043 – The Journey to IDEMS Internships

The IDEMS Podcast
The IDEMS Podcast
043 – The Journey to IDEMS Internships


In this episode, Santiago Borio and David Stern delve into the evolution of IDEMS internships, tracing their roots from the African Maths Initiative in Kenya to their expansion across Africa. They discuss the inspiration from university attachments at Maseno University, and lay the path towards potential structured programs that bolster capacity building and foster local innovation, emphasizing the significant impact on individual interns and broader community development.

[00:00:01] Santiago: Hi, and welcome to the IDEMS podcast. I am Santiago Borio, an Impact Activation Fellow, and I’m here with David Stern, one of the founding directors of IDEMS.

Hi, David.

[00:00:17] David: Hi, Santiago. We’re digging into internships again today.

[00:00:22] Santiago: Yes, we had two episodes recently on internships. One was very much specific about one internship program, the STACK Internship Program, which is one that I was heavily involved in. The second was with Lucie where you discussed the West African internships that she’s leading.

[00:00:46] David: The model that’s emerging from that is sort of my memory of one of the things that came out in that discussion. This idea of internships leading to apprenticeships leading to these junior fellowships was part of what we mentioned.

[00:01:00] Santiago: Yes, and I think maybe a follow up on that specific model with her would be useful because there is a clear structure to that. But today, my understanding is that we’d like to tell a bit of our history with internships and our broader vision of why internships are beneficial and why we have internships and how they fit in within our capacity building principle.

[00:01:34] David: There’s probably part of the story that you don’t even know. Despite the fact that you’ve been involved in this for, well, I suppose you first got involved with interns pre IDEMS, when you were volunteering at maths camps and so on.

[00:01:49] Santiago: Yeah, I’ve been working with you informally since 2012 and more formally since 2018. But 2012, I believe, was when the first interns started to emerge.

[00:02:04] David: Well, yes and no. At that point, AMI, African Maths Initiative, had been registered as an NGO in Kenya, and one of the first things that it did was took on the interns. And that was part of the role it was playing. But elements of that internship program predate even the formation of the African Maths Initiative.

[00:02:28] Santiago: Can you say in 30 seconds a bit more about the African Maths Initiative, just for context?

[00:02:33] David: The African Maths Initiative is a Kenyan NGO which a number of my former students and myself started in Kenya in 2010, 2011. And it played a very important role in setting up the maths camps and starting these internships. And was built really as something very small to sort of enable the processes that were coming out of the work that I was doing at that time at Maseno University with postgraduate students who I was collaborating with.

[00:03:06] Santiago: And maybe not just enable, but also formalize.

[00:03:10] David: Well, no, it was enable because there wasn’t really an internship program and a lot of these things weren’t possible before. We tried within the University but it happened at a different level and internships just weren’t possible there. The University did have something else which is attachments. That predates my time at Maseno University, I started there in 2008.

[00:03:34] Santiago: And what are these attachments?

[00:03:37] David: Well, attachments are part of the university program, and this is the case in a lot of different places, where as part of your studies you get an attachment, it’s a type of internship, to a local company, a local organization of a different form. And part of the reason I went to Maseno was that there was a lecturer, Eli Bodo, who very sadly passed away with appendicitis while I was in Kenya in about 2012 maybe even before that, 2011.

But he had been innovating with the attachment program, which is why I then heard about Maseno, because of his innovations and because of the work he was doing sending students on attachments, working with them based on their experience in the attachments to bring back the things that would have been useful to them in their attachment into the training of the next year’s students. And this sort of cycle of trying to make the attachments more useful, both for the students, but also the people they were visiting; is part of the reason that Maseno got a very good reputation at the point when I went and joined them. And part of the reason, therefore, that I joined them as a young university with a strong maths and statistics department doing innovative things. It was an obvious choice for me. That’s what I was looking for. And so I joined them as a local lecturer.

