How she did it

Af­ter strug­gling with sci­ence at a ru­ral school with few re­sources, Batha­bile Mpofu now helps dis­ad­van­taged pupils coun­try­wide with her ChemS­tart sci­ence kits.

Good Housekeeping (South Africa) - - CONTENTS - By Gly­nis Horn­ing

Batha­bile Mpofu and her ChemS­tart sci­ence kits

Batha­bile ex­celled at school and dreamed of be­com­ing a doc­tor. But her school at Mahla­bathini (Ulundi) in Zu­l­u­land had no sci­ence lab or equip­ment – sci­ence was learnt only through text­books, and her ma­tric marks in sci­ence were not good enough for her to be ac­cepted to study medicine at the Univer­sity of KwaZulu-Na­tal.

In­stead she en­rolled for a BSc, but even that was a chal­lenge: ‘In our first sci­ence ses­sion we were given a list of sup­plies and told to check we had them in our al­lo­cated cup­boards – I didn’t even know what most of them were! Com­ing from a place where peo­ple think you’re a ge­nius, it’s very dif­fi­cult. Your con­fi­dence takes a knock and you don’t want to let any­one down.’

She sol­diered on against the odds, even­tu­ally get­ting her de­gree. She then took a job as a lab­o­ra­tory tech­ni­cian at the univer­sity, help­ing stu­dents do ex­per­i­ments: ‘So many of them strug­gled just like I had done, and I could em­pathise and help. But it was heart­break­ing and just didn’t feel right – I wanted to do more.’

Batha­bile left to work for a fund­ing agency back­ing in­no­va­tive sci­ence projects. ‘I soon re­alised black peo­ple weren’t ap­ply­ing, be­cause ba­sic ed­u­ca­tion re­ceived in ru­ral schools doesn’t teach you to ap­ply knowl­edge and think in­no­va­tively; it just helps you cram for a pass.’

In 2016 she set out to do some­thing about it. ‘You need vi­sion and pas­sion, but also the per­sis­tence and the ba­sic equip­ment to ful­fil the vi­sion.’

She started off by buy­ing chem­i­cals, load­ing them into the boot of her car and driv­ing to schools, of­fer­ing to carry out chem­istry ex­per­i­ments. ‘To see the kids’ faces when things flamed and changed colour was price­less. Some said, “Miss, you’re do­ing witch­craft!” I’d say, “No, it’s sci­ence!”’

But it wasn’t enough. ‘You need fol­low-through. So I be­gan pack­ag­ing chem­i­cals and equip­ment (beakers, test tubes, safety glasses) along with man­u­als in kits that the kids could use at school af­ter­wards and do the ex­per­i­ments them­selves.’

She ap­plied for seed fund­ing from the Univer­sity of Cape Town, and to­day, as Nkaz­imulo Ap­plied Sciences, she and her team pro­vide kits for Grades 10, 11 and 12, with ma­te­ri­als for 30 ex­per­i­ments in each kit. Up to five chil­dren can share one kit, each get­ting valu­able hands-on ex­pe­ri­ence.

Pric­ing is key for any en­ter­prise. ‘Even sourc­ing items as care­fully as pos­si­ble, I couldn’t bring the price be­low R750 to R950 a kit. Some par­ents club to­gether to get one, but many can’t af­ford it.’

To get more kits to schools, Batha­bile ap­proaches com­pa­nies that support com­mu­ni­tyu­plift­ment ini­tia­tives.

‘There are com­pa­nies and govern­ment bodies out there that will pro­vide as­sis­tance, from in­vest­ment to mar­ket­ing – you just need to find them (use Google, net­work!), con­vince them you can make a dif­fer­ence and be spe­cific about what you need to make it hap­pen.’

And some­times, she sighs, you also need to con­vince those who re­quire the up­lift­ment. ‘Last year I ar­ranged with the Depart­ment of Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy to visit two schools a day dur­ing Na­tional Sci­ence Week and give out kits, but one school can­celled be­cause it was on a hol­i­day. Re­lax­ing at home was more im­por­tant to them than pupils’ futures….

‘My busi­ness mantra is: “Op­por­tu­ni­ties come to those who are pre­pared.” If only ev­ery­one un­der­stood that!’

To date Batha­bile es­ti­mates she has done ex­per­i­ments for more than 6 000 chil­dren, and dis­trib­uted more than 1 500 ChemS­tart kits. ‘The best piece of ad­vice I’ve ever been given is, “Done is bet­ter than per­fect.” I couldn’t be­come a doc­tor my­self, but I’m on a new mis­sion – help­ing oth­ers be­come doc­tors. And there’s some­thing truly won­der­ful about that.’

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