Change through enterprise
Published 24 January 2013
"I see myself as a social entrepreneur and our aim is to develop software solutions to address common problems associated with teaching and learning in the developing world."
Timothy Kotin is not only studying sustainable development - he has set up his own company aimed at changing things on the ground.
For Timothy, academic work and social entrepreneurship go hand in hand, and he is anxious to make positive changes in Ghana, his home country. He is studying for an MPhil in Engineering for Sustainable Development while running E-Coach Solutions, which aims to develop ICT-based products and services to improve educational access and outcomes in the developing world.
Timothy certainly knows first-hand about the kind of political and social issues that can hamper developmental goals.
Forced to flee
Born in Tamale, a city in the Northern Region of Ghana, he and his family were forced to flee their home and friends as ethnic conflict swept the area in 1994. He has not been back since.
It happened one afternoon not long after Timothy started primary school. His parents picked him and his siblings up from school, grabbed two suitcases, and drove to a friend's house for refuge, later departing for a military barracks. They were part of a huge exodus of people who were displaced from their homes as a result of the conflict in the region. Around 2,000 people died in the conflict, including some family friends and relatives.
A few months later, Timothy’s family resettled in Accra to begin life anew. His father began working for World Vision there, and his mother eventually found a teaching post at a local school.
After repeating a grade at a local school in Accra due to all the upheaval his family had suffered, Timothy moved to a community school in an area where the government had built apartments for public sector workers. Although he made friends easily, Timothy says moving constantly made him feel a little like an outsider. With hindsight, though, he feels this has helped make him more adaptable to change.
Timothy's parents placed a lot of emphasis on education, and as a very young child he would take things apart and put them back together. He stayed at the community school for primary and junior secondary education and then moved to a competitive public senior high school called Presbyterian Boys’ Secondary School (PRESEC).
Once in, his strengths in maths and science grew, as did his confidence. "I realised that with hard work, I could be just as good as the other students," he says, adding that he learnt a lot from the other students, who were among the most brilliant in Ghana. He joined the science and maths club, and in his final year he was selected to represent the school at the National Science and Math Quiz, which his team ultimately won for an unprecedented third time. The victory led to Timothy being selected to represent Ghana at the International Physics Olympiad in Singapore that year, which was his first trip outside Ghana.
That trip gave him a desire to explore the possibility of studying outside Ghana, and he researched the scholarships he would need to do so. In between secondary school and university he took a gap year, which is common in Ghana, and did some tutoring of school students sitting national exams. This experience made him empathetic to the plight of students who did not have access to the teaching and learning resources available at PRESEC. He applied to Harvard University and was accepted on a full scholarship. Although he found being away from home very challenging and lonely at first, he says things got easier once he learnt to use Skype.
At Harvard, Timothy studied Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. In addition to his coursework, he was involved in several other projects. He did peer tutoring, spent one summer building an artificial neural network to help sufferers of neuromuscular motor loss, and completed a thesis on a GPS-based navigation tool for ships.
He also co-founded an NGO called the Ahoto Partnership for Ghana. In order to help build it, he spent a few weeks each summer on projects in Ghana, including distributing malaria bed nets and encouraging people to register for health insurance.
After graduating he joined Dalberg Global Development Advisors in New York and worked there for seven months before moving to Dalberg’s office in Nairobi. "I wanted to do something more practical, and international development was very dear to my heart," he says. He worked as an associate consultant and had the opportunity to work with foundations, UN agencies and national governments.
Last year, Timothy was selected as a Gates Cambridge Scholar to pursue graduate studies at the University of Cambridge. "I wanted to marry technology and development issues, and Cambridge's MPhil in Engineering for Sustainable Development allowed me to do that," he says.
As part of his coursework, he is studying issues such as electrification in India and the need to decentralise power generation and employ renewable energy sources. For his dissertation, Timothy plans to work with a company which is building eco-friendly cities across Africa. Two of the planned cities are in Ghana, and they will each serve about 100,000 inhabitants. "It's an opportunity for me to go home and share the insights I have gained from my course in Cambridge," he says, "and also to look at sustainable energy provision in Africa and see how to make that a reality."
During the summer after graduating from college, Timothy co-founded E-Coach Solutions, a start-up based on his passion for teaching and ICT along with his high school friends. "I see myself as a social entrepreneur and our aim is to develop software solutions to address common problems associated with teaching and learning in the developing world," he says. The company has about 5,000 users signed up online and is seeking funding to expand its operations.
Timothy plans to continue developing his academic and entrepreneurial interests over the next few years as part of his overall goal to enhance sustainable development.