Thembiso picture
Ashoka Fellow since 2022   |   South Africa

Thembiso Magajana

Social Coding SA
Thembiso is using digital literacy to expand socioeconomic inclusion among young people in rural communities, giving them the keys so they can participate in the economy and have a successful future.…
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This description of Thembiso Magajana's work was prepared when Thembiso Magajana was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2022.


Thembiso is using digital literacy to expand socioeconomic inclusion among young people in rural communities, giving them the keys so they can participate in the economy and have a successful future. While an increasing number of organizations focus on teaching coding for its sake and jumping on the bandwagon of “4IR” (the fourth industrial revolution), Thembiso leverages digital skills and coding as tools to influence more high school learners to pursue Science Technology Engineering and Maths (STEM) disciplines and grow their capacity for critical thinking, with the vision to lessen the social inequalities that the lack of digital skills perpetuates for young people.

The New Idea

Social Coding trains and advocates for rural youth in South Africa, ensuring that they have access to technology and instruction in coding and computer literacy in collaboration with local schools and communities. Thembiso recognizes that access without capacity building is worthless; therefore, she created a four-year program, where each learner gets at least 6 hours of training per week. Social Coding’s approach also promotes a mindset shift for young people, whose learning extends beyond their critical tech skills. While learning computer and coding skills, students are also learning empathy, problem-solving, and critical thinking skills, which will benefit them in any future environment. Moreover, Thembiso and Social Coding are shifting practices of educational institutions by providing resources, training, and other support to educators, and drawing on new relationships with corporations, communities, and parents, to create new educational pathways and economic options for rural youth.

Instead of waiting to intervene only in the last year of high school like most other tech programs, Social Coding takes the students through a four-year curriculum from the time they are in grade 8 to grade 11 (first to fourth year of high school) to provide young people with foundational skills before they make key orientation choices for their studies. Programs combine basic computer skills with coding and leverage innovative tools such as Virtual Reality in search of cost-effective ways to bridge the lack of infrastructure to support STEM subjects and develop social and emotional learning.

Thembiso builds her programs in a way that complements efforts to improve schools, rather than isolating resources just for coding, i.e., simultaneously collaborating and enhancing capacities of rural schools by bringing new technologies and infrastructure such as high-speed internet and laptops that benefit the whole school community. This has enabled Social Coding to succeed where other initiatives have not. For example, the government announced in early 2019 that they wanted to start piloting robotics and coding into schools, but because implementation would have to be financed by the schools, this did not take off due to lack of resources. Social Coding leveraged off this past attempt to gain access to schools and, by documenting its impact, convinced the government to adopt its curriculum across all government schools starting at provincial level. Social Coding has impacted over 5,000 beneficiaries in 45 schools in the last six years. Its model is being piloted in different environments such as Zambia to gather insights into how this model could be scaled to other countries.

The Problem

South Africa has one of the highest rates of youth unemployment in the world (43% of those aged 25 to 34) and the education system continues to be dogged by stark inequalities and chronic underperformance that has left many students without the necessary skills to participate in the economy. Many rural schools and the communities they serve continue to live with the consequences of the political and economic decisions made during the apartheid era where people were segregated according to their skin color, with only schools serving white communities properly resourced. According to recent research from Amnesty International, the result of this modern-day inequity is that in South Africa a child’s experience of education still very much depends on where they are born, how wealthy they are, and the color of their skin.

Young people need access to education that prepares them for success in the globally connected world of work. The World Economic Forum (WEF) has observed that the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) would pave the way for new jobs, especially in the fields of science, technology, engineering, data analysis, computer science and the social sciences. In this context, there is need to adapt the education system to one that adequately equips students with the 4IR relevant communication, logical and mathematical skills. Youth additionally need access to fundamental changemaking skills that are not often brought to one-off coding camps or basic computer curricula, skills like critical thinking, problem solving, and empathy.

The South African government has realized the necessity of integrating technical subjects, such as coding, robotics, and computer science, into the school curriculum. Although curricula have been produced for the teaching of these subjects, the Department of Education requires schools to be responsible for infrastructure, equipment, and finances for the subjects. This requirement creates a big problem for rural schools which are usually severely under-resourced and understaffed, further constrained by a corps of teachers in rural schools who lack the confidence to teach these subjects due to poor training. This results in a situation where many rural schools are unable to teach skills that are critical for the future of work. As Internet access and adoption spreads in towns and townships, the urban-rural digital gap will increase if nothing is done.

