Nigerian girls win major tech award aimed at kicking fake drug habit

Five Nigerian teenagers have won a major tech innovation award in California for their app that spots fake drugs — further dispelling the myth that girls are weak at science and technology.

Promise Nnalue, Jessica Osita, Nwabuaku Ossai, Adaeze Onuigbo and Vivian Okoye, who call themselves Team Save-A-Soul, learned how to build their phone app from scratch, in hopes that it will help address widespread sales of counterfeit drugs in their home country. 

Users can verify the authenticity and expiration date of medication by scanning the barcode on the bottle or box using their FD-detector app.

Nigeria has been fighting against an overwhelming deluge of counterfeit drugs for decades. A study by the Nigeria’s National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC), done in 2002, found that 41% of pharmaceuticals in the country were fake and 70% were unregistered.

In an interview with CNN, 15-year-old Osita said the motivation for her to join the group comes from personal experience. Her brother died from taking fake drugs which were given to him after he was involved in an accident.

“With this app, we will relieve the burden so I feel very excited,” Osita said. She hopes to become a pharmacist one day.

Team Save-A-Soul beat teams from the United States, Turkey, Uzbekistan and China to walk away with the coveted junior gold award at the Technovation Challenge on August 9. Their app was one of more than 2 000 apps submitted.

Technovation is run by education nonprofit Iridescent and challenges girls aged 10-18 to create an app that solves problems in their communities.

Osita says that her parents and the people around her did not understand her interest in technology at first.

“Some people told me: ‘You’re a girl, why are you going into tech?’ At first my parents didn’t understand what I was doing, but it’s only recently that they see what I’m doing. They are very, very proud.”

The group says it was influenced and encouraged by its mentor Uchenna Ugwu who introduced the girls to computers and coding through her organisation Edufun Technik. The organisation teaches science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) subjects to underprivileged children in Anambra state, Nigeria.

According to Ugwu, Edufun Technik has taught about 4 800 school children since 2014 — with the majority being young girls — as a means of closing the wide gender gap in STEM education.

READ MORE: African governments leave women out of digital revolution

Fourteen-year-old Nnalue said the group couldn’t “have done this without our mentor. She really believed in us and encouraged us.”

Before the competition, the girls were anxious about participating in the competition along groups that always had access to technology while they only started using computers five months ago.

Ugwu said she reassured the girls by telling them “it’s not about how long ago you started, but how well you do.

“They were not the most talented in the coding class but they were the most determined. They stuck with the classes when a lot of their peers dropped out.”

Moving forward from the competition, the girls will partner with NAFDAC to create a database of certified pharmaceutical products.

Ugwu hopes that this win will encourage other young girls to find creative solutions to the problems their countries are faced with and not be intimidated by STEM subjects and people saying girls are not capable.

READ MORE: ‘Technology is not for women’

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