003 – Interviews 01: Zach Mbasu and INNODEMS

The IDEMS Podcast
The IDEMS Podcast
003 – Interviews 01: Zach Mbasu and INNODEMS


The first in the IDEMS Interviews series. David interviews Zach Mbasu, a long-term collaborator and the founding director of INNODEMS, an exciting Kenyan social enterprise. Zach tells his story from high school teacher to social entrepreneur, through his search to support Kenyan youth to gain access to the education they deserve. Zach’s story also explains why, founded in the challenges of African education and development, IDEMS is committed to enabling future generations to write their own stories through African-led enterprise rather than ‘international aid.’

[00:00:00] David: Hi, and welcome to the IDEMS Interviews, a special series of the IDEMS Podcast in which I, David Stern, founding director of IDEMS interview our partners. For the first episode of the IDEMS Interviews, I’m privileged to have a long-term collaborator, Zach Mbasu, who is the founding director of INNODEMS, our Kenyan counterpart.

Hi Zach.

[00:00:27] Zach: Hi, David, and thank you for having me here today.

[00:00:31] David: Oh, it’s an absolute pleasure. We have a long history, which I’m sure we’ll dig into a bit in this call, but maybe first start just by telling people a little bit about INNODEMS.

[00:00:43] Zach: Yeah, thank you. Thank you, David. And, as you said, my name is Zach Mbasu. I am the director of INNODEMS, which is a company that is based in Kenya. And I’ll give you a brief background, um, about, you know, the journey towards starting INNODEMS.

Initially, I started out as a, as a math teacher teaching at high school, and because of the many lessons and the numerous challenges that I experienced as a teacher, I saw other educators experiencing and also learners experiencing. Together with my friends, we founded an organization called African Maths Initiative about 13 years ago.

[00:01:42] David: I should be clear that I’m very grateful that I was considered one of those friends, I was one of those co-founders.

[00:01:50] Zach: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Um, yes, so, David was one of the co-founders, plus, other friends, Mike, James and Thomas. And we founded African Maths Initiative with the aim of promoting mathematics across the different learning academic levels. And, uh, African…

[00:02:18] David: Maybe it’s important to say that really what drew us together was… I was a lecturer at Maseno University at that time and, and you were all master’s students in different areas. And there were some initiatives you were doing, you might even mention the maths camps, but we got funding in the university which then had to get sent back because we couldn’t get it out of the university. That’s my memory of one of the big motivations: that you guys had to say, “if we want to make a change, we need something which can support us, a structure to support us to do that”.

That sort of was my memory. Is that, is that also how you remember some of the motivations, the initial motivations?

[00:02:58] Zach: …yes and also the, in addition to that, a lot of the motivation was that… at that time, I just started doing my master’s at Maseno University in Applied Statistics, and… you were my lecturer in one of the units; test of hypothesis. And the way you were teaching us was a bit different from the other lecturers. So the other lecturers were a bit theoretical, a bit of, you know, rote learning. But in the way you were teaching us, you were allowing us to engage with data, it was practical, it was interactive, and so it felt different.

And because of that, I felt like, hmm, could this way of teaching and this way of learning be transferred to high school? If teachers could adopt that kind of teaching where, you know, the learners take more centre stage, they interact more, maybe it could change the way learners perceive math.

And so that was the other motivation for starting Maths Camps. where we brought learners to the university and they experienced math in a fun, interactive, you know, playful way, that motivated them to continue pursuing math and math related careers. And because of that, this led to the formation of African Maths Initiative, to try and do these initiatives, uh, broadly.

[00:04:43] David: Just to take you back one step further, sorry I’m keeping pushing you backwards, but you mentioned… where the maths camps came, where we were trying to get to students, but you actually took me into schools before that to work with teachers. Because you’d actually started taking some of these ideas, you’d brought it in to your own teachers, and then we gave a teacher training together, where, or we gave a number of teacher trainings together, and then it was sort of, really your push to say, well, we should be getting directly to students, teachers are not picking this up fast enough, was part of, part of that story as I remember it as well.

