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Building futures, breaking barriers: Unveiling the GEM Institute story

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In this exclusive interview with Newsday, Mpho Letima (ML), the visionary founder of GEM Institute, offers a compelling narrative on the organisation’s inception, transformative partnerships, and groundbreaking initiatives in Lesotho. GEM Institute stands as a beacon of empowerment, advocating for youth and gender development, social entrepreneurship, and innovation. At the heart of its mission is the commitment to creating safe spaces and fostering active citizen participation in marginalised communities. Let us delve into the intricate journey of GEM Institute, exploring its collaborations with international partners, significant programs, and the profound impact it has had on Lesotho’s youth, schools, and rural communities.

Newsday: Could you share the story of how GEM Institute was founded and its initial partnerships, particularly with the U.S. Embassy?

Mpho Letima (ML): GEM Institute was established with a profound purpose—to create a safe space for marginalized communities. The organization’s founding principles aimed at promoting youth and gender empowerment, volunteerism, servitude, and active citizen participation. Through our activities we are engaging boys and men to challenge gender stereotypes, fostering youth innovation and entrepreneurship, supporting women’s economic empowerment, and actively participating in community leadership, research, advocacy, and policy initiatives.

The foundation of GEM Institute as an innovation impact hub, in collaboration with youth and women, has paved the way for transformative partnerships. Throughout its existence, GEM has joined forces with key entities, including the Lesotho National Commission for UNESCO, the Department of Culture, the Department of Youth, schools, and international partners such as the U.S. Embassy, which actively supports the STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics) program, and UN Women.

Newsday: How has the involvement of the U.S. Embassy contributed to the GEM Institute’s growth and impact over the years?

ML: The U.S. Embassy has played a pivotal role in advancing GEM Institute’s programs, with a notable contribution to the ICT for Development, Education, and Innovation initiative. To date, this program has successfully reached over 10,000 girls across nine districts, providing essential coding and 3D printing lessons. Moreover, it has equipped over 450 teachers with crucial technological skills, fostering a more technologically adept educational landscape.

Newsday: What are some of the significant initiatives GEM Institute has undertaken in Lesotho as part of its youth development programs?

ML: GEM Institute oversees six impactful programs aimed at strengthening Lesotho’s youth development landscape:

  • ICT FOR DEVELOPMENT, EDUCATION AND INNOVATION:

This program offers coding and 3D printing lessons to high school girls and teachers, establishing Girls Tech Clubs in schools. Over 10,000 girls and 20 teachers across nine districts have directly benefited from this initiative.

  • CREATIVE CULTURAL INDUSTRIES AND TECHNOLOGY:

GEM collaborates with fashion designers, filmmakers, fine artists, and media professionals in Lesotho and Botswana. Initiatives like hosting a bootcamp for filmmakers and partnering with Botswana on the ongoing project “Building Ecosystems of Creative Cultural Industries” exemplify the program’s breadth.

  • SOCIAL ENTERPRISE DEVELOPMENT:

Over 10 social enterprises led by youth and women have been mentored, coached, and incubated. GEM Institute’s involvement as a stakeholder in the CAFI (Competitiveness and Financial Inclusion) project further underscores its commitment to mentoring Basotho in the creative cultural spaces.

  • GENDER AND LEADERSHIP:

The majority of GEM’s programs are women-led.  Over 300 men, teachers, and faith leaders are engaged in dialogues across ten districts, addressing harmful practices and promoting gender equality.

  • CLIMATE CHANGE AND AGRIPRENEURSHIP:

Engaging over 10,000 in and out-of-school youth, GEM Institute leads the ACT4CLIMATE CHANGE initiative in all ten districts of Lesotho, fostering environmental awareness and sustainable agricultural practices.

  • RESEARCH, ADVOCACY AND POLICY:

Emerging as a leading research, advocacy, and policy think tank in Lesotho, GEM Institute’s research team is currently working on a journal about creative cultural industries in Southern Africa.

Newsday: Recently, GEM Institute shared a trailer of the film “Li eme ka Lekoa,” shot in Botswana and Lesotho, supported by the EU and other partners. Could you elaborate on the objectives and impact of this project?

ML: The film “Li eme ka Lekoa,” shot in Botswana and Lesotho with the support of the EU and other partners, serves as a pivotal project for GEM Institute. The objectives encompass building ecosystems in the creative cultural spaces of Southern Africa, understanding the value chain of the creative industry, and showcasing the sector’s potential for large-scale employment. Key lessons learned include the need for sustainable marketing, fundraising challenges, and the absence of governing policies for the film sector in the region.

