Making Physics and Engineering concepts practical to African Children: Michael Asante-Afrifa

Selorm Tamakloe
8 min readFeb 22, 2021

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What if every subject that required some level of hands-on practice came along with a kit of some sort — like we have mathematical sets for maths in basic and secondary schools? Michael Asante Afrifa and his co-founder (Charles Ofori Antipem), with a burning passion to see science become practical in Ghanaian classrooms decided to create a science set to help young Ghanaian students better understand basic concepts in physics.

What started out as a Ghanaian solution for a Ghanaian problem went beyond their expectations to be awarded the most innovative education solution in Africa by the African Union in 2018, and to receive an innovation recognition from the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. They have gone on to provide the science set to schools in the UK through a partnership with the Royal Academy of Engineering, and are expanding their markets to many other countries outside Africa.

Let’s hear the Dext Technology story from Michael Asante Afrifa.

I have always had a desire to teach others. That desire was strengthened from an encounter I had with some of my seniors in KNUST while I was pursuing my mechanical engineering undergraduate studies. Before I got enrolled in the school, I had heard stories about first-year students getting trained to build cars by the end of their first semesters in the university. I only entered the school to wonder where those stories were fabricated from. The reality was so far and dissimilar. We had very little hands-on practice. There were some machines in our labs, but we were hardly ever allowed to touch them. Our lab sessions were for us to draw and label the machines. When we were given assignments, it would be our lab technicians working on those assignments for us.

There was one time we were asked to fabricate a bolt and nut. That little project would have exposed us to the use of the lathe machine and the milling machine, while giving us the opportunity to practically explore the calculations needed for the design of bolts and nuts. It turned out that the machines were for other tasks that the technicians had to finish up, so they just asked us to hand the instructions of the assignments to them, and they quickly fabricated the bolts and nuts, leveraging on their years of experience. We never got the chance to learn through practice.

Here is my backstory. I had some experience working with roadside electricians before getting into the university, so I knew what it was to have some hand-on experience. I had also worked on some projects by myself, which required me soldering and building circuits, so those were not alien to me. When I realised that we were not being shown the correlation between the theory and practice, I opted to carve out my own practical pathway by chasing hands-on projects. Most of my projects ended up being electrical because it was much harder to get the machinery for mechanical projects.

Word spread about my electrical circuit projects, and one of my seniors who was about to finish up his 4 years of electrical engineering studies approached me. I was a second-year student at that time, and here he was asking me to build a circuit for his final year project. I was baffled that a final year electrical engineering student would be asking a second-year mechanical engineering student for help on a final year project. I began to wonder if this was a prevailing problem. I enquired some more and realised it was. From mechanical engineering to electrical engineering to chemical engineering, the case was true.

The rest of my undergrad years were spent helping other students see the practical applications of the courses we were studying in class. When we were given calculation based assignments, almost everyone would take it as a breeze, but when it came to applying the calculations to create physical products, it would be so hard for many. It definitely wasn’t the fault of the students. We were just not given the opportunity. And did I mention that most of the lab equipment were defunct?

That was the system I came to know through experience. The system that kept churning out “engineering theorists” who could not make bolts and nuts or build simple electrical circuits after spending 4 years in school.

I realised the root of the problem wasn’t at the tertiary level. As a child, I had the opportunity to work on building circuits from my primary school years, and I had many opportunities to fail and learn through the failures. I didn’t give up after the first try because I wasn’t too fixated on my failures as a child. I also noticed through reflection that children, in general, have a more malleable mind as compared to tertiary school students who have never been exposed to practical science experiences of that kind.

When I met Charles Ofori Antipem (my co-founder), we realised we had a shared feeling. We went to his village in Nsuatre where we got a bunch of resistors and other electronic components and taught the children basic electronic concepts. We balanced the teaching of the concepts with practical demonstrations, which all happened under a tree in this village.