[00:05:18] Zach: Yes, um, that’s true. So, I remember this resource that you are using called CAST: Computer Assisted Statistics Textbooks. And this resource was interactive. It was free. And, anyone could just take it and interact with it… and learn from it.

And I remember I took it to my school; we had a few old computers and learners start to engage with it. And then when schools from nearby visited, some teachers also got interested in wanting to use this, this resource. And it was at the backdrop of that… when there was this training that was being organized at Chavakali High School being organized by CEMASTEA to train math and science teachers. They requested if we could do a training that involved the use of technology in teaching and learning of math. And this is the training that I invited you to, and we went and did the training together.

[00:06:27] David: That’s right, and we then, we followed that up with other smaller trainings. But that training, you’re right, was particularly important because you mentioned CEMASTEA. You, you can say a little bit more about what, what CEMASTEA is, and why this was so important.

[00:06:41] Zach: Yeah, so CEMASTEA is the Centre for Mathematics, Science, Education and Technology in Africa. And the sole purpose of CEMASTEA is…

[00:06:52] David: So, can I just check that? Because at the time it was only Kenya. And it’s since expanded to at least a regional or maybe a Pan African role, is that right?

[00:07:02] Zach: Yeah, right now it has expanded to other African countries. They are supporting other African countries to build the capacity of STEM teachers, um, to improve their teaching.

[00:07:15] David: And this was their first computer aided workshop, wasn’t it? Because they gave workshops regularly as part of a program, but it didn’t integrate technology. And by chance, we were there and had something to do with their first training, which tried to integrate technology.

[00:07:35] Zach: Yes, this was their first training that involved the use of technology. And the idea was that how could we better support teachers, in them integrating technology in teaching and learning. And so this was the first training that involved the use of technology. And, that’s why I was invited to do the training.

[00:08:00] David: Was this before or after you became the champion? An ICT champion or something, is that right?

[00:08:07] Zach: No, so it was before I became an ICT champion and after that training is when I got selected by the national government to be an ICT champion for the district and later on became an ICT champion for the whole country.

And the idea was that, uh, my role as an ICT champion was to get opportunities to support teachers in integrating technology in teaching and learning. So I would go around schools, organized trainings that could build the capacity of teachers to integrate the use of technology in teaching maths, teaching biology, physics, chemistry, and the other subjects as well.

[00:09:01] David: And I have to… I have to recognize my debt to you that, you know, as you say, I was a lecturer, lecturing at the… postgraduate level. And you, you were the person who really got me involved in African education, in schools, much more widely with teachers, and so on. And I, we, we’ve had so many different experiences. I still have great memories of our workshop in Ghana, which is ten years ago now. Can you believe that? Is it ten years? It’s almost ten years ago. Nine or ten years ago.

[00:09:32] Zach: Yeah, it was, 2014. And… part of the reason why I kept pulling you into schools is because generally, not just in Kenya, when I went to Ghana, I realized that… Ghana faces the same challenges that Kenya faces in terms of the education system… You know, there’s always like inadequate access to quality education, there is shortage of skilled teachers, and also learners do not have the curricular materials to be able, for example, textbooks to read on their own, or just resources to support their learning.

So part of the motivation, of, you know, starting African Maths Initiative was to try and support the teachers so that they could get resources and activities that they could freely access and use during their math lessons. And even during the extra hours that learners can access those resources.

[00:10:36] David: And I think that’s a really important point you’ve just made. I want to make sure we draw it out because over the 15 years, we’ve now been working together in different ways. It’s been a really rich collaboration. And this point about after hours and the teachers themselves… so within schooling hours has always been critical to our discussions.

And this fact that we need to use both the… if you want extracurricular and the curricular initiatives, and they have different roles to play, but both are important. And so, through you, I, and we as an organisation, are now involved in maths initiatives, I would argue, or maths and science initiatives, from pre-primary, the early family maths stuff, all the way through to PhD level… and even beyond, where we do professional trainings.