The film’s impact goes beyond financial gains, with positive testimonials from beneficiaries and communities. Impressively, the Minister of Foreign Affairs in Botswana commended GEM Institute’s model and expressed the intention to implement a similar strategy within the Botswana government. Furthermore, academic gains are evident as students at LUCT (Limkokwing University of Creative Technology) analyze the film for their academic work, contributing to the expansion of knowledge and reach through additional projects like a radio story based on the film.

Newsday: How do collaborations with international partners like the EU enhance GEM Institute’s ability to fulfill its mission?

ML: Collaborations with international partners, including the EU and the U.S. Embassy, play a pivotal role in enhancing GEM Institute’s ability to fulfill its mission. These partnerships, aligned with the Government of Lesotho’s National Strategic Plan, have empowered the organization to lead the way in youth-centric mentorship and entrepreneurship programming.

By partnering with various entities such as UN Women, UNESCO, and the Music in Africa Foundation (which receives funding from the EU for the implementation of the Sound Connects Fund, aimed at supporting creatives in Lesotho and eight other African countries), GEM Institute has become a trailblazer. This collaborative approach addresses pressing issues such as youth unemployment, gender-based violence, and sustainable development in the creative cultural industries sector.

GEM Institute has pioneered empowering youth through relatable mentorship and entrepreneurship programming, creating safe spaces for collaborative efforts in combating gender-based violence, and collaborating with artists to establish a learnership system that legitimizes sustainable development in the creative cultural industries. Our initiatives are addressing the neglect of the creative cultural industries sector, helping to transform it into a template that has the potential to drive high-quality creative cultural products.

Additionally, GEM Institute runs an environmental and climate change program led by youth, both in and out of schools, creating context-based opportunities in the green space, aligning with Sustainable Development Goal 15. This is particularly impactful given GEM Institute’s focus on the mountainous part of Lesotho.

Newsday: GEM Institute is planning to open a new office in Thaba Tseka and implement an English language program with the U.S. Embassy. Could you provide insights into these expansion plans and their anticipated impact?

ML: GEM Institute’s expansion plans in Thaba Tseka represent a significant milestone in our efforts to implement our vision – to become a pioneering hub for social entrepreneurship and innovation. Thaba-Tseka holds special significance as it was the birthplace of GEM Institute’s ICT program in schools, a program initially supported by the U.S. Embassy and UNESCO.

GEM Institute has faced funding challenges in completing the center structure. In an effort to overcome this obstacle, we have compiled stories from the ICT program into a compelling anthology called “Love at First Click,” available on Amazon (https://a.co/d/6X4E7FX) to raise funds. The anthology reflects stories from students, addressing technology, climate change, innovation, and creativity.

The planned English Language ACCESS program, set to be implemented in four districts later this year, aims to enhance language skills and promote STEAM and entrepreneurship. The program aligns with GEM Institute’s commitment to preparing learners and teachers for the future of work within the global community.

Newsday: How do these initiatives align with GEM Institute’s overarching vision of becoming a pioneering hub for social entrepreneurship and innovation, focused on enhancing the lives of youth, rural communities, and schools as beacons of excellence and models of peace in Lesotho?

ML: The Creative Cultural Economy Khotla ’23 was a pivotal event that solidified GEM Institute’s integrated approach. It brought together partners, educators, researchers, and youth in the creative cultural community to celebrate achievements and showcase the potential of the social entrepreneurship innovation model.

This event aligns with GEM Institute’s vision based on principles and values of peace by Morena Moshoeshoe, an entrepreneur, diplomat, connector, leader, and peace advocate. The Letsema (social entrepreneurship) model, advocated by Moshoeshoe, is more relevant than ever in the face of youth unemployment and the need for enhanced support in school systems to achieve excellence.

The Khotla not only created a safe space for networking but also facilitated discussions on the scope of the creative cultural spaces in Lesotho. It emphasized the potential financial and development ecosystem for economic growth, celebrating the achievement of producing “Li Eme Ka Lekoa,” the first international film exclusively produced by Basotho.

This groundbreaking film has proved that working with rural communities, youth, and the education sector simultaneously is not only possible but holds tremendous potential. It has garnered positive testimonials and academic recognition, with students at LUCT (Limkokwing University of Creative Technology) analyzing the film for their academic work. The film has not only been a production for financial gain but has also contributed significantly to academic growth. Moreover, plans are underway to use the film as the basis for a radio story, expanding its reach to communities unable to watch the film upon its release.

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