Currently significant government and corporate resources are being invested in providing broadband connectivity in rural communities; however, research shows that internet connectivity in rural communities as a solution on its own is not enough. Programs and initiatives that would truly bring about sustainable change need to provide both the hardware as well as training for adoption.

Research has shown that at a simple level, the lack of digital skills and access limits work opportunities as increasingly most recruitment happens online. Further constraining access to the online world is the challenge of high data costs, the high expense of devices that connect to the internet, and lack of infrastructure investment in rural areas (including as the electric grid) creating additional barriers to bridging this divide.

The Strategy

Thembiso’s work aims to change the way that rural communities access and adopt digital education, by providing training programs and advocating for inclusion in areas of education and youth employment. She has spent time modelling and structuring the interventions and approach in such a way that it deals with the problem of students in rural communities either not pursuing or passing math or science subjects in school. Social Coding’s baseline studies showed that mathematics uptake (those students who elected to pursue higher math curriculum at high school) was only 2% in the schools they work in. The learners’ apathy towards math and science is typically not necessarily due to lack of intellectual capacity but more an environmental context, with issues such as lack of material and adequate teacher to learner ratios playing a huge role in attitudes towards these subjects.

As a starting point Thembiso identifies rural schools (currently in one of three South African provinces), that are under-resourced but interested in finding solutions to mitigate these challenges. Social Coding’s team engages the school principal and the governing body to co-create the intervention, which overtime will grow into a year-round educational initiative, conducted each Saturday (and occasionally after school) for six hours, with students from the school participating for six hours each week. (The total number of sessions over four years is 986.) Achieving buy-in from the administration and teachers is key. As part of this effort, Social Coding offers training to the teachers themselves (many of whom haven’t had the proper training) on online classroom tools, such as Google Classroom, Zoom, and basic computer literacy. These relationships with teachers and the administration improves collaboration between Social Coding and the schools, who must nominate the students who enter Social Coding’s after-school Saturday programs and continue to provide support to them in their regular schoolwork.

Social Coding also realized early on that parental involvement would be key in supporting the children’s ongoing education into STEM subjects, development of problem-solving skills, and acquisition of digital literacy. Social Coding launched programs to build parental support, from early “Meet and Greet” sessions to hackathons and awareness ceremonies where parents can come and observe their children’s progress.

To achieve the 20% target for students entering STEM subjects, Thembiso realized that Social Coding needed an early intervention, as the students start high school. As a result, Social Coding’s programs are broken into three categories, starting with the Junior Pioneers for grades 8-9. The Junior Pioneer programs introduces young students to STEM subjects before they are required to choose their specialist subjects in grade 10. The weekly Social Coding workshops enable grade 8 and 9 learners from rural communities to develop STEM capabilities through computer familiarization, coding, and robotics skills.

A key component of Social Coding’s work is curricula is to instill a sense of self-confidence and competence in these disenfranchised young people, as these “soft” skills perpetuate a far deeper mindset shift and understanding of one’s own capabilities than a simple coding curriculum could. Part of how Thembiso’s work addresses this is to pair students in their program by gender, learning styles, social skills, and interests. She has created the categories of “Drivers” and “Navigators” to account for different styles of learning and contributing to teams, with the goal of reinforcing each child’s sense of their own abilities. Another key component of Social Coding’s curriculum is to have each student develop their own values statement, which are posted in classrooms and added to overtime.

Next Grad (covering grades 10-12) prepares young people for university, as well as those who may be directly entering the workforce. Technical concepts such as introductions to systems and network technologies are introduced, as well as modules that focus on science, including using virtual reality simulations of lab experiments, as rural students don’t have access to lab classrooms or equipment for their school science courses. Virtual reality lessons also include exposure to non-technical skills, including those targeted at nurturing empathy, e.g., programs that expose young boys through virtual reality simulations to the experience of women who are harassed, as well as programs that give guided virtual tours of the history of discrimination. At this stage, Social Coding also employs competitive hackathons for their students, as well as academic monitoring, to assist rural students in gaining access to partner company bursaries and any other additional corporate support.

The third element of Social Coding’s programme is Untapped. This is a critical piece of the model to ensure community adoption and creating more pathways for employment. Social Coding recruits and trains former alumni of schools they work in thus far; through the partnership with Merchants, they have trained 267 unemployed youth. Through this training they get accredited facilitator training that is recognized by the Sector Education and Training Authority (SETA) and are well equipped to teach and train beneficiaries in the Junior Pioneers program and create a potential talent pipeline for Merchants. (The main function of SETA is to contribute to the raising of skills and ensuring that people learn skills that are needed by employers and communities.)

