By Thandiwe Kubere

MASERU – The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in partnership with the Ministry of Information Communications, Science, Technology and Innovation and of Gender, Youth, Sports, Arts, Culture and Social Development, made a call to attract ideas from young people, with a specific focus on Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Maths.

On Monday, the selected 51, out of the 500 youth who submitted their compelling ideas, had the privilege of pitching their prototypes to adjudicators who are renowned experts in different fields. Following this, the top 15 will be selected, which meant participants had to ensure their presentations and ideas were good enough to secure them a spot.

The STEAM conference is a strategic platform to facilitate policy dialogues to promote national capacities in these areas, expose and inspire innovations and creativity, as well as mobilize investment to transition emerging ideas into prototypes and full products. Under the theme – Enhancing Equity and Equality in the Kingdom of Lesotho through STEAM.

“Lesotho STEAMing”, which was a call for applications to Basotho youth, was made and approximately 500 applications were received and a selection of 110 youths was made. The selected youth were invited to a boot camp where their skills in business pitching were sharpened. They further made their pitches in front of independent adjudicators at the end of the week. These led to a selection of the top 51 innovators in all the STEAM categories.

This conference led to the selection of the top 15 innovators who will pitch at the Prime Minister’s Initiative for Youth Empowerment, Sebabatso, together with 15 youth entrepreneurs who would have been selected from this week’s youth entrepreneurs’ boot camp. This makes a total of 30 youth who will pitch their innovative ideas and talent in front of adjudicators and potential investors who are willing to find ways of committing to mentor, coach, and assist existing youth entrepreneurs through investing in some of their businesses.

A selection of the top 10 from both STEAM and youth entrepreneurs will further attend the annual Youth Connekt Africa summit to be held in Kenya this year.

The STEAM Innovations Pitching session is a pinnacle for the journey that started in March 2023, with just a conversation on how Basotho youth could be part of the transforming global landscape. This conversation resulted in the concept of the STEAM Conference, an idea that was taken with both hands, to harness the youth’s power and ingenuity.

Minister of Gender, Youth, Sports, Arts, Culture and Social Development Hon. Lesaoana Pitso stated the Ministry has implemented a lot of programs, including the  Youth Entrepreneurship Mentorship Program that was launched by the Prime Minister during the Youth Day. This therefore brought confidence that the tools and capacity invested in the Ministry will bear dividends for young Basotho. 

He professed the STEAM Conference to have been a worthy collaboration between his ministry and that of Information, Communication, Science and Technology and Innovation, giving Basotho youth a platform to demonstrate their creativity,  explore the indigenous knowledge, and their capacities in Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Maths.

“We are happy that the TOP 51 innovators from the STEAM Conference represent almost all the districts of Lesotho. Representation from Maseru is dominating all the districts, across all the categories of the STEAM. In the future, the ministry will invest more effort to mobilize youth from all the district for balance and a more inclusive participation”, he said.

The STEAM Conference is expected to expose and inspire innovations and creativity, as well as mobilize investment to transition emerging ideas into prototypes and full products. “As you will be aware, this pitching session is preceding the launch of the Prime Minister’s Initiative Youth Empowerment, Sebabatso, in the next few days, which takes forward the vision of the STEAM Conference, by providing spaces for engagement between the youth and the private sector to enable market access and linkages to the industry. The innovators from the Lesotho STEAM Conference are also expected to be part of this momentous event”.

Hon. Lesaoana congratulated all the Top 51 youth innovators who pitched their ideas. He urged those who would not be able to make it to the top 15, to not be discouraged. He assured them by revealing that there are various programs developed by the department and partners to support youth through their entrepreneurship and innovation journey. Those include the mentorship program. “I would like to invite all of you to register on this platform to access information on the services for the youth, matchmaking for mentorship support, and opportunities for capacity building.  Registration on the program is voluntary for both the mentors and mentees” he said.

He further mentioned the ministry is working hard to ensure the coordination of youth development initiatives in the country and promises to work together with the national stakeholders and development partners to maximize opportunities for the development of youth, as agents of change and our tomorrow nation.

UNDP Residence Representative Dr Jacqueline Olweya, lauded the government’s efforts and development partners in putting forth this initiative, supported by the UNDP. “I’m saying sincere gratitude to you, honorable ministers, for putting at the center of your efforts, the people who matter the most- the youth. Because the youth are the future and they are the present”, she said.

Dr. Olweya declared the initiative started sometime in July and has been quite a journey of going around the country to identify youth who would make submissions on the five elements of STEAM. She stated in many countries where the UNDP has this initiative, they just had STEM engagements, and the art part was not included. “But when we started this discussion with the government of Lesotho through the minister and coaches, we were keen to have arts included as part of this initiative, because of the recognition of the rich culture and art there is in this country.” She mentioned arts also have the potential to contribute to economic development.

She mentioned the number from 500 was narrowed down through a long competitive process of creative and compelling ideas and assured this journey would not end on only the two days of pitching ideas, but would go as far as finding implementable ways of addressing challenges faced by the youth of this country. And would also help the country achieve the National Strategic Development Plan (NSDP II) priority sectors being agriculture, manufacturing, tourism, mining, and ICT.

To the 51 she said, “I wish to congratulate you for coming this far, it is not something easy to achieve, so you have outdone yourselves and this country is proud. But this journey does not end here. We are going to the future, where those great ideas you have, will be supported as a whole to contribute to addressing the challenges that we have in this country. You are the solution finders who can help us, so I would like you to see this as just the beginning because we still have a mission we would like to achieve with your ideas and innovations.

Some participants presented about preserving Basotho culture and tradition through the use of multimedia and digital content creation. This was after they realized that Basotho culture is not documented and somehow remains vague, leading to culture decay. As a solution, they assured that with the help of funds, they would take cultural movements through digital platforms and ensure that Basotho culture is well documented. At the same time, this would bring monetary value from the subscription of both national and international markets seeking to know Lesotho better and what makes it unique. Another presented on preserving culture through décor and interior designs, posing a question, “How many of you, ladies and gentlemen, wake up to something that resembles and reminds you of your culture?” Adding to that prototypes were shown of exquisite furniture made of objects reminding of culture, such as rocks, horns décor, and lamps creatively covered with medicinal plants. Furniture was effused with a modern traditional touch so that they equally serve their purpose of beautifying homes while preserving culture as well.