And at almost all those levels, we are thinking about this duality between curricular and extracurricular, where it’s appropriate, and how you can use one or the other, or a combination of the two, to try and actually, impact systems. And that’s, that’s really been the heart of our… what’s come out of these, these initiatives.

[00:11:55] Zach: Yes… you’re very right that, along all these different, uh, learning academic levels, there are always opportunities for one to learn. Everyone, including us who like offering these, you know, resources… and activities to… whether it’s learners or students. Um, but also there is the second opportunity to try and bring change that is building upon one another, that if learners, for example, access resources at lower grade levels, they go to the next level knowing that, oh, there are resources out there that could help us learn, um, topics and, and even like teachers, they could always refer learners to those, to those resources.

So we have worked across the whole spectrum, right from… early family level, kids who are yet to join school, we’ve done work in primary schools, we’ve done work at secondary school level, both working with teachers and students, we’ve done work at teacher training level, so that when these teachers come out of their teacher training colleges or from the university, they have these ideas and they can take them back to, uh, to schools. And then also work with the PhD students who have had opportunities to do some research that could inform policy, could inform implementations of these interventions in education setups.

[00:13:39] David: And I, I think just in terms of our history together and listening to you on this, I think about scaling up, scaling out, and scaling deep.

You know, scaling up has been getting towards policies, so things gets built into systems. Scaling out means others have been using this and you gave the example of the maths camp, which has now been given for 12, 13 years in Kenya consistently, and it’s been over 10 years in Ethiopia, gone to Ghana, it’s just had its 10 year anniversary, and it’s been many other countries as well, it’s sort of come up. And sometimes it’s stuck, sometimes it hasn’t, but the learning from that has been really, um, you know, interesting.

And the big thing which I think I really appreciate about what you’ve drawn out about everyone learning… I would argue scaling deep is really where… we’ve had some real success because we’ve got people who have gone through the original maths camps, who have been on a journey of almost 12, 13 years with us on and off, um, as there’s different opportunities for them to see… to engage with.

And we’ve seen how it’s not about a single intervention, but you’ve got people on your team now where you’ve been playing a mentorship role now for 12, 13 years. Do you want to just say a little bit about that?

[00:15:01] Zach: Yes, and, um, we must say that we are very proud as a… as a company to have worked with individuals, young people, brilliant people who started out as maths camp participants that we started, you know, over 10 years ago, and they interacted with us during the camps, they went to campus, they completed, and now they are working with us. And….

[00:15:26] David: Let me just clarify, when you say they went to campus, this is, they actually got on to degree programs, and many of them weren’t necessarily on that trajectory beforehand, but they’ve graduated with degrees.

[00:15:38] Zach: Yes, and I would like to share the story of one lady called Cabrine. And Cabrine came to our first maths camp.

[00:15:50] David: I remember.

[00:15:51] Zach: And at that time she was in form 1, which is sort of like grade 9 and when she came to the camp, she was actually convinced to come to the maths camp by her mother, who was my colleague at the school that I was teaching.

[00:16:07] David: Sorry, you used convinced. My memory is she wasn’t convinced, she was forced.

[00:16:13] Zach: Yeah, she was forced because… she was doing poorly in maths at school. And so when her mother shared with her that, oh, there’s this math camp coming, she was like, wow, what am I going to do at a math camp? And… so she was sort of forced by her parent to come to the camp.

She was doing very poorly in the subject. She was not motivated at all and she came to the camp. And the way we organize these camps is that we make them very fun, very engaging for them, very realistic, we get them to, like, interact with, with data, for example, or interact with math that is not their usual math that they are taught at school.

We do a lot of puzzles and games. We have a lot of reflections… about it. We play… mathematical games and we also play board games. And then we reflect about it. And she, she came for the first math camp. The camp is usually one week and the week before the facilitators of the sessions, like they go through the sessions, they prepare activities, and then during the camp we go through the activities with the, with the learner.

