InterswitchSPAK: Building Africa’s future problem solvers

In the 1990s, American writer, futurist, and businessman, Alvin Toffler wrote: “The illiterates of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.”

Over two decades later, technology has become a key part of learning, with the swiftly digitalised world. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted lives, businesses and even governance across the globe. Beyond offices, we have seen stores, social centres and even schools shut down with an indefinite resumption time.

These days, many schools at various levels have adopted online classes to engage their pupils and students. Nigerian public and private schools have also readapted to this new way of life by employing various technological methods to ensure learners are not left idle.

Interswitch Group, one of Africa’s leading integrated payment & digital commerce players, through its education-focused CSR initiative – InterswitchSPAK Switch-A-Future had prior to the ongoing global pandemic seen its participants suggest some of the e-learning and technology-driven healthcare solutions being used across the world in adapting to the realities in the face of the pandemic.

InterswitchSPAK Switch-A-Future is an initiative that rewards and encourages students yearning to have a future in tech-inclined courses and eventually tech careers. The competition, which is aimed at driving interest in the study of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects, takes the students through three important stages including the National Science competition, the Masterclass, Innovation Challenges and the TV Quiz show.

The initiative has been running for two years. Currently in its third year, the competition, through the Innovation Challenge, has had the participating students proffer brilliant solutions to various societal issues around agriculture, healthcare, public transport system, financial inclusion, electoral process and out-of-school (education).

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In the first edition of the Innovation Challenge, some InterswitchSPAK finalists were tasked with developing solutions to challenges in the education sector, with focus on out-of-school children, leveraging technology.

With the increasing use of technology in the education system and against the backdrop of this novel pandemic, most teachings have become digitalized. Many children are technically ‘out of school’ now and classes in the form of apps viewed on laptops, smartphones and tablets, are the new normal.

Before now, about 16 million Nigerian children are unable to go to school due to unrest, poverty and other factors. Technology can be used to reduce illiteracy, low skills, poverty and unemployment in our society.

To tackle out of school issues, three different groups of nine students each, proferred a lasting solution to the issue of illiteracy in our society. These solutions included an educational hub where learning is delivered through digital platforms, infusing games to cater to different learning styles (auditory, sensory, tactile and virtual). The solution also had offline models with preloaded contents delivered through mobile stations/kiosks.

Another technological tool proffered by the students was the creation of a platform that presented learning/school as a culture. Where learning and the contents came in different forms such as books, videos, games and apps. For this group, the tool was differentiated for students in rural and urban areas with considerations for local language interpretation. They called it Skoolture.

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The Smart School solution looked at developing learning contents and distributing them effectively across the country. This solution focused on making education accessible, available and affordable.

Just as the students addressed the out-of-school situation in the country, another set of three groups addressed issues in the Nigerian healthcare sector.

Currently, the world system is being crippled by a major health crisis, the COVID-19. Sadly, many countries were totally unprepared for this pandemic. Before now, many Nigerians couldn’t access qualitative healthcare due to poverty, ignorance and inadequate health insurance and facilities.

The InterswitchSPAK 1.0 participants tasked with finding solutions to the Nigerian healthcare situation, proposed technological solutions that will avail Nigerians easier access to National Health Insurance.

One of the solutions incorporates the current National Health Insurance Scheme (NHIS), with provision of web doctors for policyholders with access to the internet, and telemedicine option for those without access to the internet. Noting that many Nigerians prefer going to pharmacies for treatment, they proposed the inclusion of neighbourhood pharmacies so that patients can purchase prescribed drugs after consulting the web doctors. Incidentally, this solution won the Innovation Challenge for the InterswitchSPAK 1.0.

Other proffered healthcare solutions included leveraging the huge Nigerian mobile penetration to provide access to Universal Health Insurance scheme using shortcodes and online platforms. Their solution included partnership with telcos to pay for the insurance policy. The third solution was called Interswitch Network in which every person could benefit using either USSD, Website, Mobile app, and engagement of Pharmacists as agents or Call doctors.

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Change being the only constant phenomenon in life and seeing how the pandemic has changed the world as we know it, we find that most of the e-learning techniques being explored now had been suggested prior to the pandemic. Today, we see students learning through Google classroom, Video Virtual classroom, Inshot, Zoom and Plotagon. These are all evidence of the possibilities of the learning solutions these 15-year-olds suggested two years ago.

Technology indeed has changed the way we view and access learning and healthcare. It has made living during these trying times a lot more bearable. While some societies have extensively embraced these technological solutions, those who ignored them, or were skeptical about adopting them, are left with little or no choice but to come around and embrace them.

It is remarkable that participants in the InterswitchSPAK Switch-A-Future initiative thought of these solutions that are now being used worldwide even before the need for them arose. Of course, they had pointers and examples for reference, but they infused practicability into the innovations. These solutions were not proposed in anticipation of the COVID-19 pandemic, but today, it is evident that they are viable, sustainable and relevant.

More of such initiatives need to be encouraged. It is evident that developing and building capacity from such initiatives, to respond to the changing needs of the world, will enhance not just growth at all levels but will put Nigeria on the map for innovative thinking.

Africans can indeed solve Africa’s problems.

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