So in some sense, our internships have a long history of experiences related to this. And I have to recognize that the work that Eli Bodo did on these attachments, I assumed, because this is one of the things that attracted me to Maseno in the first place, that I’d be able to contribute to it. And I have to confess that despite 15 years, over 15 years now since I joined Maseno University, six years I was a lecturer there, and I’ve worked continually with the University in different ways since then, I still haven’t really moved the dial on the work he started before I was there. And I would argue, in many ways, he did more than I have contributed in all this time to that particular aspect. That attachment program and the work that he did which attracted me to Maseno is more impressive than I feel what we’ve been able to achieve since then. In different ways we’ve been trying to support this.

[00:06:07] Santiago: Well, you moved the dial in all sorts of other ways.

[00:06:10] David: I did, I started five new degree programmes. I did all sorts of other things. And that now means that the lecturers there were totally overwhelmed by students because they have over a thousand students in their first year classes. There’s other issues which have changed and have evolved since then. But that attachment programme is still ongoing, and it’s still problematic, and I would argue that the initiatives Eli Bodo took are probably better than what is still happening now.

[00:06:38] Santiago: Okay, in what way?

[00:06:40] David: Well, it is this element of actually trying to get these cycles of integrating into the formal education the needs that come out from the attachments and closing the loop on that. It’s a really hard thing to do, to actually integrate the attachments, the experiences the students get, and to feed that back in to the training in the formal education.

And it was really impressive the way he was able to readapt the courses he was teaching to be able to bring these things in and to give people that opportunity.

[00:07:17] Santiago: Is it possible to give a concrete example?

[00:07:21] David: Very concrete example was that he had students who came back and they needed then basic Excel skills. And so the next year he made sure students had basic Excel skills. And then they needed skills with the stats package, and so he got Genstat Discovery, this was back in the day, this was over 10 years ago, and he made sure that they had skills in that. And then there was a need for R which came out of somewhere, and so he gave the students the opportunity to get those skills.

And so he would just take the needs that came out of the students, and then create the opportunity for the next set of students to go in with some exposure to those skills so that the skills that they were then finding in the workplace in other places were then coming into the training. And it was simple things like that, but it was responsive. And that’s what was so impressive about it. It was the way that he would listen, he would have structures to be able to listen to the students’ experiences and feed that back in to the next set of students.

[00:08:16] Santiago: Which is remarkable, not just for Kenya, in general in academia.

[00:08:21] David: Yeah. In academia, exactly. Being that responsive is something which is really remarkable and so impressive. And despite all the progress we’ve made in other areas, creating the structures to be able to formalize such feedback loops is so hard.

[00:08:38] Santiago: And we’re potentially seeing some of that, or at least I heard some of that in the episode you did with Lucie and the internships in West Africa.

[00:08:52] David: Yeah. But that’s not formalized into an institution. It’s so much easier to just do it ourselves with our internship programs and get those feedback loops. That’s easy. We’re not close to what Eli Bodo was doing, doing this inside a formal university, inside an institution, that’s a big order of magnitude.

[00:09:13] Santiago: And the numbers that he was working with, because how many students go on attachment?

[00:09:16] David: Well, I mean, now it’s insane because of the success of the degree programs, which means that there’s lots and lots of students. But back then it was of the order of 50 to 80. But that’s still a large number.

[00:09:28] Santiago: It’s ten times what we are dealing with.

[00:09:32] David: Exactly. It’s of the order of ten times what we’re dealing with at this point in time. And we’re taking people from across institutions deliberately, we’re looking for that diversity. And that’s correct for us as an outside organization trying to support this.

And INNODEMS, our partner in Kenya, they have continued to accept students on attachment and recruit some of those into our internship programs.

[00:09:59] Santiago: Okay, but let’s go back a step. You experience the attachment, then you together with some former students set up the NGO African Maths Initiative, AMI in short, you developed an internship program there.

[00:10:17] David: Absolutely, and it was really based on this element that the attachments were all well and good, but when students finished university, then many of them were, there was a term for it in Kenya, tarmacking, where you hit the tarmac and you get your CV out to everybody and anyone hoping that someone will give you a job. And there was a situation where so many graduates were coming out that there weren’t enough jobs for them in different ways. And so it was quite hard for people. The opportunities when they got them were good, but there just weren’t enough opportunities to go around at that point in time.

