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How a Boston-based retired physicist is spreading the gospel of science in Africa

To explain why he’s founded over 100 hands-on labs in sub-Sahara Africa, Mark Gelfand

points to Hebrew school classes and a natural curiosity for the workings of the world

STEMpower founder Mark Gelfand at a STEM center in Africa in an undated photograph. (Courtesy)

If ever a “mad scientist” gene were to be isolated, there is no doubt that it would dominate Mark Gelfand’s genome.

The 72-year-old Boston-based financial systems pioneer made his modest fortune beginning in 1985 through a revolutionary standard calculator for international structured finance markets. However, in speaking with the now full-time Jewish philanthropist, it’s clear that what makes his internal diode light up is spreading the universal language of science to the next generation.

As a child, he explored the world in his basement workshop in South Euclid, a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio, where he tore apart televisions and built radios. Today, after opening a series of educational science programs in the United States and Israel, he’s spreading his love of science throughout Africa through STEMpower centers, claiming, “Inside every child is a scientist. Nurture that scientist and you will change the world.”

These hands-on learning laboratories are usually attached to local educational institutions, which take on the running of the projects. Through this seeding of science centers, Gelfand hopes to enable students to help themselves — and their nations.

How Gelfand arrived in Africa is a very Jewish tale — through witnessing the success of Ethiopian immigrants to Israel. During visits to family and friends, Gelfand began funding science projects throughout the Jewish state, including a floor of Haifa’s renowned science museum Madatech and at the youth village Yemin Orde. There, Gelfand began taking note of Israel’s Ethiopian immigrants, whom he realized were often behind the way the curve in their STEM studies. But then, in 2006, he saw a team of Ethiopian-born teens winning the first robotics contest in Israel.

“I decided I’ve got to see what’s going on in Ethiopia,” Gelfand told The Times of Israel in a recent pair of phone and Zoom calls ahead of this writer’s upcoming reporting trip to Ethiopia and Uganda. Gelfand, who will not be joining this trip, has himself traveled to Africa over 30 times since that first trip in 2006.

In 2012, the first STEMpower center opened its doors in Foka, Ethiopia, about an hour outside of Addis Ababa. The centers cater to students aged 12-30 and include laboratories, 3-D printers, and electronics kits. Today, there are 107 STEM centers, with 60 in Ethiopia alone. Another 29 are on set to open in the coming year, he said.

STEMpower founder Mark Gelfand at a STEM center in Africa in an undated photograph. (Courtesy)

Each STEM Center costs about $150,000 to become operational. But in South Sudan, Gelfand noted, STEM centers cost about $350,000 due to poorer infrastructure that must be remedied, including electrical generators.

Through his work with STEMpower, Gelfand was exposed to Africa’s diverse Jewish communities. Realizing that many communities are shackled to gilded chains of charity, he has opened up agricultural centers to help communities help themselves.

“The focus is on food security,” he said. “Today, not only are people eating, but there’s an excess which they distribute to elderly Christians and Muslims.” All of a sudden, he said, these communities are the best of friends.

His methodology is simple, he claimed: “Start small, do a small project, see how it does, then do a bigger project.”

Gelfand’s current goal? To help change the education system throughout the continent by opening at least one STEM center in every sub-Saharan country by 2025. And he’s about 75% of the way there.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What does science mean to you?

I was a kid who was more interested in the world around me, the universe. How does a television set work? So I take one apart. In those days, television sets broke. You would have to either fix them somehow with these vacuum tubes or throw them out, one of the two. So I started collecting them on trash day because people threw out their television sets and I would wheel them back in my wagon to the house. And that began my electronics interest.

I would have friends like everybody else. And then in the evening, they’d go home or go to sleep. I would go to my lab in the basement. And I remember the first circuit I built was in fourth grade. I built myself a little workbench that was a neon diode with a resistor-capacitor, a neon-bulb resistor oscillator, that had zero safety. That could have been my life right there because you plugged it right into the wall.

So electronics became kind of my entry into the science world, where I learned a lot even before I was even out of elementary school because I already built circuits and things like that at that point.

And it helped me with my career: electronics was helpful to me because I learned so much and it was fun. If I didn’t give myself a few explosions here or things catching on fire or whatever. I would like kids to learn this way. The hands-on approach. It gives them a path forward to their future, and maybe they can help their country along the way.

