Career Profile: Esther Syombua Ndaka and Tara Thiani, co-founders of the Afrika Counts project

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Career profile

Esther Syombua Ndaka and Tara Thiani are co-founders of the Afrika Counts project and undergraduate students at the United States International University – Africa (USIU-A), located in Nairobi, Kenya. Esther is a 2nd year bachelor of epidemiology and biostatistics major and Tara is a 5th year bachelor of pharmacy major.

Can you explain what the Afrika Counts project is all about?

The name “Afrika Counts” is a word play that alludes to Africa measuring and quantifying her health data as well as the importance of africanised data in the global health context. This vision is captured in our logo that depicts the African continent nested in an africanised Gaussian curve. We included some Greek letters in our name to highlight the important role that data and statistics will play in our project.

Great advances have been made in science and research in Africa and as students in the health and data sectors, this inspired us greatly. our aim is to generate population-specific health data that will be used in making evidence-informed decisions on health programs, strategies and policies as well as in biological and life sciences curricula. The data we collect will also help healthcare workers outside Africa have a standard reference they can use when it comes to attending to people of African descent as well as addressing and appreciating their biological and genetic diversity.

How did you first get interested in using data for global development?

We were fortunate to be selected for the highly competitive Millennium Fellowship, class of 2020, which is a program of the Millennium Campus Network and the United Nations Academic Impact, geared towards empowering undergraduate students to advance the sustainable development goals.

As part of the Fellowship, we are required to develop and implement a project which will create social impact. Our passion to offer evidence-informed health solutions for Africans led to the creation of the Afrika Counts project, which gave us a platform to advance SDG 3- Good health and well-being, 10 – Reduced inequalities & 17- Partnerships for the goals, using data. We are also supporting the United Nations Academic Impact Principles: 4- Global citizenship, 7- Intercultural Dialogue and 10- Committing to the principles of the UN charter.

What sorts of data and data software skills do you need in your job?

Proficiency in the design of questionnaire and survey forms and the ability to utilize Open Data Kits such as Kobocollect for data collection. We also require data analysis skills; both qualitative and quantitative, in order to draw conclusions from the data we collect. Some of the software we use include: R and R Studio, SPSS, Python, Microsoft Excel and we recently registered  for a student license for Tableau which is a great tool for data visualization.

How and when have you developed your data skills so far?

We rely heavily on Youtube to supplement our coursework. There is also an amazing community of R users on Twitter who offer lessons and cheat sheets. These two resources have been invaluable for us as they offer content for users of all levels.

What skills do you need to use alongside your data skills to run your project?

Working on a project such as this requires teamwork and we achieve this by allocating tasks according to our availability as well as abilities. We also need good communication skills as we are constantly reaching out to potential mentors, partners and donors. We have also had to manage our time efficiently as we juggle school work, family time and project deadlines. Another critical skill that we are learning is navigating the precarious social media environment.

What advice would you give undergraduates aspiring to a data-related career in the global development sector?

We would advise them to believe in themselves because being an undergraduate student does not mean you cannot change the world. No idea is too big or too small and every contribution, no matter how minimal it may seem, makes a difference. Additionally, they could identify potential mentors and reach out to them (never be afraid to talk to anyone) as most are willing to support and encourage student-led initiatives.  Finally, apply for programs such as the Millennium Fellowship, where they can get training to hone their skills in leadership and project development. As Arthur Ashe said, “start where you are, use what you have and do what you can.”

Follow the Afrika Counts twitter account or LinkedIn page to find more out more about the project.

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