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Cracking the code: Data scientist Tshiamo Shilowa bridges the gap

'The biggest win is seeing the communities being upskilled and becoming more employable' says Shilowa

Data scientist Tshiamo Shilowa.
Data scientist Tshiamo Shilowa.
Image: Supplied.

Tshiamo Shilowa is a data scientist and the visionary co-founder of Social Coding.  

Tell us a little bit about yourself.   

I am 30 years old and was born in Rustenburg. My background is in computer science and maths, which I studied at the University of the Witwatersrand, and I did my honours in big-data analytics.   

When and how did Social Coding come about?  

Social Coding is an organisation Thembiso Magajana and I started in 2016, because there is a lack of girl coders. A niece of hers also wanted to learn how to code, but she didn’t really know how to get started. We used my background in coding and knowledge of what one would need to get into the space and succeed.

We then sat down and started curating our own curriculum based on the needs and demands out there. We essentially work at trying to bridge the gap, especially in rural communities, by creating programmes that allow [the learners] to flourish.   

How many children and communities have you reached?  

We have schools that we adopt, and we have companies that choose to adopt schools. For example, a company comes to us and they choose maybe two or three schools to adopt. Based on our contract with them, we curate a curriculum.

We then decide how many students we’re going to be working with and how many volunteers we will need — most of them are from the same community as the pupils. We then upskill the team to teach the content to the learners. So far, we have reached around 5 000 learners.  

What are the challenges of running such an organisation?   

We thought it would be easy — that we’d walk in, teach them how to code, and walk out — but we realised that there are a lot of confidence issues with kids in rural areas. There are a lot of digital fears because they’ve never been exposed to computers. Another problem is that, because we’re working in rural communities, some of these students don’t have food, or are from a child-headed household.

So, you want them to come on a Saturday to code but they are hungry. These are things we have to think about and cater for. Now, we make sure that we include lunch and snacks. We also introduced programmes that are very basic for kids who don’t know how to touch a computer, how to switch it on, and how to use a mouse, to get them comfortable. 

What has been the biggest positive takeaway?  

We’ve seen a lot of uptake in science in the same communities and schools in which we are working. We have also seen a 100% pass rate, and some of [the learners] have been fortunate enough to get bursaries to study at university.

The biggest win is seeing the communities being upskilled and becoming more employable, because we train them and get them accredited.    

Do you find that girls are more hesitant to join these programmes?  

Yes, because society has made it a norm that technology is for boys and not for girls. Unfortunately, their families often think the same. We introduce a different norm by showing that women can thrive in this field.   

What are your roles in the organisation?  

Thembiso is very good at getting sponsorships and making sure our corporate clients are onboard and that we align in terms of strategy. It’s very important for us that we are on the same page. I’m in charge of the curriculum, ensuring the content that we deliver to the kids is relevant. Thembiso works full-time while I work mainly on weekends, since I consult as my nine-to-five job.   

What are the positive outcomes you want to see decades from now?  

We want to reach more countries; this is not a problem only facing people in South Africa. In one of our first steps to do this, we have partnered with Absa in Zambia. We want to make technology accessible for everyone and see an increase in women and girls going into STEM fields — we need to make sure that we get those numbers up.