Freda Yawson on problem solving and innovation

Freda Yawson on problem solving and innovation
8 min read

In an article originally published by the Skoll World Forum, Dr. Mo Ibrahim, a Sudanese-British mobile communications entrepreneur – founder of Celtel, blamed the inability of Africans to solve their own problems on poor governance.

“Not any amount of aid is going to move Africa forward. The only way for us to move forward is to ensure good governance – the way we manage our economy, our social life, our legal structures and institutions – that is the basis for development. We cannot rely on people to come and feed our poor or treat our sick. This is the responsibility of our governments.” – Mo Ibrahim


Levers in Heels believes strongly that action and innovation in the adaptability of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) in Africa driven by good governance, as suggested by Dr. Ibrahim, can serve as a springboard for economic transformation in Africa. Politicians, decision makers, business leaders, economists and academics across the continent need to fully understand and employ this idea to kick-start the creation of new technologies suitable for Africa, thereby creating jobs for its people. This is indeed the way forward to enhance Africa’s economic transformation.

Today, Levers in Heels’ interview is with a young problem solver who is passionate about such a transformation in Africa. She works at it both in theory and in practice.

Meet Freda Yawson.


Freda Yawson

Freda is the Programs Coordinator at Accra-based think tank, the African Center for Economic Transformation (ACET). Outside of work, she constantly seeks to merge theory with practice and is passionate about the intersection of engineering, manufacturing and technology with development in Ghana. This includes the improvement and development of sustainable Infrastructure (water, energy, rail, air, marine, communications) as well as the development of light manufacturing in the country. Since 2005, Freda has been a part of volunteer projects with Engineers Without Borders, the Millennium Villages Projectand Blue-Lab Michigan focusing on water purification in the Dominican Republic, Ghana and Honduras. Through her work, she has gained International development experience in multiple African countries like Rwanda, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Ghana.

Freda received her Masters in International Affairs from the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) at Columbia University; and her B.Sc.E in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Michigan where she focused on Product and Automotive Design. In this space, she had the opportunity to work with General Motors and Toyota in evaluation, design and materials processing. Prior to this, she attended high school at the Wesley Girls High School in Ghana, and in Michigan, USA.

Ms. Yawson is also the founder of Innovate Ghana, an annual design competition and workshop, where Ghanaian students can apply their existing knowledge to development problems of today.


  • What prompted your interest in Mechanical Engineering?

As a child of two scientists – a chemist and a doctor, I have grown up around Science and have always been fascinated by why and how things and people work. Throughout school I did well in Math and Science and continued to pursue those tracks in high school. In the 11th grade, I had the opportunity to enroll in a pilot program, Southfield High School’s Engineering Academy established for students interested in pursing engineering as a career. At the same time I had developed a fascination for cars (no doubt spurred on by the movie “Fast and Furious”) and decided to see what skills I needed to design them. My experience at the academy exposed me to AutoCAD, manufacturing process and offered me the opportunity to work at General Motors.  I was hooked and decided to pursue Mechanical Engineering from there.”

  • What have been your greatest achievements?

“I have been privileged to hold a number of leadership roles in organizations I have been a part of, but some of the most memorable have included:

o   Membership in the University of Michigan’s solar car team

o   President of the Columbia University SIPA Pan-African Network

o   Founder of SIPA Infrastructure Network

o   Resident Fellow at International House

o   Women’s International Leadership Program Fellow

o   Davis Peace Prize Award, 2013”

  • Why did you start Innovate Ghana? What are your short and long term goals?

“During my undergrad, I realized that my experience in Ghana as a student had conditioned me to “chew, pour and pass” so much so that when I was faced with problems requiring critical thinking, I began to falter. I realized that while my brothers and sisters at home were academically good, we lacked real practical and experiential learning that brought theories to life. We learned about computers without using them and were producing engineers who were grounded in theory.

I had been looking for a way to bring this kind of learning to Ghana when I received the Davis Peace Project grant in 2013. Realizing the opportunity to use practical learning to empower unemployed youth, I started the Innovate Ghana Workshop and Competition with my father. The objective was to encourage Ghanaian students to apply practical engineering knowledge to national development issues. The two week workshop and a competition focused on concepts of Design for Development, Engineering and Entrepreneurship and was held at Takoradi Polytechnic. 50 students took part in the competition designing products from recycled plastic waste. This year, the two-week design challenge in November tackled one of the most pressing issues in West Africa today. Students designed low-cost isolation units for patients in Ebola affected countries, with the aim of developing working prototypes for development.”

  • In your opinion, what are Ghanaian educational institutions not doing to help their students fight unemployment? What should be done?

“The issue of unemployment is a systemic one that requires more than our educational institutions, but they are a good place to start. I would say that the system as a whole needs to set experiential learning and the development of critical thinking as a goal and engage members of society as partners. If educators can sign on to this vision, teachers can adopt new teaching methods, private sector can partner with schools to bring the real world to classrooms. There is so much we can do for little cost if willing.”

  • Is gender balance really necessary in STEM fields to promote development?

“As much as I support and encourage women to enter STEM fields, I would not necessarily say that gender balance is essential in these areas. These fields have historically been dominated by men, and I am not sure we should strive to achieve gender balance for the sake of achieving it. I prefer to encourage women to pursue STEM fields because they can be problem solvers in a society that desperately needs them. Problem solving is no respecter of gender – and STEM is a tool that allows you to tackle so many interesting issues from health to sanitation to infrastructure and more. At the same time, it is necessary to break the stereotypes we have created for ourselves limiting men and women to certain careers for gender sake. Diversity in STEM fields will go a long way to show that people can make a difference with creativity, innovation and hard work regardless of their gender.”

  • What are your plans for the future?

“I believe that through training, critical thinking, and practical application; we as Africans, can transform our economies through innovation in our own backyard. I will continue to push these limits through Innovate Ghana, and with the help of amazing partners like Levers in Heels and others. I am grateful for God’s grace and support. I am striving for a vision of you who see no limits to building a brighter future through STEM.”