And so creating these sorts of internship opportunities, where particularly we try to attract good students to give them more experience straight out of university, was a need that was identified. And a bridge before they went on to master’s programmes was part of that.

[00:11:15] Santiago: These internships, sometimes internships during your studies or just after your studies, they tend to be short, sometimes unpaid. Can you tell me a bit about the structure of the internships as they started?

[00:11:29] David: Well as this started, I mean, paying something so that people could actually do this and commit to this and really engage and do something which was going to last at least as a year, six months to a year as a minimum, was really where we started. And so this is where within the NGO, this was the first thing we really tried to get little bits of funding for and any funding we got fed in to getting these paid internships.

[00:11:55] Santiago: Where did that funding come from?

[00:12:00] David: All sorts of different opportunities. I mean, at that point I was getting in grants from all sorts of different things at the University [of Maseno] to the University. And so, some of those then would get opportunities to do bits of work and then we’d include a very small amount of money. I mean, we are talking about very small amounts of money people were being paid, but we’d include those small amounts to then try and get them into the internship program.

And at that point, there wasn’t the vision of actually employing people. INNODEMS really emerged because we then had people who had stuck around for way longer than we’d ever imagined. We saw this as a sort of bridge into master’s programs, but there were some people who had actually continued to grow within AMI and needed to build a career, they weren’t necessarily looking for further studies.

[00:12:59] Santiago: And if I’m not mistaken, there were at least one or two who completed their masters while sticking around as well.

[00:13:08] David: That happened, but there were a number who went away for their masters to AIMS in particular, the African Institute of Mathematical Sciences, and then came back and did another internship afterwards. And some of those internships were actually then AIMS internships. So we’ve got a whole set of internships funded by, I think it was IDRC was the, the source of the climate internships at AIMS.

[00:13:30] Santiago: IDRC, sorry?

[00:13:32] David: Canadian aid. They had a program with AIMS on climate internships. Actually, it started because we had students who had been on our internship program who went to AIMS, who then wanted to have another internship. And we said, well, we could try and get this funding for you to do that. And so we put some things in, thinking that it would be our students who applied and got a whole set of very interesting applicants. And we had four, six at a time coming in to those internships. And so we’ve had all sorts of internships, just after an undergraduate, just after a master’s, trying to bridge between undergraduate and master’s, trying to bridge between master’s and PhD, enabling people to also proceed in ways which were non-academic, which was also always part of the intention.

[00:14:17] Santiago: Yes, it wasn’t only to prepare you for further academic studies, it was also professional skills.

[00:14:23] David: Absolutely. And these weren’t formalized internship programs. We’re getting towards that now, but these were really, I would call them opportunistic projects that people would have where they could work on something and by working on it they’d then be collaborating with people who were interested in that, and actually had to deliver on that, so they’d be exposed to people actually delivering on real work.

[00:14:49] Santiago: So recapping, attachments led to ad hoc internships with AMI and then other institutions saw the value in the type of internships we were offering, and started sending their interns to us to manage their internships.

[00:15:08] David: Well, no, that was slightly different. The AIMS interns, they had a process and I was deeply involved actually in AIMS at that point in time, they reached out to say, could you propose some topics? And so we proposed some topics and we had students already lined up who we knew wanted to do it. And so it was going to be worth our while proposing those topics. This was the first set of AIMS climatic interns. We did that and then had people, I think on every round after that.

[00:15:36] Santiago: And if I’m not mistaken SAMI came in, the charity that we work very closely with, Supporting African Maths Initiatives.

[00:15:45] David: Absolutely.

[00:15:46] Santiago: Let me just say that they are a UK based charity led by colleagues of ours and support a lot of the work that we were doing back then, and we work very much collaboratively with them right now.

