Sahaza Marline on Madagascar’s performance at the FIRST Global Challenge

LOGO The American

31 October, 2020: Madagascar national robotics team was ranked 5th out of 175 participants worldwide during the closing ceremony of the 2020 First Global Challenge (FGC), a quantitative criterion-based ranking. Along with this achievement, the two mentors of the Malagasy team received the award for outstanding mentors as well as the team won the third place in the Sofia Kovalevskaya for International Journey, which is rather qualitative. Sahaza Marline, founder and president of STEM4Good (the association that selected and technically prepared the team), tells us more about this achievement.

AmCham: Who is Sahaza Marline?

Sahaza: I am a web entrepreneur. I have been working in this sector since 2008. Back then I started as a freelancer and in 2012 I launched my web agency. I undertake technology and web-related consultancy missions as well.

AmCham: Could you tell us more about STEM4Good?

Sahaza: Well, as founders, we launched STEM4Good association in 2018 after being involved in the sector within Habaka NGO. Our first move was teaching “coding” or computer programming to 7-17 year-old children. At that time, we tried to follow the international trend of teaching coding to children at their very early age. Beyond just using new technologies, children should know how to invent them. From 2014 to 2017, 2,500 children have been initiated to coding through our own efforts, without external funding. We launched the “coder bus” concept which helped the teaching of coding expand from 2016 to 2017. Finally our initiative started to become more popular in Madagascar, and even abroad. That is how the FGC got in touch with us as we share the same vision. They proposed that Madagascar builds a team to compete in the FGC robotics competitions for 15 to 18 year-old teens. We barely mastered robotics at that time but we grabbed the opportunity. In 2017, the Malagasy team flew to Washington DC for their first-ever participation to international competition, the first edition of FGC. The competition evolves in different countries every year and there are various topics discussed, looking for the most important scientific challenges for the future and then choosing one theme each year. We are now in its fourth year.

AmCham: Can you briefly summarize Madagascar’s first years at FGC?

Sahaza: To give you a clearer idea, this is how FGC works. The competition looks like the Olympic Games, with different prizes and categories. The standard form of FGC is the robot competition. To make it simple, each team invents one robot, following the given theme. The robot follows a specific route and accumulates either qualitative or quantitative points. In the qualitative criteria, the jury assesses, among others, the quality of the work done, the way of sharing knowledge, the way the team overcomes challenges, and the team’s communication skills. That is how we claimed the 2017 bronze medal in Washington DC. The following edition in Mexico City in 2018, we were ranked at the 124th spot and at the 137th in 2019 in Dubai. Due to travel bans and restrictions, the competition was held online and 25 challenges – qualitative, quantitative, and others – have been created. In the second month of the challenge, the Malagasy team managed to stay in the top 10, got propelled to the top 5 spot, and stayed there out of 175 participants.

AmCham: How was your feeling when the Madagascar team ranked among the top 5 of the 2020FGC?

Sahaza: I am extremely proud that our efforts paid off and have been duly acknowledged. Indeed, every year, Madagascar always stands out from other countries. We do have outstanding talents and merits. This time we received more appreciation than when we won the bronze medal in Washington back in 2017. We owe our success to the team’s self-confidence.

AmCham: How did the Madagascar team manage to win the outstanding mentor award?

Sahaza: The participants wanted to express their recognition for the mentors and sent a letter to the FGC organization committee. In my opinion, our mentors won the award as they are much younger than their peers from other teams. Most of them are teachers and that makes it easier for them to communicate and share experiences more efficiently with teens.

AmCham: Due to the pandemic, FGC was held fully online. How did you organize yourself as most of the teens were in different regions of Madagascar?

Sahaza: The gathering of the team members was quite a challenge as they are not all Antananarivo residents. For the whole first month, they never had the chance to meet in-person. We provided them connection and they proceed to each one of the challenges through video calls. In the last month of the competition, the Ministry of Communication and Culture intervened and provided lodging and other materials. It was really helpful.

AmCham: Does the involvement of the Ministry of Communication and Culture mean that the government will make the field of robotics a priority?

Sahaza: We view the Ministry of Communication and Culture’s intervention as a “manna” from heaven. We accepted to overcome all the challenges because we thought that participating in international competitions are less difficult than participating in national competitions. All the organization process is carried out abroad. STEM4Good association is just called to show competence and performance. The team members themselves participate in fundraisings. We will continue to proceed that way in the coming years. Our request is further government’s intervention in the lives of our teens. Their lives have drastically changed as they met new people and acquired knowledge and skills from their international experience. We would like the government to support us in setting up a positive development laboratory, so that these young people can pursue their passion in robotics.

AmCham: What is still to be improved if our team aspires to win the competition?

Sahaza: Personally I do not consider getting the first place as the ultimate priority. My first priority is to inspire adolescents to take science subjects seriously, to understand their usefulness in solving current and future problems. Representing a country at a competition other than sport, in which all countries of the world participate and where young people can meet all young people of their age with the same passion is an incredible and life-changing experience.

AmCham: Can you give me some statistics of the number of girls in this field compared to boys?

Sahaza: In CoderDojo, 60% of children are girls. In STEM4Good, boys outnumber girls, but girls are more active – six or seven out of ten. Anyway, gender does not really matter to us because we know that Madagascar lacks responsible scientists, we are not limited by a quota to be respected, everyone is welcome.

AmCham: Are STEM4Good members only eligible to take part in the FGC next year?

Sahaza: Participation is open to everyone and STEM4Good members will teach. However, STEM4Good members can join the team as well if they are targeting higher goals. A point to not is, for FGC, literary students can also be accepted as their competence is needed in the team. However, English language proficiency is required because the whole competition, starting from the registration step, is conducted in English.

AmCham: One last message?

Sahaza: Sometimes robotics may be considered to be science fiction, and people may think what we do is just crazy. I think that we need to make efforts at daring to do unfamiliar or uncommon things, and this could be a driver for the development of our country.