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#STEMStories: Apiwe, Technology Commercialization Specialist, South Africa

Name: Apiwe Hotele 
Role/Occupation: Technology Commercialization Specialist at SARAO, Founder of the Enlighten tutoring app and the IMBASA programme
Country: South Africa

Apiwe Hotele works as a technology commercialisation specialist at the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO). Her duties involve introducing new products made at SARAO to the market as well as initiating development projects in the Northern Cape, where the famous MeerKAT telescope is located. One of Hotele's biggest achievements was designing and building the multi-sensory monitoring system for the MeerKAT telescope’s oil-immersed and liquid-cooled grid supercomputer; she said that “seeing the system work and knowing that I built it from scratch is quite an accomplishment for me personally.”

Surprisingly, Hotele never considered computer science as a career path, “ I did not even know it [computers] existed. I used to see computers but I did not know the theory behind them”. Initially, she aspired to be a medical doctor, however due to the poor educational facilities in her disadvantaged community, she was unable to qualify to study medicine. Her dreams were shattered and she was depressed. Incidentally at that point when she would fetch water from the communal tap she would meet students with similar grievances due to the lack of appropriate educators and she reach the realisation that she was not alone, “from that day onwards I made a promise to myself that I would improve the mathematics and science situation in disadvantaged communities.” She would always wonder, “how could I ensure that students from rural areas receive quality tutoring in mathematics and science?” And then she found a solution and created the Enlighten app, an online tutoring application that offers remote tutoring services to disadvantaged communities in mathematics and science. She still gets excited whenever she thinks about it, “I cannot explain how I feel every time I think about this, the technology is designed specifically for their needs.”

Hotele's biggest motivation is her six year old daughter and she works hard to ensure that her daughter grows up in an enriching environment, “I would fail as a mother if my daughter has to face the same problems I faced because I could not do anything about them.” Another source of inspiration to her are the many opportunities now available that were previously withheld from people of colour during Apartheid; she feels that “one thing that our freedom fighters left us with is access, we have access to things they did not have access to. It is our duty to carefully choose what we do with this access and to ensure that we open doors wide enough for future generations to enter freely.”

Hotele likens being a woman in STEM to being on a rollercoaster ride with alternating good and bad days and feels that as such your responsibilities extend beyond your workspace to society as a whole, “other women look at you and admire you, some look at you and think “well do you really think you can do it?” Then you get men who are generally okay and men who judge you and think you are trying to prove a point. You constantly have to prove yourself merely because you are a young black female engineer/scientist.” Her thoughts with regards to women entering the STEM field is that “there is still a long way to go, but women are coming together from all parts of the world to create an environment that accommodates females, so please do not be discouraged by the environment… it's not about how long it takes to get to the finish line, it’s about the process of getting there… Walk your journey with pride and never compare yourself with others.”

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She initiated #Breakingthestereotype at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, an annual event focused on motivating young female scientists and engineers. Through this event, Hotele aims “to dismantle the mind set that science/engineering is for an elite few. Science is for hard workers, ambitious and dedicated people. It has nothing to do with gender or colour.”

Without a doubt she believes that Africa is a land of opportunity and she personally feels that “the continent is making a steady progress but… we need to move faster, there is a lot to be done. The fourth industrial revolution is here!” She also shares her thoughts on the four areas that Africa as a continent needs to focus on namely, data scientists and data analysts, education technology, agriculture and entrepreneurship. These points were discussed in further detail during the interview.

Read further to engage more closely with ‘Geeky Girl' Apiwe Hotele's ideas as she shines her telescopic vision on the world of STEM, a vision possibly more inspiring than the one provided by the famous MeerKAT telescope which she helped to construct.

1. Describe what your work entails.

I work as a technology commercialisation specialist at the South African Radio Astronomy Observatory (SARAO). My job involves introducing new products produced at SARAO to the market as well as initiating development projects in the Northern Cape, where the MeerKAT telescope is located. Prior to that I worked as science processing developer where I built a novel multi-sensory monitoring system for monitoring an environmentally ruggedized container for the MeerKAT telescope’s oil-immersed and liquid-cooled grid supercomputer. I am passionate about science education as well as creating awareness in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) industry and motivating students from previously disadvantaged communities to pursue careers in mathematics and science. I am the founder of Enlighten Tutoring, an online tutoring application that offers remote tutoring services to disadvantaged communities in mathematics and science for Grades 8 to 12. I initiated the IMBASA programme together with the Science Data Processing Team at SARAO. The aim of the programme is to motivate students from disadvantaged communities to not only pursue careers in mathematics and science but also to provide academic and financial support to these students.

2. Describe your engineering/STEM journey.

Growing up computer science was never in my mind, I did not even know it existed. I used to see computers but I did not know the theory behind them. Growing up I wanted to be a medical doctor, however my dream was shattered in January 2010. I did not have a constant mathematics and physical science teacher from Grade 10- 12 due to this my physics marks were not that great, so I did not qualify to study medicine. This was really depressing for me; coincidentally during that time when I would fetch water from the community tap, I would meet students who would complain about how difficult maths was and how they wanted to quit physics because they did not have educators in those subjects. Suddenly, I realised that I was not alone. There were many other students going through what I was going through - and worse. From that day onwards I made a promise to myself that I would improve the mathematics and science situation in disadvantaged communities.