[00:16:00] David: Well, let’s be absolutely clear, SAMI predates IDEMS quite considerably. Before setting up IDEMS, there was a consideration about whether we should have, instead of setting up IDEMS, just tried to grow SAMI. And it was clear that that wasn’t the right route because as a charity, they had very fixed objectives. But what we did is we are asset locked to SAMI. And so as an organization, part of our aims and part of our goals is to build SAMI and the work they’re doing. It is a…

[00:16:31] Santiago: And that’s, sorry to interrupt. That is explained in some of our first episodes, so let’s not get too deep into that. What I want to focus on is the SAMI internships.

[00:16:44] David: Yeah, those SAMI internships really came as a sort of way to support the AMI internships. So SAMI is literally Supporting AMI, Supporting African Maths Initiatives. And so the idea of SAMI was conceived to support the work that was happening in Kenya and then expand it elsewhere, which it’s done extremely successfully.

And in the internships, they then, I suppose formalized the internship program first. They got some specific support or funding where they were able to take on just a couple of interns and see them through in interesting ways. And that’s been an interesting evolution that’s happened there as well. And a lot of that has enabled the work on supporting Kenyan schools to really grow and flourish.

[00:17:33] Santiago: Yes, I was going to say, if I’m not mistaken most, if not all, of the SAMI interns were recent graduates of education degrees.

[00:17:43] David: Well, recently, yes, and there was a specific moment at which that was a deliberate choice. They actually recruited for that. And that again was part of the evolution, if you want, because a big focus there was to take these people who came out with teaching degrees to give them exposure and experience, with the idea that then they could contribute more to education in whatever they went on into.

What’s been interesting is that actually a lot of those internships, there’s been a recognition that the work that people get into, it’s not easy for them to then find equally rewarding work. It’s really rewarding work. And so they actually, even though it’s not the best paid and the most renumerative that they could get, and doesn’t have a clear career pathway, quite a lot of them have wanted to continue and to engage more because, as opportunities go, it’s extremely rewarding. It’s a good challenge to have.

[00:18:44] Santiago: And they came with mentorship from SAMI members in the UK as well.

[00:18:50] David: Absolutely.

[00:18:51] Santiago: Which for Kenyan graduates is a unique opportunity.

[00:18:58] David: I wouldn’t say it’s unique, but it is a valued opportunity. It’s really valuable and the people who have gone through that have really grown partly because of that continued mentorship.

[00:19:11] Santiago: And let me be perfectly clear here, we’re not saying that mentorship from Kenyan professionals is less valuable, it’s also valuable in different ways.

[00:19:22] David: And what I want to be absolutely clear on that is that one of the things is that the Kenyan professionals with the sort of skills which would make them really valuable are so in demand. They don’t have the time. This is the other thing, people worry about brain drain where really the key is to get brain circulation. Because we have through SAMI a whole network of international volunteers who have time and are willing to give time. And that’s something which is in great scarcity from skilled people in the Kenyan context amongst other African contexts, but we’re talking specifically here about the Kenyan context, simply because the demand for such skills is so high and the supply is so low.

[00:20:05] Santiago: And just to give an example of the type of skills we’re talking about, a lot of the mentorship happened remotely. And this is pre COVID. So having remote working experiences, training remotely pre COVID, that was a development of skills that proved incredibly valuable.

[00:20:25] David: Yeah. And simple things like, you know, writing good emails, which people take for granted, are things where this is something where there isn’t enough mentorship often because there’s just a scarcity of human resource in certain cases. And so just building those skills and creating opportunities for them is valuable. Now don’t get me wrong. This is something where your unique is certainly not true. There are lots of other initiatives in Kenya itself, I’m not even talking about beyond, which offer really interesting internship elements at scale in a way that we don’t do, and in ways where there are better career pathways. So I’m not saying that what we’ve sorted out there is in any way unique or…

[00:21:12] Santiago: Let’s not focus on perhaps carelessly said word.

[00:21:18] David: No, I know, but it’s not about focusing on it. Really, what I want to make clear is that, you know, I’ve been inspired by Digital Divide Kenya, a group where, Digital Data Divide, sorry, I think it is, DDD. They were a group who tried to do this internship approach at scale. I had a former colleague, well, former student of mine, who actually became part of their research team and was leading that for a while. Unfortunately, he passed away recently. As a group, they tried to do this in really interesting ways at scale, in ways that really inspired me.

