Mark Gelfand (center) with students in Africa.

How local philanthropist Mark Gelfand engineers knowledge in Africa



How local philanthropist Mark Gelfand engineers knowledge in Africa

Mark Gelfand (center) with students in Africa.

Jewish philanthropist and engineer Mark Gelfand pondered for a second while he totaled up the number of engineering centers he’s helped found across sub-Saharan Africa.

“Today, we just put in two in the capital of Zambia – Lusaka – and we have more centers’ equipment al­­ready shipped, and we have more coming after that,” the North Shore resident told the Journal.

The two new laboratories brought the total to 109, a number that keeps multiplying as his nonprofit expands across the African continent. Gelfand, 72, is the founder of STEMpower, which educates thousands of students in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM).

“Students get hands-on instruction in computer skills, engineering skills, electronics skills, and we also have chemical engineering,” he said. “The target student is in high school or entering university.”

STEMpower gives universities across Africa the resources and equipment to create laboratories and train teachers, Gelfand said. For the spaces that don’t already have electricity, STEMpower will install large solar power panels on the buildings and utilize virtual computing, meaning students are able to work on one big computer instead of using individual computers that can catch viruses.

Gelfand began this project after visiting the Yemin Orde Youth Village in Israel in 2004, where about half of the children were from Ethiopia, he said. He helped create a science center there, and the children became interested in robotics competitions. After about seven years of learning, the children at Yemin Orde became the number one robotics team in Israel, he said.

That sparked Gelfand’s interest in Ethiopia and he flew to the capital, Addis Ababa, for his first of 34 trips to the country. In 2012, he worked to open the flagship Foka STEM Center in Bishoftu, which is 35 miles south of Addis Ababa. Now, there are 61 centers in Ethiopia, and many more in Rwanda, South Sudan, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Zimbabwe, Uganda, and other countries, Gelfand said.

“I’m not there to visit a country. I’m not there to take away, I’m there to add,” he said. “I want to help and that’s always been my agenda. It’s not about me, it’s about helping others achieve greatness.”

The Abayudaya Jewish community members sit as they listen to their spiritual leader, in a village near Mbale, eastern Uganda./AFP/Michael O’Hagan

Aside from Gelfand, Israeli humanitarian Shachar Zahavi and a few other STEMpower board members run the nonprofit in Africa. Cameroonian CEO Edwin Kumfa and South Sudanese Country Director Lucy Biel are among the staff who direct the operations and training across the continent. STEMpower installers fly from offices in Ethiopia, Rwanda, and South Sudan to establish the labs, Zahavi said in an interview.

“We’re just igniting this. It’s working nicely and it’s all thanks to [the staff in Africa],” Zahavi said. “We’re just guiding it and helping tweak it a little here and there.”

STEMpower students create innovative products and designs and showcase them at local and national science fairs, such as the annual National Science Fair in Ethiopia. At Samara University in Ethiopia, ninth and 10th-grade students have designed inventions to solve local problems, Betelhem Dagnew Mitiku, the university’s vice president for research and community services, said in a phone interview.

The Samara STEM center was founded in 2020, but became fully functioning in 2022, she said. The university is on its second round of high school STEM students.

“Most of the students wanted to join our laboratory to exercise their creativity and to gain a lot of improved knowledge in our university,” Mitiku said.

After recent flooding in the Afar Region of Ethiopia, one student developed a device to alarm a community when a flood is imminent in order to give residents time to prepare, Mitiku said. Another student created a food-handling machine that prevents produce from spoiling in the sweltering heat. A student at Samara University’s STEM lab was recognized at the national science fair, she said.

At the Institute of Applied Sciences/Ruhengeri in Rwanda, some 18-to-24-year-olds in the STEMpower program have worked on creating a more efficient chemical fertilizer, according to Jean Bosco Baribeshya, the vice chancellor of the university.

“Our university is oriented towards applied sciences, and we wanted to link theory and practice,” Baribeshya said in a phone interview. “STEMpower is helping us to make this become a reality to the young people.”

Philanthropist Mark Gelfand (blue shirt) speaks with STEMpower graduates who were given scholarships to study at the Technion in Haifa, Israel, at its undergraduate international school./COURTESY PHOTO

Other notable projects created in African STEMpower labs have been walking sticks for the blind that use sonar to help users get around more easily, and motion-detecting hand sanitizer dispensers to place in teaching hospitals across Ethiopia, Gelfand said.

Mitiku said that due to war in the Afar Region, many local high schools were shut down and there weren’t many laboratories for students, so Samara University staff plan to expand its STEMpower program to additional districts so more students can use the lab.

For Gelfand, the wish to get students around the world excited about science and engineering came naturally.

He grew up in Cleveland – the “land of industry” – and worked in factories before attending college at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and working in the steel mills.

“I’ve always been a hands-on engineer type of person,” Gelfand said. “And then I learned a little bit about mathematics and that was my main career, computer programming and some really complicated financial math.”

After college, Gelfand found out about a tech job in Cambridge and drove to the Boston area in a U-Haul truck to start his career. He worked at MIT and learned a lot about time series analysis before forming a company called Intex Solutions, Inc., in which staff were able to “crack a difficult problem in structured finance,” he said.

After a few years, he left and decided to focus on helping kids in engineering.

“I wanted to have a more meaningful life,” Gelfand said. “I started learning about Africa and I thought, ‘This is awesome,’ and then when I got there, I saw that I could actually be helpful.”

In addition to opening STEM teaching centers, Gelfand works with the Sub-Saharan African Jewish Alliance (SAJA) to help mitigate food insecurity in African Jewish communities by creating farms.

In 2019, Gelfand came together with the Abayudaya Men’s Club in Uganda to establish a fruitful 500-bird poultry farm in Nasenyi village, Sam Muwalani, the club’s treasurer, said in a phone interview. Gelfand donated funds and provided training for local farmers so they could continue to prosper.

“We have been studying with Mark about poultry farming, and from that we created a data collection sheet,” Muwalani said. “And after a couple of flocks came in, we increased to 1,000 chickens.”

“STEMpower’s commitment to involving the Jewish community across North America is paramount. As Jews, it’s incumbent upon us to embrace the concept of tikkun olam by uniting and extending our assistance to those less fortunate in Africa,” said Zahavi. Θ

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