The Boston Globe’s weekly Ocean State Innovators column features a Q&A with Rhode Island innovators who are starting new businesses and nonprofits, conducting groundbreaking research, and reshaping the state’s economy. Send tips and suggestions to reporter Edward Fitzpatrick at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This week’s Ocean State Innovators conversation is with Mohamed T. Kante, founder of iNERDE, a Rhode Island-based startup that brings STEM education to students in Africa. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Q: What is iNERDE and when was it founded?
Kante: I started iNERDE out of college in 2013. It was based on the fundamental belief that if we give children access to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education, it creates an incredible opportunity for them in the future. I am a firm believer in that, and I am living proof.
I was born and raised in Mali. I came to the United States 17 years ago, and now live in North Providence. I went to Bristol Community College, then transferred to Northeastern University to pursue an electrical engineering degree. Out of college, I had a chance to work on incredible technology projects, including a robotic arm to feed people with upper body paralysis. It was featured on CNN, and I was one of the “Heroes of the Fortune 500.”
If we can give children in Africa the same opportunity and access to education, they can grow up to create a better community for themselves. Moving from one economic quartile to the next quartile – from the bottom to the third or fourth quartile – is possible with education.
Q: How many students have taken part in iNERDE programs and how many do you hope to reach?
Kante: Our first operation was a summer camp in Mali in 2014 that started with 30 students, and we took it from there. To date, we have impacted over 600 students across Africa, mostly in Mali, Senegal, and South Africa through summer camps and after-school programs.
Our BHAG – Big Hairy Audacious Goal – is to reach 1 million youth by the year 2030. The goal of a startup is to prove a new concept, then scale it. Now we are in that process of scaling, and we intend to do that through packaging our learning experience and empowering those who will empower their communities. We proved that our model works. We are training the locals so they can deploy it, and that’s how iNERDE intends to reach more students.
Q: Why did you pick the name iNERDE?
Kante: The “i” is for innovation, and NERDE stands for New Education for Radical Development. I used to be called a nerd in college, and I wanted to embrace that. I use the term because I’d like to put the cool back in “nerd.” Being a nerd is not a bad thing – it’s a good thing. I describe myself as the iNERDE’s “chief nerd.”
Q: What does iNERDE add to the existing education programs in Africa?
Kante: Currently, the education system is based on rote memorization – regurgitating data that you swallowed – and that’s not unique to Africa. You need people to have the ability to have a vision, to think critically, to do problem solving regardless of the problem, and all of that is embodied in STEM education.
We are trying to bridge the gap between what is taught and the skills needed for success in modern Africa. If we were to give children the critical thinking tools, the educational opportunity, they could make a huge impact in their community. No one can understand Mali’s problems better than Mali residents themselves.
Q: What is the long-term goal of iNERDE?
Kante: The mission is to inspire and empower African youths – to get students the skills they need to make discoveries, think critically, and prosper in an evolving world. Africa has a lot of problems, and I don’t intend to solve all of them. But I do intend to touch the minds of the youth who will.
Many countries are impoverished, but then how do you see light at the end of the tunnel? How do you break that cycle? Someone asked what iNERDE brings to Africa, and I said: It brings hope. If we empower these youth, they can grow up to be the next scientist who solves the coronavirus crisis, the engineer who takes her countrymen to Mars, the computer programmer who creates a better, faster internet.
Q: How will iNERDE benefit from being chosen as one of 17 social ventures that will participate in the Social Enterprise Greenhouse’s fall 2020 Impact Accelerator?
Kante: I am grateful I was accepted. I am trying to find a model with the financial ability to reach more students. How do you do well financially while doing good? The Social Enterprise Greenhouse gives me access to expert advisers and mentors, plus weekly classes where you can learn about creating business models. It’s an environment to experiment and model.