So she went through this one week. And after the end of the week, we usually give a resource pack. At that time I remember we were giving resources on CDs. And so we gave her this CD and she went back with it at home and then she took it back to her math teacher at school. And she shared about the experience she had had… at the camp.

So I received this phone call from a math teacher from Kapsabet Girls. That’s where she was going to school. And this teacher, the first thing, she was like… “Oh, there’s something, there’s a, a student here who has come back and she said that you gave her this resource, but she has also shared about the experience she had during the camp and it has motivated her. We feel like there’s… a difference, there’s a change, she’s motivated in the subject and… so we are very excited and… we would like to use these resources in our math clubs. Our club has been dormant and we feel like we can use these activities in the club.” So he requested for us to visit the school.

I remember we drove all the way with you, David, to Kapsabet.

[00:18:41] David: I remember that visit. Yes.

[00:18:44] Zach: Yeah. And we did a first session with a group of students… and some teachers were also present. And that was the start of what we call Math Clubs. Later on we started an initiative within African Maths Initiative of supporting schools to have activities with their math clubs. And that’s where this really began. So that credit goes to Cabrine.

[00:19:10] David: Well… and let’s just fast forward a bit, because as you say, she then actually came back, if I remember, four years in a row, right the way through her high school to every camp. And then when she was at university, she had a few years where she didn’t attend, and then she came back as a volunteer. And now she’s one of your staff members. Having worked at a sugar factory as an accountant in between. Is that… have I got the other bits correct?

[00:19:35] Zach: Yes, yes, so even though the first camp she was sort of forced by her parent, the subsequent camps, because we used to have camps during school holidays every year, and she came the rest of the three years that she was at high school.

And she managed… to qualify for our university, to join the university. And she went and did an undergraduate degree in mathematics and economics. And, you are right, during breaks when they closed the university, she would come back… to intern with us. And when she completed her university she went on to work with a sugar factory, west Kenya sugar factory, and she was working there as an accountant. And, she, you know, she reached out and said, “Oh, if there are opportunities at… INNODEMS, I would like to come back… and work because the work that you’re doing is very exciting”.

And that’s how… we recruited her. And at the moment she’s doing work on the app development work that we are doing, in collaboration with IDEMS and Oxford University on the parent app. She’s also analysing the data that is coming out of the app usage and, also building dashboards for other apps that we are developing.

[00:21:01] David: Absolutely. And… what’s so, so fascinating, of course, is she’s just one story that you’ve told, but there were so many others. There were people who have started when they were undergraduates and now they’ve gone through and they’ve done masters; they’ve come and gone through masters, and now they’re off doing PhDs internationally.

So you have so many interesting stories to tell on this. But I want to just use the last sort of time we have to dig into, well, you know, you talked about AMI and now you talk about INNODEMS and why, why the change? I mean, I know this happened alongside IDEMS, sort of also starting up, that you recognized there was a need for a different sort of structure.

Do you want to just say a little bit about INNODEMS and how you’re actually… helping to achieve more?

[00:21:50] Zach: Yes, so African Maths Initiative, was set up as an NGO and um, we worked through it and… we did a lot of interesting things through the NGO. However, as a country, there are challenges when you have an NGO. So, for example, one of the challenges is that NGOs cannot be able to bid for, for work that could generate income against other companies. So we were finding it difficult to get work that could generate money to pay staff and pay for expenses and so forth and so on. So, and that’s why we decided to…

[00:22:33] David: Let me just clarify this because I think it’s important to state that actually, although AMI offered internships, it never actually employed staff. I mean even yourself when you were working running it, you were supported by a UK charity and, you weren’t paid by the NGO because getting to that level of getting the NGO stable enough to be able to employ people was a challenge.

[00:23:01] Zach: Yes, that’s right. Yeah, it was a challenge because we could not, not get work that we could be paid in order to cut off our expenses and salaries.

