The Ghanaian championing science for change in Africa
Learn what drives the 26-year-old serial inventor and multi-global pitch winner to make practical science a reality for students across Africa and beyond
Brownish and black, with gold letters on the bindings.
Charles Ofori Antipem was seven or eight years old when he first laid eyes on an A-Z set of the Encyclopaedia Britannica at his local library.
He discovered the library one day while playing outside with friends. He remembered hearing what he called some of the ‘best guys in school’ talking about it.
‘I almost didn’t enter,’ said the 26-year-old serial inventor from Nsoatre, a town in the Brong Ahafo region in midwestern Ghana. ‘But the librarian looked at my face, so I entered.’
This was where Antipem met the likes of master inventors Nikola Tesla, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and the Wright brothers.
‘It was a whole new world,’ he said. ‘Reading about these people made me feel like. I can also make things like that. From then on,
I spent all my time at the library. Exciting times.’
Before long, he would read every volume in the set.
Though the library ignited Antipem’s love of learning and inventing, his love of science came from his dad – Solomon Antipem, a science teacher – and on rainy days, a bottle and a funnel.
‘We didn’t have much in terms of science equipment but he did have a rain gauge,’ Charles said. ‘Every day when it rained, my dad would take me out to measure rainfall.’
This sparked his interest in the art of experimenting and collecting data. His mother, Cecelia Kyeremaa, was also ‘very, very supportive’ of his early interest in science, he said.
‘Every now and then I would do a crazy experiment,’ he recalled. Once, his mom helped him light a coal fire so he could boil a cassava to extract starch to build a prototype of a laser-based smoke detector. ‘I felt like she was part of my team,’ he said.
‘It’s like when I read books, I would get lost in the moment,’ he explained. ‘I’d be in a trance, imagine myself in the story. So when the teacher explained in class, I could imagine it. Atoms or whatever, I imagined, and it became very difficult for me to forget.’
In high school, he earned the nickname ‘crazy scientist’. While other students followed class schedules, he spent most of his time in the lab, creating and experimenting. Initially, he paid a price for it.
‘They sacked me from science lab,’ he said. ‘In senior high school, they said, “He’s not a serious student. Let’s take him from science to general arts classes.” I ditched classes and went to physics. After a year, the headmaster just gave up.’
If results speak for themselves, things worked out. One example: During a physics exam in the lab, there was an issue with the experiment setup. The lab technician alerted the teacher, who said, ‘Ask Charles to fix it.’
By age 15 Antipem had created his first product, a flexible, water-resistant computer keyboard that could fit in a pocket once folded. Using a kit he created, people could convert their traditional keyboards in less than 10 minutes.
He would soon add to his list of inventions:
- A smoke detector with intertwining lasers that scans the entirety of a ceiling to detect smoke more quickly than conventional detectors;
- An evaporative cooling system for locally manufactured cars using indigenous earthenware technology;
- A LED-powered drawing board for engineering students;
- A housing structure for plants that permits light to fall on targeted areas – based on distribution of auxins or plant hormones – so plants grow into desired shapes; and
- The multi-award-winning Science Set (thescienceset.com/), a $15 textbook-sized lab kit with 45 components that students use to perform experiments and learn science in a practical way.
The story of the Science Set began in 2012 about 140 kilometres from Antipem’s hometown at the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology.
Antipem entered university to study mechanical engineering. During school breaks, he went back home and brought children together to teach them science.
It was during these trips that Antipem had a thought: ‘I had only the rainfall bottle. What would happen if I gave the kids better than I had?’
So in 2015, in his dorm room, he built what would become a prototype of the Science Set. He and his friend Michael Asante-Afrifa then worked on improving it. When he brought the kit back to the children in his hometown, it made a difference.
‘The teachers were excited and the kids were excited to be inventing,’ Antipem said.
Science teacher Maxwell Samuel Yamoah uses the Science Set in his classroom. Students conduct experiments in electricity, electronics, magnetism and electromagnetism.
‘The Science Set is a game-changer,’ Yamoah said. ‘It makes teaching and learning of science more experiential and evidence-based. The change in pedagogy has developed critical-thinking skills, innovation and curiosity in students. This has developed the can-do spirit in them.’
Putting a science lab on the desk of every student became Antipem’s goal: Spark students’ interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) in a hands-on way, encouraging them to pursue careers in those fields.
Why? ‘Because Africa needs more engineers to solve our problems,’ he said.
The need will only increase in coming years. More than half the global population growth between now and 2050 is expected to take place in Africa, according to the United Nations. Youth on the continent will need relevant skills – particularly those in STEM – to support that level of growth in a sustainable way.
For their part, Antipem and Asante-Afrifa are focusing on using the Science Set to help students learn in a proactive way. A year and a half ago they became co-founders of Dext Technology, which produces the kit. The company has nine full-time staff and 26 part-time employees.
Today 19,000 students in seven countries – Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire, Nigeria, South Africa, Zambia, Germany and the United States of America – perform experiments with Science Sets at school.
To reach more students at a greater pace and to attract investment, the Dext Technology co-founders have been participating in – and winning – global pitch competitions.
Antipem earned first place and $5,000 for his pitch at the 2018 World Export Development Forum young social entrepreneurs pitch contest in September, beating out competition from across Africa.
The event was organized by the International Trade Centre’s Youth and Trade Programme, Impact Hub’s Accelerate2030 programme and Nyamuka Zambia, a business plan competition for start-ups.
Through the experience, Antipem gained new contacts and business leads. The aim now is to put the award-winning kit into the hands of one million students in Africa in the next few years.
Antipem went one better in October, beating out hundreds of competitors to win the ONE Africa Award 2018 in Dakar, Senegal, gaining the title of the most innovative solution in education in Africa along with $100,000.
Many things have changed for Charles Ofori Antipem since the day he first set foot in his local library as a primary school student.
So what does success mean to him?
‘Success is hearing an engineer in the future telling their story beginning with “When I was young, I had a Science Set,”’ he said.