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Ghana Science and Tech Explorer Prize: How to achieve positive systemic change

How can an education programme achieve positive systemic change and long-term impact in a lower-middle income country? In this blog, I share my reflections, based on our initial experiences running the Ghana Science and Tech Explorer Prize.

The Ghana Science and Tech Explorer Prize (GSTEP) aims to inspire and empower the next generation of inventors, industry leaders and entrepreneurs in Ghana, by placing practical learning, entrepreneurship and Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) at the heart of their education. Over a three-year period, we are designing and running a series of challenge prizes, which will challenge over 20,000 Junior High School (JHS) students aged 11 to 16 to come up with ideas to solve problems in their local communities.

Why are we running GSTEP?
The programme has been set up to tackle the digital skills gap that the country is facing. Although the youth literacy rate is now over 80%, young Ghanaians are facing obstacles to employment, with many leaving education without the skills needed for in-demand jobs in the new economy, such as STEM subjects, ICT and entrepreneurship.

Many young people in Ghana also lack the necessary soft skills, such as problem-solving, design thinking and networking.

What have we learnt so far?
We are now six months into the design and engagement phase of the programme. Although we certainly don’t claim to have all the answers, here are some initial reflections on what it takes to achieve both positive systemic change and long-term impact in a lower-middle income country…

Understand the local context

One of the challenges facing the international development industry is the misconception of the ‘one size fits all’ model. Just because a programme has worked brilliantly in one geographic context, does not mean it can be simply ‘lifted and shifted’.

Although Nesta Challenges has delivered several similar prizes for students in the UK, we knew we needed to design a bespoke challenge prize that was fully tailored to the local context in Ghana.

The programme should also be led and run by local organisations, at least in the most part. Inevitably, local organisations understand the local needs best.

This is why we are dedicating a full year to develop the prize design, working closely with our consortium partners based in Ghana: DreamOval FoundationDext TechnologyMEST and Foundervine.

Engage the full local ecosystem

To deliver truly systemic change and positive long-term impact, you need to engage all of the relevant stakeholders. This is both to learn from them and also to get their buy-in.

In the case of GSTEP, the relevant stakeholders include:

  • Funding bodies (including Foundation Botnar, our lead sponsor on GSTEP) to recognise the need for systemic change and support the approach we are taking;
  • Public sector bodies (including the Ministry of Education and Ghana Education Service), to align the objectives with the government curriculum and strategy;
  • Industry leaders, to support with funding and in-kind support;
  • Schools and teachers, to understand the barriers they are facing and the support they need;
  • Students, to understand the barriers they are facing, their learning abilities and how to engage with them most effectively; and
  • NGOs, to align on our aims and learn from shared experiences.

Strong engagement from all of the key relevant stakeholders has been essential from the very beginning of the prize design, both to ensure the programme is set up for success and also to secure investment and funding beyond the programme’s life cycle.

Again, this is why we are dedicating a full year to engage with various local stakeholders in the first year of the programme.

Understand your target audience and key messages

For any public-facing programme, you need a clear communications strategy. This starts with understanding who you want to reach and what you want to say to them.

When you have this clarity, you can then:

  • Design an engaging and consistent brand;
  • Identify the platforms that reach this audience most effectively; and
  • Share regular, engaging and clear content.

This is still an ongoing area of learning and focus for us on GSTEP. We are currently putting a lot of attention into this area and we are looking forward to launching our new brand in November… watch this space!

Embrace and learn from setbacks

When developing a new challenge prize, especially in a new geographic context, you will often understand what doesn’t work before you learn what does work. This is certainly something we’ve experienced on GSTEP.

Frustrating though this can be at the time, this is an important part of the design and learning journey. You should take the time to test, test again, understand what hasn’t worked and why this is

This will make sure you are setting yourself up for success in the long-term and that you are able to achieve the positive impact that you set out to. This will also help to avoid wasting significant time and resources.

Be clear about the impact you want to have

Impact has become an increasingly intangible and complex concept. But it remains one of the most important aspects of any programme.

From the very outset, it is essential to be very clear about what you mean by impact, including:

  • Who do you want to impact?
  • How many people do you want to impact?
  • When do you want this impact to take effect?
  • How are you measuring and monitoring this impact?
  • How are you going to display this impact?

None of these are easy questions to answer. But not only is this important for measuring the success of the programme, funders also rely on a clear understanding of impact.