You’re giving kids permission to explore. Tell me a little bit more about that.

After I had my kids and did my [work] projects, I went around on a motorcycle and taught kids in the Boston area. They had 2,000 volunteers and there was one science enrichment volunteer and that was me. I remember there were a few children who had difficulties. I remember this one girl who had cerebral palsy. She was in a wheelchair and I used to teach a lot of electronics to the kids. We would make crystal radios and all these things. Anyway, there was this girl and she was immobile in a chair. And I taught her how to solder, how you hold the soldering gun and how you feed the solder in and where the wire is and why you do it. And I still remember her. She could hardly express herself, but she was screaming inside with joy.

I’d like to hear about the idea of dignity through doing. What led you to make that a key element of what you’re doing in Africa today?

When I first visited Africa, what I saw was it was pretty clear to me that the technical, hands-on, technical expertise to explain the world around them was interesting [to the people I met]. Anybody who can use a cell phone could build one, was my motto.

They use the phone, they see it, they press the button and make a phone call. How does it work? Any thoughts on that? What’s inside?

To be honest, I didn’t even know until I started one investment, and I didn’t realize that it was digital all the way to the final last step, where it has to make a radio wave. It was the very last point. And then it comes out as a radio to communicate with the cell towers and things like this. So I didn’t even know that. It’s a fun exploration for me, but the real joy is now watching kids learn. They started with nothing.

The real joy is now watching kids learn. They started with nothing

Do you think that every child can speak science? I mean, what you’re doing, essentially, is teaching them a new language, a new way of conceiving.

Yeah, that’s actually another universal language. Music is a universal language. Playing chess. So there’s these universal languages out there. So how many kids can appreciate this? I have no basis whatsoever, but I’m going to say that 20% of the kids find a natural way to express themselves. I have no data on this. I’d love to see it. But they would find math and science interesting all by itself. And I’m trying to reach that 20% because they’re going to do great things in their life that may change, alter the course of the history of their family, their community, their country, the world.

The other thing I found really awesome is the level of creativity of African kids who have never experienced anything outside their village. It’s such an amazing reservoir of possibilities once you give them the chance.

I’ll soon see for myself the work you’re doing in Africa. But it sounds like you’re trying to enable people to improve their own lives and therefore the state of their communities. What led you to decide to help people who live on the other side of the globe?

Probably because I was affected a little bit by my Hebrew school classes. Everybody would hate them. And I would say, yeah, I mean, the stories are kind of a little far-fetched and this and that, and not necessarily relevant 2,000 or 5,000 years later, but it doesn’t matter. It was the way I got the human element. I think it’s through learning the stories and that there was this overlay of making the world better somehow. I think it kind of softened me to say these are kind of like general stories of humans, culture, community and that kind of struck me. And somehow that transmogrifies to trying to help others. I can’t really explain it.

The Abayudaya Jewish community’s members sit as they listen to their spiritual leader, in a village near Mbale, eastern Uganda, July 2, 2016. (AFP/Michael O’Hagan)

You began your work in the US and moved on to projects in Israel and now you’re conquering Africa. And I wonder if you see more return on investment in Africa. Both, of course, monetarily, but also spiritually.

I wouldn’t use the word “conquering.” I would use another verb like adding to the possibilities.

Opening doors?

Yes, basically. To what hallway? I don’t know. Or to outside or to inside, I don’t know. But it doesn’t matter. Just the doors open. And statistically check it out. We find in Africa no shortage at all of kids [who are interested in participating in the program]. You’ll see them busy, they’re curious, they’re interested.

So you want to build something, you want to make something. And another thing that we do with STEMpower is we have an entrepreneurship class. So maybe turn that into a business. And we started many, many startup companies with that.

Are you teaching also business skills in addition to science?

Yes, it’s a combination. It’s a program that we kind of free-formed with a little bit of help from Visa, the financial credit card company, and their charity side.

But the crazier the dream, I think the more likely you are to succeed because no one else has done it. It’s like a key into Africa opens up everything. It’s like a form of diplomacy that I think should be followed — to educate the children in a way that helps them build their country.