Social Coding measures its impact on the young people they serve through monitoring the students’ math and science scores, reflecting its commitment to provide more than just basic technical skills, but instead to foster a deeper understanding of critical thinking and problem solving. Another way they monitor impact is through the increase in the percentage of students choosing STEM subjects. Between 2018 and 2021, the average percentage number of students taking up higher grade math and science across all the schools they work with was 14%, a percentage that has seen a steady increase every year from a baseline of 2%. The goal is to reach a 20% average across 45 schools in 2022.

Since 2016, Social Coding has served almost 5,900 students across 45 schools. The beneficiaries also extend to 80 formerly unemployed youth who took part in the Untapped program (20 of whom are part of the program this year) that trains and gives facilitator accreditation through Sector Education and Training Authority (SETA), in partnership with Merchants (a major South African and global technology and training firm). Thembiso aims to reach 3,000 schools by 2035. To reach that goal, she has developed a strategy to design & develop Pioneer Centers and identify schools to partner with as district hubs. Pioneer Centers will serve multiple schools in the district, with a view of preparing for the scaling up of Social Coding across all rural schools. These centers are equipped with new technologies for education including the usage of virtual reality (VR) learning, as well as remote learning development. Every Pioneer Center will be adopted by the relevant corporate partner, with the relevant co-branding and support. The rollout plan is scalable and will ensure consistent learner experience and community benefit of the model.

Thembiso has developed a range of creative partnerships with corporations such as Inclusion Champions, where corporations can contribute through financial or non-financial resources. She has partnered with Merchants and ABSA Bank to get their depreciated laptops as part of the laptop donation program. She has also partnered with Facebook through VR for Good.

As another way to fund its growth, Social Coding is piloting a new branch that focuses on mobilizing alumni of the Social Coding who do not pursue tertiary education to work in data annotation, labelling big datasets (using the skills they learned and successfully exited with in Social Coding). This creates income to fund Social Coding and provides a different employment pathway post-secondary school. Banking technology, telecommunications-based technology, and all AI-based products and services rely on large amounts of high-quality labelled data for training, tuning, and evaluating machine learning algorithms. The goal of the proof of concept is to show that previously untrained labor can label any data format efficiently and cost effectively and to encourage companies to source labelling services in rural communities. According to Grandview research, the global data annotation tools market size was estimated at USD 494 million in 2020 and was expected to reach USD 629.5 million in 2021 showing huge potential for social coding in this sector.

Social coding is working with The Southern Centre for Inequality Studies (SCIS) - based at the University of Witwatersrand (Wits University) in Johannesburg to collect data on the impact of Social Coding and to further understand the inequality dynamics fueled by unequal access to technology as they aim to roll out to all 3049 rural schools across the country. Thembiso is also advocating for the adoption of this curriculum across all government schools to ensure learners are more prepared for the world of work and tertiary education.

The Person

Thembiso grew up in South Africa and went to boarding school in rural Zambia when she was a teenager. This sparked her initial passion to contribute to the upliftment of rural communities. From the time she was a teenager, she started support groups for young girls her age, until the time she started her first non-profit in university.

Thembiso studied accounting and worked in investment banking with Goldman Sachs for half a decade. She took an interest in teaching her niece coding on the weekends to spend time with her and soon what started as a family activity turned into teaching girls coding on the weekends.

Influenced by her mom’s teaching that “Your dream is not a true dream until it is the dream of the community,” her deep Christian faith, and growing restlessness to contribute to transformation of society, Thembiso left her job to start Social Coding and engaged Tshiamo Shilowa, a data scientist specialized in AI as a partner. In 2016, Social Coding was created to provide digital training such as computer familiarization, coding, and robotics as well as business and technology alignment for youth living in rural communities with the vision that digital upskilling holds much promise for future economic growth in remote rural areas.

The initial idea was to focus on girls but the more she understood the context in which the rural children operate, she realized it would be more meaningful to ensure the programmes are inclusive of both boys and girls who in this context are equally disadvantaged.

Thembiso is an award-winning social entrepreneur, a recipient of the 50 Most Inspiring Women in Tech Award and the Margaret Hirsch Heroine Award. She is also a World Economic Forum Global Shaper, a TEDx Speaker, Spark International Alumni and was recognized as one of South Africa's most influential youth in 2020.

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