Moses Surumen, 25, will graduate next week from University of California, Berkeley with an engineering and computer science degree.
But he has already been imparting his knowledge to peers back home in Kenya for the past two years, to help them develop the skills to solve challenges back home.
“I want to see students building their own solutions to problems we face every day in Kenya,” he told University World News. “My goal is to get more students into computer science.”
Surumen, who has 10 siblings, grew up in Kajiado. The son of a church pastor and a mother who runs small businesses buying and selling clothes and groceries, he has inherited his father’s sense of mission and his mother’s talent for enterprise.
When he left high school in 2012, he was the best student in his region, earning an internship with Equity Bank, where he worked for a year and a half, before applying for a Mastercard Foundation Scholarship at UC Berkeley, which he secured in 2014.
In 2016 he started a programme called M-Soma to run summer bootcamps in computer science, and in 2017 he visited Kenya to implement it. Now a six-week course for high school graduates, it aims to “prepare you to design and develop fascinating technology” and prepare you to work as an “AI developer, app developer, software engineer, business innovator”.
Surumen’s motivation came from his own experience after he finished high school and wanted to learn computer skills but only found training institutes which offered students computer courses but “they were just getting lots of money from students to train them on basic Microsoft Excel or Word, which is really not that useful; they could learn that on their own – but it was marketed as teaching computer skills”, he says.
This was happening all over the country, not just in Nairobi, the capital, he says.
So his initial idea was to persuade Mastercard Foundation Scholars – since there are so many of them studying computer science in the US, Canada and other countries – to go home in the summer and train students in what they are learning, mentoring students finishing high school in lots of different countries.
“But I wanted to start in Kenya,” he says.
So he built a team of four Mastercard Foundation Scholars in computer science from UC Berkeley and the University of Pretoria in South Africa. Berkeley information technology masters student Monicah Wambugu says: “I bought into the vision of helping to develop the skillsets of young people.”
Surumen set up a partnership with the University of Nairobi in Kenya, who wanted their students to have the opportunity to work with peers from UC Berkeley and Stanford University, “so they gave us a venue – a computer lab – every summer, when the students are on holiday.”
Targeting high school leavers
His project targets high school leavers – since in Kenya almost every student has to take a gap year due to the long gap between exam results being posted in March and college admissions towards the end of the year.
In the first summer school in 2017 the team trained 47 students – 42% of them women – in computer science, data science and entrepreneurship. “We don’t have professors, so it is a peer to peer learning process,” he explains. “Students work on projects instead of attending lectures.”
One group of five students, for instance, wanted to start a project creating a system to collect data for patients for all the hospitals in Kenya, because currently there is no such system and doctors have a hard time trying to keep track of patients’ treatment history.
“Currently there is a record on paper, but the documentation is very poor, and it is left to the patient to keep track of their own history,” Surumen says.
This brings obvious risks – there was a high-profile case earlier this month in which the daughter of a prominent broadcaster was given the wrong treatment and died on the spot, when she only had flu, Surumen retells. “They didn’t have a record of her medical history.”
Another team worked on a restaurant delivery platform.
For that Surumen was able to share experience from a Berkeley project on creating an application platform to find the shortest navigation route for drivers going from one point to another in Berkeley.
Surumen and his peers set the students to work in groups of five, asking them to identify what they wanted to work on, to give them control over their own learning. In the first bootcamp, for a month they came in at 8am and worked on projects in teams after lunch.
Building skills Berkeley-style
“We were building skills the way Berkeley does, providing the best skeletal code for setting up the platform and building onto that several features they wanted to use.”
This summer Surumen will go back for two months, this time working with 50 students.
The peer learning is crucial because “we don’t have professors with PhDs, like in the US, who can train students. We don’t have that in Kenya or most African countries, so it has to be an innovative way that we can have these student learn, not the traditional professor-student set-up.”
The idea for M-Soma came from attending a Mastercard Foundation Scholars Convening in Stanford in 2015, where Surumen was a panellist on a discussion about innovation in technology, which made him focus on what his own role could be, how he could solve problems everyone was thinking about.
As a Mastercard Foundation Scholar he took a course in transformative leadership at Berkeley and he says that taught him how to adapt his work style to other people and think about how his working style might need to be different in Kenya, where students tend to be more humble, stay in the background and are not used to being handed individual responsibility in group projects.
Making students accountable
“One of the things I had to do when getting the team together was to ensure people learn to take responsibility and be accountable,” Surumen says.
He also learned a lot about how to deal with people in different contexts, with different motivations and characters, and how to motivate them to work together. “The transformative leadership class was very good in building those interpersonal skills,” he says.
He says the scholarship also gave him a global mindset because he was working with people from all over the world, which made him think about problems affecting people not just in Kenya but across countries and how to translate thinking about problems and solutions in one place to similar problems in Africa.
His next step will be to work at Qualcomm, a company that makes computer chips, but he hopes eventually to be able to focus again on the project and see how it can be scaled to work in different African countries.
“If I think about Africa and Kenya, the fact that there are so many big problems that no one has solved yet, so I think if can train students working in Kenya to think about those problems, solving them themselves, there is huge potential for impact,” he says.