “But imagine in a community one person saying … ‘Oh, I’ve seen her, she’s a petroleum engineer.’ “
Cameroon, a lower-middle income country wedged between Central and West Africa, has natural resources including oil and gas, timber and minerals, yet 40 percent of its 23.7 million people live below the poverty line. The country needs to increase productivity and unleash the potential of its private sector, the World Bank said in April.
After she qualified as an electrical engineer, Fofang worked in one of Yaounde’s poorest schools, where most teachers lacked even basic computer skills. In 2009 she established her own school, the Tassah Academy, financing it herself with the help of her mother and sister. The school specializes in technology and 60 percent of its students are girls.
Five years later, seeking to take technology to schoolgirls around the country, she launched a scheme to encourage other schools to set up clubs to get girls interested in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).
In August, Xaviera and her team will travel to Mexico to take part in an international competition to devise robots that provide reliable energy power systems — a topic close to their hearts given the frequent power outages in Cameroon.
“It’s really frustrating sometimes. Just as we’re talking there can be … a blackout,” said Xaviera.
Robotics is helping her assert herself against the boys in the team and at school, who she says often think they know best.
Xaviera recalled a recent case where she came up with the solution to a problem- forcing them to concede she was right.
“And I was so happy!” she laughed. “My solution, it worked!”