3. What excites you about your job? What motivates you to get out of bed every morning?

I wake up every morning because I have a six year old daughter, it is my role as her mother to ensure that she grows up in an environment that allows her to grow and prosper. I would fail as a mother if my daughter has to face the same problems I faced because I could not do anything about them. I am excited that times have changed, it is no secret that there is a lot of inequality in South Africa because of apartheid, one thing that our freedom fighters left us with is access, we have access to things they did not have access to. It is our duty to carefully choose what we do with this access and ensure that whatever we do we open doors wide enough for future generations to enter freely.

4. How would you describe your experience as a woman in the engineering/STEM space?

A rollercoaster ride, some days are better than others while some are worse. There is still a lot of patriarchy in our society, the mind set of both males and females still need to be transformed. It is more difficult for me because I am right at the bottom, the order is as follows: white men,black men, white women and lastly the black women. All of these people are stepping on top of you, sometimes black women step on top of black women so it's still a bit messy. Being a female scientist/engineer goes beyond your work space to your society and your personal life. Other women look at you and admire you, some look at you and think “well do you really think you can do it?” Then you get men who are generally okay and men who judge you and think you are trying to prove a point. You constantly have to prove yourself merely because you are a young black female engineer/scientist. In 2016, I represented women in science at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) University of Cape Town (UCT) branch, where I initiated #Breakingthestereotype, an annual event focused on motivating young female scientists and engineers studying at the institution. My aim is to dismantle the mind set that science/engineering is for an elite few. Science is for hard workers, ambitious and dedicated people. It has nothing to do with gender or colour.

5. What advice would you give to young women aspiring to enter the engineering/ STEM field?

It takes one person with a dream, passion and perseverance to change the world. It is time for us to come up with solutions and not point fingers. In the words of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: “If your dreams do not scare you, they are not big enough.” As far as the STEM field is concerned there is still a long way to go, but women are coming together from all parts of the world to create an environment that accommodates females, so please do not be discouraged by the environment. The journey is lengthy and hard; perseverance and patience are key. Obstacles are ingredients of success, it's not about how long it takes to get to the finish line, it’s about the process of getting there, the strength and courage you get by getting there. Walk your journey with pride and never compare yourself with others.

6. As a STEM woman in Africa, how do you foresee the growth and progress of STEM on the continent? Is Africa a “land of opportunity”?

Definitely, there is no doubt Africa is a land of opportunity, personally I think the continent is making a steady progress but I feel we need to move faster, there is a lot to be done. The fourth industrial revolution is here! Personally, I feel there are four areas we need to focus on as a continent: 

A.) We need data scientists and data analysts: In order to achieve this we need to ensure that learners have a good foundation in mathematics and science. This sadly links back to our education system which needs to change not only for mathematics and science but for other fields as well.

B.) Education technology: We need to start looking at ways to integrate or fuse the traditional teaching method with technology. We have started doing this already but we need to do more.

C.) Agriculture: We have so much land and a lot of emerging farmers that lack business skills and need access to markets. We need to work on this fast.

D.) Entrepreneurship: We need to foster entrepreneurship from a young age, students in high school or tertiary education need to think beyond just an invention or just research to include how they can make a change in society and profit through their invention.

7. Have there been any milestone moments or eureka moments in your career?

There are quite a few milestone moments in my career but two stand out. When I designed and built the multi-sensory monitoring system for monitoring an environmentally ruggedized container for the MeerKAT telescope’s oil-immersed and liquid-cooled grid supercomputer. Seeing the system work and knowing that I built it from scratch is quite an accomplishment for me personally. The second one is the online tutoring app Enlighten. Ever since I completed Grade 12, I’d always wonder, how could I ensure that students from rural areas receive quality tutoring in mathematics and science? I have the solution, the Enlighten app. I cannot explain how I feel every time I think about this, the technology is designed specifically for their needs.

8. How do you maintain a work-life balance?

Well this is one aspect of my life that I am still failing at, I focus too much on work and forget to live and enjoy life. I aspire to go to the gym even though I've already paid the monthly membership fees. I have not mastered the art of balance yet but because I have started thinking about it, I will start changing it. Ideally, I would like to spend more time with my family and loved ones and I also want to spend more time doing what I enjoy doing and not on what I have to do.

9. Who is your role model? Who inspires you?

My parents inspire me, they both came from disadvantaged backgrounds and they managed to be successful educators. I am also inspired by Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani activist for female education. She stood up for what she believed in.

10. Where can more information or insight into your work be found?

http://ysa.mg.co.za/2018/apiwe-hotele/
http://enlightentutoring.co.za/
https://www.linkedin.com/in/apiwe-hotele-42193688/
https://apiwe2012.wixsite.com/website
https://www.biznews.com/good-hope-project/2017/09/22/aphiwe-hotele-ska-computer-servers-liquid-oil/

Facebook: Aphiwe Patience Hotele
Instagram: apiwe_hotele

Apiwe Hotele interviewed by Dhruti Dheda

Dhruti Dheda is a Chemical Engineer with a strong interest in media and communication. She is the editor of the Engineers without Borders South Africa Newsletter and the Community Manager – South Africa and Regional Outreach for Geeky Girl Reality. If you wish to collaborate or network, contact her at dhruti@geekyreality.com or find her on twitter @dhrutidd