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Robotics Contest for Youth Promotes Innovation for Economic Growth in Africa

  • Ricci Shryock

The hum of tiny machines fills a fenced-off obstacle course, as small robots compete to gather mock natural resources such as diamonds and gold.

The robots were built by teams of young people gathered in Dakar for the annual Pan-African Robotics Competition.

They're among the several hundred middle school and high school students from Senegal and surrounding countries who spent last week in Dakar building robots. Organizers of the annual robotics competition say the goal is to encourage African governments and private donors to invest more in science and math education throughout the continent.

Marieme Toure, from Dakar, adjusts her team's robot at the 2017 Pan-African Robotics Competition in Dakar, Senegal, May 19, 2017. (R.Shryock/VOA)
Marieme Toure, from Dakar, adjusts her team's robot at the 2017 Pan-African Robotics Competition in Dakar, Senegal, May 19, 2017. (R.Shryock/VOA)

'Made in Africa'

The event's founder, Sidy Ndao, says this year's theme is “Made in Africa," and focuses on how robotics developed in Africa could help local economies.

“We have noticed that most countries that have developed in the likes of the United States have based their development on manufacturing and industrialization, and African countries on the other hand are left behind in this race," Ndao said. “So we thought it would be a good idea to inspire the kids to tell them about the importance of manufacturing, the importance of industry, and the importance of creation and product development."

During the week, the students were split into three groups.

The first group worked on robots that could automate warehouses. The second created machines that could mine natural resources, and the third group was tasked to come up with a new African product and describe how to build it.

Aboubacar Savage, 14, from Gambia looks at a computer at the 2017 Pan-African Robotics Competition in Dakar, Senegal, May 19, 2017. (R. Shryock/VOA)
Aboubacar Savage, 14, from Gambia looks at a computer at the 2017 Pan-African Robotics Competition in Dakar, Senegal, May 19, 2017. (R. Shryock/VOA)

Building a robot a team effort

Seventeen-year-old Rokyaha Cisse from Senegal helped her team develop a robot that sends sound waves into the ground to detect the presence of metals and then start digging.

Cisse says it is very interesting and fun, and they are learning new things, as well as having their first opportunity to handle robots.

As part of a younger team, Aboubacar Savage from Gambia said their robot communicates with computers.

“It is a robot that whatever you draw into the computer, it translates it and draws it in real life," Savage said. “It is kind of hard. And there is so much competition, but we are trying. I have learned how to assemble a robot. I have learned how to program into a computer."

The event's founder, Ndao, is originally from Senegal, but is now a professor at the University of Nebraska's Lincoln College of Engineering in the United States.

“I have realized how much the kids love robotics and how much they love science," Ndao said “You can tell because when it is time for lunch, we have to convince them to actually leave, and then [when] it is time to go home, nobody wants to leave."

Mohamed Sidy, 14 years old and from Dakar, holds up his team's robot at the 2017 Pan-African Robotics Competition in Dakar, Senegal, May 19, 2017. (R. Shryock/VOA)
Mohamed Sidy, 14 years old and from Dakar, holds up his team's robot at the 2017 Pan-African Robotics Competition in Dakar, Senegal, May 19, 2017. (R. Shryock/VOA)

Outsourced jobs cost Africa billions

A winning team was named in each category, but Ndao hopes the real winners will be science and technology in Africa.

The organizers of the Next Einstein Forum, which held its annual global gathering last year in Senegal, said Africa is currently missing out on $4 billion a year by having to outsource jobs in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics to expatriates.

Ndao said African governments and private investors need to urgently invest more on education in those fields, in particular at the university level.

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