Text: Andreas Warausch (Nürtinger Zeitung). Translation: Lena Gronbach
Lena Gronbach, born in Nürtingen, Germany, is making waves in South Africa. Her scholarship network Africademics helps young people from African countries to access higher education. Her volunteer-run scholarship platform was recently awarded the Social Engagement Prize by the German Academic Scholarship Foundation.
How it all started
Lena Gronbach grew up in Nürtingen where she attended the local Waldorf School and matriculated eleven years ago. She then went to study in Reutlingen where she completed her Bachelor´s degree in International Business at ESB Business School. During her studies she continued to live in Nürtingen where she worked at the well-known local bar ´Schaltbar´.
Her ´big jump´ happened when her volunteer work for the international youth exchange organization Youth for Understanding led her to South Africa. Lena fell in love with the country, the people and the culture and decided to complete her Master´s at the University of Pretoria, followed by her PhD studies (currently in progress) at the University of Cape Town.
Lena still has close ties with her home town: “I usually visit around twice a year, sometimes in summer but I also like staying a bit longer during the Christmas season”, she says. However, due to the Corona pandemic, she has not been able to travel home since last Christmas. Being a German citizen, she would be able to travel to Germany, but under the current travel regulations she would not be able to return to South Africa after her visit. “Of course I hope that it will be possible to come to Nürtingen again soon, hopefully in early 2021”, Lena says.
Living and working in South Africa
Talking to someone who lives on the other side of the world naturally leads to the question of how people in South Africa are experiencing the pandemic. Following a hard lockdown in March, April and May – “during the first few weeks we were not even allowed to go out for a run or walk the dog” – the situation has calmed down, at least for now, Lena reports. However, many people continue to work from home and most of the academic activities at her university still take place online. But other than that, “life almost feels normal again, at least at the moment”. Yet there are fears of a second wave which might hit South Africa during or after the summer holidays in December and January, Lena confirms.
In the meantime, the 30-year old continues to work on her PhD research which focuses on social cash transfers and other forms of social protection in sub-Saharan Africa. Initially, she had planned to conduct fieldwork in South Africa, Ghana and Tanzania – but then COVID-19 happened. Instead, she is now working on a larger study on the impact of the pandemic on social protection, covering the whole of sub-Saharan Africa. Various countries paid cash transfers and unemployment allowances, distributed food parcels, or implemented subsidies for water, electricity and other basic necessities. Lena is also interested in the impact of COVID-19 on payment digitization and plans to complete her dissertation by 2022.
Africademics: A vision and a plan
In fact, it was her PhD studies – or rather her search for PhD funding – that inspired her to start Africademics. During her research on funding opportunities, she realized that there was a surprisingly large number of funding opportunities and scholarships for students from African countries. However, these are often not well-know among students and early career researchers on the continent and therefore fail to have the intended impact. “Many universities do not have the financial resources or the staff to inform students about funding opportunities”, Lena says. Access to higher education is therefore often restricted to students from privileged families, while students from poor households often don´t have regular internet access or don´t know where to look for scholarships.
Lena, who has received various scholarships from the German Academic Scholarship Foundation throughout her Bachelor´s and Master´s studies, decided to change this. She wanted to give back and enable other young people to pursue their dreams and to access higher education. This is an ambitious goal, considering that – according to a 2018 UNESCO study – less than 10% of young people in African countries attend a university or college. Youth from low-income households, as well as ethnic minorities and women are particularly disadvantaged. In comparison: In Germany, over 70% of young adults attended university in the same year.
Activities and successes
So how does Africademics work? Lena collects information about scholarships and opportunities via various newsletters, online portals and social media. She then shares at least two opportunities per day on Facebook, Twitter and the Africademics WhatsApp groups. “On Facebook, we currently reach over 16,000 followers”, Lena says. In addition, Africademics offers a weekly scholarship newsletter and a blog with various articles on higher education and scholarships in Africa.
Africademics receives inquiries from all over the African continent, as well as from young Africans living abroad. The organization´s Facebook followers come from virtually all sub-Saharan African countries, especially from Ethiopia, South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana, Uganda, Madagascar and the DRC.
In May, Lena founded the Africademics Ambassador Programme through which Africademics is currently represented at 20 universities in ten African countries. For next year, Lena plans to expand the programme to additional universities and to offer info events about scholarships and funding opportunities – Corona permitting, of course. In addition, the organization has already partnered with various other organizations and was selected as one of 100 social start-ups who will participate in the ´startsocial´ programme. The programme runs under the patronage of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and consists of a 4-month coaching period, as well as various prizes for the most promising initiatives.
Lena was also awarded the 2021 ´weitergeben – Social Engagement´ prize by the German Academic Scholarship Foundation, which is valued EUR 5,000. These awards have encouraged Lena in her efforts to increase access to higher education and she will use the prize money to further improve and expand Africademics. At the moment, she runs the project almost single-handedly, but she will soon receive additional support from one of her University Ambassadors. “Going forward, I want to further grow the Africademics core team and focus mor on strategic planning and partnerships with universities, scholarship foundations and other organizations”, Lena says.
This article was first published in the print edition of the Nürtinger Tageszeitung on 17 November 2020, titled ‘Nürtingerin kämpft für mehr Bildungsgerechtigkeit’. Read the original article here: https://www.ntz.de/nachrichten/nuertingen/artikel/nuertingerin-lena-gronbach-kaempft-in-suedafrika-fuer-mehr-bildungsgerechtigkeit/