With her education startup in Dar-es-Salaam, Shama Kheraj is creating young innovators, offering workshops at the intersection of STEM, entrepreneurship, and creativity.
At UpStudio Africa’s bright and roomy space in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, you see children huddled together in small energetic groups, working on projects that solve complex problems, or trying to program robots coding their next move. Outside of their classroom curriculum, this is a space where they can explore their passion for today’s technology and tomorrow’s not-yet-born professions.
UpStudio’s founder, Shama Kheraj, is able to relate. Growing up in Tanzania, she noticed that her own early education was didactic. Although she initially set out to do a business degree at the University of Pennsylvania in the United States, she soon realized she was drawn to education and social impact. So after completing her master’s in education policy and management at Harvard and working at an education nonprofit in the US, she returned home to change the status quo.
She quit her senior managerial education consulting post at one of the world’s top firms, Dalberg, earlier this year, to create a space for children to have the flexibility to explore emerging fields.
“When I initially opened and talked to parents about product design, it was hard for them to conceptualize what product design is. Because, from their perspective, there’s not a lot of new products Tanzania is making… we’re often importing rather than building from scratch. So understanding that there is an opportunity within that space has been really difficult,” says Kheraj.
She sees her venture solving a bigger issue at hand on the African continent. Unemployment is on the rise and her work is trying to funnel through as many entrepreneurs and innovators, creating the next generation of jobs. Kheraj believes that the next 20 to 30 years will look radically different in Africa, especially with the growth of the ICT sector. Despite the current focus on the delivery of digital products, she sees more designers, engineers and creators thinking about creative spaces and how to design products for users.
As a startup, UpStudio receives no external donor funding. It aims to become completely self-sustainable in a market where it can be difficult to sell what can be deemed an ‘extra-curricular’ activity to parents.
On the flip side, unlike most startups like itself, UpStudio offers workshops at the intersection of STEM, entrepreneurship, and creativity. This includes both hard and soft skills like product and industrial design, artificial intelligence, coding, and even photography and film. Workshops are facilitated by Kheraj or guest facilitators who are experts in their fields in Tanzania and abroad.
“The idea is not only to expose [children] to innovations, but give them the platform to think beyond what is existing today such that they’re thinking about what might not exist. It might be very conceptual, but can help them imagine a future that they would like,” she says.
Despite being in the works for a few years, UpStudio opened in February and did not anticipate that within a month, would have to move all workshops online when the pandemic hit. At this point, Kheraj was hit with a new curveball when parents were sometimes no longer in a position to afford the workshops, or did not want to overwhelm children who already had to adjust to online learning with more screen time. It’s been a slow but steady start, in her opinion, but multiple children have still stuck through this tough time to stay active and occupied. She is also constantly learning how to better price her services with changing circumstances.
“I’ve been looking at, every now and then, introducing a new voice within the creative space that might be different from what parents have access to. So maybe, parents already have access to some things in schools today, but not access to someone who teaches photography [for instance],” she adds.
Students can explore whatever topic sparks their interest. “The flexibility that comes with not working within the school system provides is being able to do these dynamic courses focused on different age groups and really be able to not just support one school, but provide support to multiple schools at the same time,” she says.
But she acknowledges how difficult it can be to find people to facilitate workshops. UpStudio relies heavily on bringing in technical expertise and shorter-term partnerships, where Kheraj provides guidance on education pedagogy.
Her passion for working with young children keeps her going through all the hurdles. UpStudio allows them to explore different sectors of knowledge and innovation so that when they’re going into university, they’re already aware of all the opportunities.
“You can’t be expected to be in one sector or one field for the rest of your life. You will need to create more individuals that can be dynamic… we anticipate that what the world needs is people who are able to kind of move across, but then are also socially responsible,” she says.
-By Inaara Gangji