University of the Western Cape researcher - and Akeelah Foundation founder - Dr Natasha Ross decided to follow a career in Chemical Science because she wanted to do something out of the ordinary - to make a difference in the world. And with Akeelah, a Cape Town-based non-profit company founded in 2020, she’s doing just that - by educating and empowering young women to change their environment.
“When a woman is educated, she becomes empowered to change not only her own life, but also the
lives of those around her: her children, her family, her friends and her community,” Dr Ross said.” The vision of Akeelah Foundation is to provoke young women in impoverished communities to have big dreams and equip them with the required skills and resources in order to pursue them.”
Through the facilitation of structured local outreach programmes and educational activities, and by providing counselling in relation to societal concerns such as women and children abuse, Akeelah (the name means “wise”) will put those dreams within reach - and produce a generation of WISE women,
who display Wisdom, Ingenuity, Self-Esteem and Excellence.
“The foundation is on a mission to provide young women with mentorship, skills development and financial support towards achieving their educational and career goals. Our mission is to foster the empowerment of school going girls in our communities to strive for “better”, no matter the circumstances they may face.”
The youngest of five children, Dr Ross was raised by a single mother in a
small town named Hawston, a fisherman's village in the Cape Overberg district - an experience for
which she’s grateful today.
“Coming from an impoverished small fishing village myself, I understand the dire need for mentorship and financial support at school level. I wish to see more girls from my community rise above their circumstances - and help others do the same.”
That’s something she’s explored as a senior lecturer at UWC’s Chemistry Department and as a research group leader at the Sensorlab (an electrochemistry, nanoscience and sensor research laboratory based at the University). It’s something she’s developed through outreach efforts like the Soapbox Science initiative, where she discussed her work as a researcher in photovoltaics (solar power materials) with the wider public. And it’s something she’s tackling head-on with her work at Akeelah.
“Akeelah is directed by women for women; aimed at empowering young girls to perform better academically, pass matric, enrol at university and emerge as highly employable graduates. And by striving towards excellence, Akeelah women will change the world around them.”
But nobody can change the world alone - and at Akeelah, Dr Ross’ fellow founders are a who’s who of empowered educators: Prof. Fanelwa Ngece-Ajayi, Associate Professor of Physical Chemistry at UWC; Portia Kleinschmidt, Career Guidance Counselor at Hawston Secondary School; Elizabeth Jakobs, UWC LLB Law graduate and practitioner; and, Elizabeth West, International Missionary, Mentor & Coach.
“The pandemic has definitely made me view my career holistically,” Ross notes. “I realised how important it is to have networks and partnerships as an academic, and as a woman. I’m motivated by that quote of Woodrow Wilson: ‘I not only use all the brains that I have, but all that I can borrow”. And I’ve borrowed the best.”
Prof. Ngece-Ajayi (pictured, right), for example: an associate professor in Physical Chemistry, and research leader in the field of drug metabolism nanobiosensors for antiretrovirals and Tuberculosis treatment drugs... who is also the founder and leader of the non-profit organisation, AmaQawe ngeMfundo, which aims to change the negative stereotypes about STEM at township schools.
“Lecturing at UWC showed me that students from poorer communities - and especially the
townships and rural-based schools - struggle financially, and sometimes quit their studies due to
a lack of proper foundation in science and a lack of exposure in the field,” she says.
“I decided I’d like to change that - and help children attain their full potential, no matter their living conditions and background.”
In South Africa - and worldwide - the reality is that women are in the minority in science: men still outnumber women in most science, technology, engineering and mathematics-related (STEM)
careers, and women benefit less from opportunities afforded by a scientific education.
But it’s not just about science. Increasing female participation in STEM fields, and educating them more broadly, will allow women to shape society in a range of spheres, and build a more diverse talent pool to affect all areas of society.
“Everyone needs a vision of what they want to be like when they grow up,” Dr Ross says. “For young women to dream of becoming the next big innovator, CEO or award-winning scientist, they need to be exposed to women who represent those things.”
And that’s what Akeelah is all about.