Girls Fly encourages girls to enter aviation field
Refilwe Ledwaba, a fixed wing aircraft and helicopter pilot, is making strides in encouraging young girls to enter the science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics (STEAM) fields through her non-profit organisation, the Girls Fly Programme in Africa (GFPA).
Established in 2017 as a platform that educates African girls about aviation and aerospace at a grassroots level, the GFPA says it has helped hundreds of girls in Botswana, Kenya and SA enter the STEAM fields since inception.
The organisation empowers girls by creating an inclusive environment where they are encouraged and inspired to take up fields and careers in STEAM through various educational, networking and scholarship programmes, with the aim of addressing gender inequality in the male-dominated sector.
In 2019, the GFPA Global Fund was created to mobilise, invest and support the GFPA Foundation to carry out its vision of creating an Africa where every girl can access higher education opportunities.
According to Ledwaba, while unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, have been around in one form or another since the 1920s, it’s only in the last decade or so that they’ve become more mainstream and used in industries other than defence.
Until 10 years ago, this agile technology was limited to privileged hobbyists and a few specialist businesses, with drones now being used across commercial, scientific, engineering, agriculture and recreation industries – this means the demand for skilled pilots is on the increase, in Africa and abroad, according to Ledwaba.
“Commercial drone businesses now open new career opportunities for women. The huge popularity of the Girls Fly Programme in Africa shows just how passionate young women are about careers in aviation – and how many are seeking new and exciting ways to enter the sector.
“While achieving all the necessary certifications to fly drones professionally is onerous and expensive, doing so is more affordable than the qualifications required to fly commercial aircraft, making the industry more accessible,” explains Ledwaba.
The foundation hosts aviation and space camps each year, where the learners use design thinking and technology to invent, build and present solutions to current challenges in the aviation and space industry.
GFPA will be offering blended learning programmes as of 2021. From the second half of 2021, the organisation will be able to offer both online and in-person camps and online mentorship programmes.
The platform will also incorporate a career and education hub and an alumni portal, notes Ledwaba.
In July 2019, Ledwaba was selected among the second cohort of the Obama Foundation African Leaders, 200 Rising Leaders from 45 countries around the continent who participated in a year-long leadership development programme.
“Being a drone pilot is an exciting career opportunity for women, and qualified drone pilots who are knowledgeable about the legislation surrounding this emerging industry are increasingly in demand.
“With the drone industry worldwide expected to grow by 51.1% over the next eight years, research shows that 62% of drone services providers are self-employed. This means service providers are only able to make a success of their business if they’re driven by an entrepreneurial passion and the skills to run their own company,” she points out.
This is one of the reasons Mzansi Aerospace Technologies, a black-owned and -operated unmanned aviation technology start-up is committed to growing the local drone industry by incubating start-ups in the industry through its Drone Start-Up Accelerator Programme, run in partnership with global engineering consultancy firm Royal HaskoningDHV.
Among the 13 companies participating in the 2020 edition of the accelerator programme were four woman-owned businesses, operating in industries as diverse as defence, security, law enforcement and infrastructure surveillance, as well as civil engineering services.
“This inaugural drone business incubator highlighted the fact that drone pilots and businesses that offer drone services are increasingly in demand across SA, and well beyond the main centres, emphasising that careers in aerospace – unlike conventional aviation skills – are not just linked to cities with airports,” says Ledwaba.
GFPA selects girls between the ages of 14 and 18 years, all chosen via an application process. Applicants are considered based on school results and motivational essays.