As the children gained an understanding of the fundamental concepts, they started to steal the components and began to conduct their own experiments at home. But when they tried some of the activities at home and succeeded, they forgot they had stolen the components and would come showcasing their science skills to us. In the evenings, we would see these children playing with LED projects they had created by themselves. By the time we were done with that project, most of the components were out of sight, and even some of the teachers started yearning to have them.

One other thing we liked about the project was the curiosity that sparked in the children from the hands-on sessions. By the time one child closed a circuit to create a beam of light, the next child who was looking had questions to ask. Their teachers realised that even children who were not asking questions at school started having questions to ask. We thought to find out what it would look like to have every child exposed to this. That was how Dext Technologies was birthed.

How did you turn this into a business?

We knew most children could not buy the kits themselves, so we had to find out how other people could buy the kits for them. We started by figuring out how the average Ghanaian parent spends on their child. When I was younger, one answer I often received whenever I asked my parents for a toy was “Will it appear in your exam?” With that in mind, we decided to make the product relevant to school. That was when we picked up the Ghanaian integrated science syllabus and tailored the experiments to match the curriculum. With that, we put together our first minimum viable product. We had just converted a “toy” into an academic tool.

We first called it The Playtivity Kit because our intention was to create playful learning experiences for children. We planned to visit some schools to pitch our product to them. For every single school we went to, the teachers wanted to buy the demo prototypes that very same day. Meanwhile, this first kit was a very DIY kit — we had even used hair dye to make the cardboard black, which caused hands and fingers of users to darken from holding it for some time. Even with that limitation, the teachers wanted to buy it.

There was this school we visited called High Class, and on the first day of seeing the kit, they placed an order for 20 of them. We had no proper manufacturing means at that time. We were just trying to ascertain if anybody would be interested in purchasing our product. Well, we had our market research result and set out to supply for our first customer. In my opinion, that school pushed us to turn our prototype into a real product.

We wanted to get it right, so it took us about 7 months of iterations to get that order delivered. We were committed to producing every component as locally as possible both to save cost and promote in-country innovation. We had an office space at the Technology Consultancy Center (TCC) as we were under the KNUST Creativity Group chapter which had some working space there. We virtually lived in that office and worked day-in and day-out to make the kit a finished product. We finally had something we were comfortable putting out on the market. The school was patient, and when they finally received the products, it was one of the most inspiring moments for us.

Do you have plans to create similar solutions for other science subjects?

Absolutely! The underlying philosophy for the creation of the science set is to enable hands-on personalized learning for all basic level science courses. Even though we have plans to introduce other subjects, we have to consider the potential hazards. For instance, handling the chemical aspects of chemistry can get tricky.

We have a software development team working on creating simulations for some of these courses, as we find out ways to create physical sets that wouldn’t put children in harm’s way in their efforts to gain practical science knowledge. We certainly want to cover the entire science curriculum, but we need to do it safely.

Are there ways people could purchase science sets for needy children?

Yes. We offer the option for individuals or corporate institutions to have customized sets that are branded with the identity of the donor, which we give to children in a particular place (oftentimes the children that the donors want to give the sets to). You can email us at info@thescienceset.com or visit our website (https://thescienceset.com/) and we can work together on that if you are interested. The Royal Academy of Engineering and MTN Ghana are examples of two institutions that have done this on a large scale.

Any final words?

I think we are in a period where science and technology drive almost everything. But we in Ghana are in a place where science and technology is kind of taken for granted. I say this because when you take our manufacturing capacity, for example, we don’t have a lot to show. A lot of things are not too far fetched from our capacity to manufacture if only we would invest a little into them and convert our primary produces to secondary products. This won’t just advantage our economy, but would also inspire our children, in effect, changing our future as a country. It is our responsibility as entrepreneurs to show the way and let the upcoming generation know that they can make it in Ghana.

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Selorm Tamakloe

principally an interviewer, consequentially a poet, and occasionally voicing opinions