[00:23:13] David: We could get grants, and we got all grants that went through AMI, and we often considered getting bigger grants, but the danger was always, well, if you had a big grant, what happens when it ends? Does that mean people’s employment is stopped, and so on? And we felt that actually there was a lot of work, the skills that were being coming out of these people who were interning, they needed to have career pathways, which weren’t… Which meant that we needed to sort of have ways of them doing work. And that was, I think, that was really important, that this was a big part of the motivation for us out of IDEMS as well, is to support that transition to have that growth happen in your context.

[00:23:54] Zach: Yes, and also, um, just to add on what you’ve said, we had a lot of young, brilliant people coming through, people with a lot of potential, who could grow their skills… and contribute.

So just generally, Africa as a continent or Kenya has a lot of untapped potential in the young people. So by establishing INNODEMS, we provided an opportunity to nurture these young people, to nurture these local talent. At the same time, fostering this culture of, you know, innovating and mentoring them and growing their careers as they contribute to the work that they are doing.

[00:24:42] David: And I think there are, we could have a whole other discussion on the fact that, as a Kenyan company doing interesting sort of tech based things, you’re not based in Nairobi. And that’s very important to who you are and what you do… And something which I think could be a whole another discussion. But, working as you are in rural environments, much more embedded in, in rural environments has been an important part of that.

I’m conscious we don’t have much time and the one thing I don’t want to finish without you having said a bit more on, is, well, you’ve talked a bit about Cabrine and you mentioned some of the work that she does related to parenting and Oxford University, the Parenting for Lifelong Health programme.

But you do a lot of other interesting pieces of work. You’ve got things related to agroecology, you’ve got a lot related to education. Do you want to just tell us a few of the sort of highlights for you of the different pieces of work that you do?

[00:25:44] Zach: Uh, yes. So one of the, of the work that we’ve been involved in is this agroecological hub work. And this is very interesting piece of work because we work together with farmers. And the most interesting thing is that the farmers don’t just learn from us, but we also learn from them because they have this, they call them farmer research networks, where they work on things like… crops, observing diseases that are affecting their crops, or diseases that are affecting their, their animals like chicken.

And then they learn what, what is really working. And we’re able… to also show them, you know, evidence from the data that they get. And they’re able to make the right decision. So this has been very interesting work that is able to impact small scale farmers in rural villages um, just across the different regions that we’ve been working in: in Migori, in Houma Bay, as well as, as Kitale. So the fact that we can be able to work with… farmers and also work with researchers in… agriculture and contribute to, to that, we feel very proud of it.

[00:27:03] David: Well, and when you say we learn, I also know that you mean I learn, because I visited your farm and what you’re doing on your own land, back home, where you, where your family is, and where you’ve now actually made yourself more based. I mean, you’ve moved back into the rural environment much more substantially, and it’s been very exciting to watch you do that.

And you could have gone on into many of the other pieces of work you’re doing, but I’m conscious we’ve sort of hit a natural point where I’d like to close this out. So the last thing that I’m going to ask you to just say is that… you’re the first person, this is the first IDEMS interviews podcast, and you’re the first person I’m interviewing as part of this, and there’s good reason.

I’m sure we’ll do another interview in the future but if there’s one thing that you would like people who are around the world maybe going to listen to this… The point you’ve made about African youth is really important. What would you like them to take away?

[00:28:11] Zach: Yes, um, Africa as a continent has an enormous untapped potential among the youth and this youth, they need nurturing, they need mentorship, they need support in order to, to grow in their skills, in their, in their careers, and they’ll be able to bring the change that is needed on the continent.

[00:28:41] David: And beyond. I think the African youth is the youth of tomorrow all over the world. It is the youngest continent.

It’s been an inspiration to work with you over these years. We’re going to continue working together. Thank you, Zach. This has been very fun.

[00:28:57] Zach: Thank you so much, and it has been a pleasure