So we are not the innovators on this. We are learning from what others are doing. I think there are elements where we have brought small bits of innovation. I mean, one of the things that we try to do quite consistently is support people in rural areas rather than urban areas. And this is a very conscious choice about these internships, these digital internships.

[00:22:15] Santiago: I think we should have another episode specifically on why we focus on the rural areas.

[00:22:22] David: Yeah. And why that is maybe a concrete innovation to the way we’ve done it. But we’re doing it in really small ways compared to many others. And this isn’t, when I say we, this is not IDEMS, this predates IDEMS, this is maybe INNODEMS, this is SAMI, this is a whole team of people who have been involved in these innovations over time. And it’s led to some of what we do as IDEMS in terms of our internships.

[00:22:49] Santiago: So IDEMS was created and how did the internships start with IDEMS? Did they start right away?

[00:22:57] David: So IDEMS inherited interns from projects that predated IDEMS. Within one of the key initiatives which IDEMS inherited was R-Instat, which was mainly built by internship programs in Kenya. And that was a deliberate choice and a deliberate aim to train people to do that software development. And that predates IDEMS by a number of years.

[00:23:25] Santiago: Let me just clarify, R-Instat is a menu based front end to R, the statistical programming language.

[00:23:34] David: It’s an open source, full statistic software built on R, built using R, where the need for this emerged well, from work that was happening in a number of different environments and the fact that if you didn’t have the coding ability to really pick up and use R, there needed to be something which was more accessible.

And what was so interesting about the way that started is that really ramped up the internship approach because that’s where we started getting these long term interns who built this and who really were key people in developing that.

[00:24:13] Santiago: And that was a formal project led by AMI, by the African Maths Initiative.

[00:24:19] David: This was a formal project started by AMI, in collaboration with the group where I was working at the University of Reading, the Statistical Services Centre at the University of Reading, and others. SAMI was actually the key group that did the fundraising for it, which supported those initial internships, and so on.

IDEMS really came in at a point, well, when the funding was running out for those internship programs. And so it was not totally by chance that this was felt that for that to continue, and that work was deemed incredibly valuable, for that work to continue, there needed to be sources of funding coming in that could sustain those internship programs from different sources. And that wasn’t the full motivation for IDEMS at all, but it was part of the responsibilities that IDEMS inherited.

[00:25:13] Santiago: And IDEMS somewhat took over those internships and the development of that software and expanded it?

[00:25:22] David: It may be, and that’s an interesting question. IDEMS certainly took responsibility to ensure that continuity, but it’s really INNODEMS that took it over. Actually they got to the point where within AMI there was this recognition that AMI as an NGO couldn’t bring in the funds that was needed to make people have career pathways. And so INNODEMS really was born from those internships wanting to become careers and jobs.

[00:25:53] Santiago: And influenced by us.

[00:25:56] David: IDEMS, yes.

[00:25:57] Santiago: By IDEMS as you described with Zach in your interview to him in episode 10, I think it is.

[00:26:07] David: Yeah. And this is something where Zach’s role in that and in this whole story has been critical. You mentioned that interview, he was the founding director of AMI, and he’s been really central to this whole story.

[00:26:21] Santiago: And he’s the founding director of INNODEMS.

[00:26:25] David: As well, yes.

[00:26:26] Santiago: And now INODEMS manages a lot of the internships directly.

[00:26:33] David: In Kenya.

[00:26:33] Santiago: In Kenya.

[00:26:34] David: And it’s interesting, our focus here has been Kenya. We don’t just have people from Kenya and in Kenya. But this story really was a Kenyan story, and that evolution.

[00:26:45] Santiago: And we have, for example, internships in West Africa managed by GHAIDEMS our Ghanaian partner?