Illustrative image of hands of African children cupped under tap of water (borgogniels; iStock by Getty Images)

You’ve said that you’re a problem-solving organization. What’s an example of a problem you are trying to solve?

Right now, we’re planting trees in South Sudan. Why are we planting trees in South Sudan? Am I a tree hugger? Am I a nature person? No. We have problems that seven months out of the year, the roads are flooded in South Sudan. It’s one giant swamp. In fact, the word “Sudan” means impenetrable barrier. Because of the swamp in the middle of Sudan, no one could get through to find they were looking for the source of the Nile — Julius Caesar was looking for it. Napoleon was looking for it, [Benito] Mussolini was looking for it. So I guess we got to look for it. So you get through this swamp and when it rains, it leaves misery, suffering and isolation. That’s why South Sudan has 25 airports because there are no roads.

It’s very challenging to build STEM centers in some places. You can’t imagine how challenging. But we bring the electricity because you have to be solar powered somehow. There’s no other solution. And they have a lot of sun, so it’s awesome. But you still have storage. Those are heavy batteries. Now we’re switching to another type of battery, lithium-based battery for storage.

I hope these kids discover a better method. I want them to solve this problem. The solar storage. How can we make it better?

But are you putting them on pragmatic issues like that? Are you saying in these STEM centers, hey, you have this issue — solve it. Go for it.

For that we turned to our science fair. Really, it’s an engineering fair and kids come up with all kinds of solutions from what they see around them. Like better ways to make a plow or cut down something, wheat or something. They come up with these amazing devices. And solve what they see as their world’s problems — it may be coffee making. They figure out ways to make one machine that starts with the green bean and it comes out as piping hot coffee. Awesome.

Kids come up with all kinds of solutions from what they see around them

One kid made, I couldn’t believe this, he took a plastic trash can and he made that into a welding machine. The first thing they want to do is solve their society’s problems.

Talk about your vision for what you’re doing with the Jewish communities, in Uganda, Zimbabwe and elsewhere.

STEMpower is the source of why I’m involved with the Jewish community, believe it or not. And that’s because we’re getting to know Africa, and one country after another. And I’m thinking, all right, we’re kind of doing things in sub-Saharan Africa, Ethiopia being one. And then I began to notice there are other Jewish communities in these countries, small, keep themselves pretty much live with neighbors, live with Christians and Muslims. And I’m realizing, wait a second, if I’m building STEMpower centers in these countries, maybe I can explore the Jewish angle here.

In this November 2018 photo, philanthropist Mark Gelfand (blue shirt) speaks with STEMpower graduates who were given scholarships to study in Israel at the Technion in Haifa at its undergraduate international school. (Courtesy)

Are there Jews in Africa? Where do they come from? How does it work? And I’ve, one by one, been connecting to these countries. There are Jews that have claimed that they’ve been around since the destruction of the First Temple. Those would be the Lemba. And there are the Abayudaya in Uganda. And then I hear that there are Jews in Nigeria and think, let me find out more about this.

What really is important to me is that I’d like to connect the idea of helping Jewish communities become self-sustaining and connected to each other, because I found that they were all being isolated from each other. And I have farms and factories in Ethiopia, so I thought maybe I’ll try to use that experience. So putting all this together, I thought, let me start some farms [run by the Jewish communities]. The first one I did is a very small broiler ranch. Broilers are baby chickens. They’re one day old when you get them and you raise them till they’re ready to be sold as meat, it takes a whole 36 days. I said, oh, that’s kind of like electronics. It’s fast.

Start with the food. Make everybody not hungry. Start there. And then, all right, we’ll put a mezuzah on the farm. We’ll grow from there.

You’ve talked about how starting these projects in the Jewish communities has led to more coexistence between the neighbors, the Christian and the Muslim neighbors.

When you can help a whole community, it’s really something. And not only the community of the Jewish community, but they live with their neighbors, Muslim, Christian, or something else, something African. And often the Jews were kind of like kind of oppressed a little bit.

All I see with every project is smiles and happiness and joy, so I can’t stop doing this. It’s really fun, but it really affects a lot of people.

The writer will be a guest of STEMpower on an upcoming reporting trip in Ethiopia and Uganda.

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