[00:26:53] David: Yes. So there was a lot of inspiration from Kenya to Ghana and back and forwards in different ways. And that relationship goes back to 2013. Was it? Yes, it was 2013. And I think one of the things which is maybe worth saying is that although a lot of our internship approaches and so on have really been focused on coming out of Kenya, still remaining within the African context, more recently, we’ve actually taken on interns in the UK, and there is a big need and a big demand for this. So we took on as part of an internship scheme, last year, we took on a couple of interns in the UK on paid internships related to data.

[00:27:39] Santiago: Aimed at minority groups as well.

[00:27:41] David: Yes. Yeah. This was to get minority groups into data jobs, data skills, data jobs.

[00:27:47] Santiago: Okay, I think to wrap this up, we’ve kind of told the story, but there are two of our principles that really resonate with this story to me. Maybe there are more in your mind, but one is clearly capacity building, which I mentioned at the start. And the other one came to me as we discussed, is local innovation.

[00:28:11] David: I’m slightly nervous getting into the principles because you start me on principles and we talk for another half hour easily. But yes, those two certainly resonate, I could list a number more really, where even some of our principles have emerged from the learnings which have come out of some of these experiences.

[00:28:30] Santiago: Yes, but my question is how much those principles influence or direct the work we do with internships.

[00:28:43] David: And this is where it’s difficult, because I would argue that because the work we do with internships, for me personally and Danny, my co-founder, predates IDEMS, I don’t know whether the principles influenced the internships or whether it’s the internships who have influenced our principles. There’s a synergy here, which is sort of you know, certainly in terms of getting other people to understand things we think are important and why the internships are important, certainly the principles help with that. But I think the influence is really the other way on, actually. Seeing and experiencing the importance of creating such opportunities, this has influenced the local innovation principle. I would really argue a lot of that is observing the importance of getting people on the ground to be the ones innovating, creating solutions for their context.

[00:29:46] Santiago: And the impact of those internships?

[00:29:50] David: I don’t think we dug into this with Zach, but Zach is really torn on this at times because the impact for individuals is sometimes, you know, life changing. They then go on into other things. And Zach sometimes feels that all that work we did, just as they were getting really, really good, then they’d go off and they’d do other things. And that’s really what it’s all about. Internships, you know, this process, however long it might be, is about preparing people to go on and do other things.

[00:30:22] Santiago: And you put it very clearly in your discussion with Lucie, we want to make ourselves redundant. We want to create the local skills so that local people can carry out the work that we do.

[00:30:35] David: But this is different. Let me be clear again on what it is that frustrates Zach. Actually now within INNODEMS, with the internship approach, there’s real talent that comes through, that grows, and that moves on. Whereas for INNODEMS, he’d quite like some more of it to stick, and to build the organisation.

[00:31:00] Santiago: I can imagine.

[00:31:03] David: So that’s an interesting tension for him. And this is something where I believe very strongly that it’s that combination of some people sticking, some people moving on, which is important. With IDEMS, if you think about high level internships, it’s our fellowship program. And our sticking rate at the moment is extremely high. This is something where I can absolutely understand that frustration that Zach sometimes has, but it’s a really important part of how those internships work at this point in time.

[00:31:35] Santiago: Okay. We’re running out of time. So one final comment.

[00:31:40] David: My final comment on this is that we’re not there yet with the internships. We’ve never had the finances to really make this scalable. And that’s something which is still a pipe dream for me, to be able to turn what learnings we’ve got over now, 15 years, predates IDEMS so substantially, but these experiences sort of going back 15 years, I think it’s going to be really interesting to see what happens now as IDEMS is growing into a position to be able to really structure them and formalize them in ways which we’re now doing in West Africa.

I think that’s really taking the lead in formalizing that approach, but it’s hopefully going to mean that that learning translates into things which are really scalable. And that’s what’s needed. Scalability within this is something we’ve really struggled with and it’s, it’s hard.

[00:32:42] Santiago: Okay. I’ll like to question you a bit more on that. So more episodes on this to come.

[00:32:50] David: Sounds great. It’s a topic I love talking about. So this is fun.

[00:32:53] Santiago: Good. Thank you, David.

[00:32:56] David: Thanks.