Refilwe Ledwaba is a social entrepreneur, a qualified Pilot (Fixed-wing, Rotor wing and flight instructor), an academic passionate about youth development in Africa. She is the founder of Girls Fly programme in Africa (GFPA) foundation – an information and educational Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics (STEAM) programme focusing on aviation and space. The programme includes the use of design thinking, technology, and innovation to shape, empower, enable, and support the next generation of makers and problem-solvers in the aviation and space industry in Africa while entrenching the spirit of Ubuntu. The organisation’s vision is to create an Africa where every girl is educated, included, and empowered. The programme has a presence in South Africa, Botswana, Cameroon, and Kenya.
Through the foundation, Refilwe was named and featured on BBC as one of the innovators in Africa and CNN Africa’s changemakers. She is a member of the Royal Aeronautical Society, council member of the Aeronautical Society of South Africa (AeSSA) outreach team and a recipient of The Amelia Earhart Memorial Scholarship (AEMSF) for flight training. Refilwe is also a Techwomen fellow, Bill and Melinda Gates foundation Goalkeeper and Obama Africa programme leader.
Refilwe is a recipient of numerous scholarships, international awards and honours for her visionary work with the NPO organizations she founded. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree (Microbiology and Biochemistry) from the University of Cape Town (UCT), A Post Graduate Diploma in Business Administration from UCT graduate school of business and an MBA from the University of Pretoria’s Gordon Institute of business science. She will be pursuing her PhD in 2021. In her free time, she flies all over the country in a C172, landing in remote areas to inspire girls to take up careers in the STEAM field.
Why did you get into STEM?
One of my favourite quotes by Sally Ride is “Young girls need to see role models in whatever careers they may choose, just so they can picture themselves doing those jobs someday”. As a young girl, I had the privilege of growing up surrounded by powerful women, one of them my neighbour who was a Doctor. She built a health community centre and encouraged women to have small vegetable gardens. It was my first experience of how women can empower other women. Even though I was incredibly young, I never forgot her white coat and how stylish she was. It was the first time I encountered a female doctor (a black female doctor) and I think that is when I decided early on that I was going to be a doctor. I pictured myself being a doctor because I saw someone who looks like me as a doctor and most importantly that person was helping the community. I went on to study science and it was during that time that I also got exposed to aviation. Even though I did not become a doctor, I went on to break boundaries in the aviation industry and most importantly I continue to make a difference.
What do you consider your greatest achievements?
My greatest achievement so far is just defying the odds in my journey and making a difference along the way.
What challenges have you faced as a woman in STEM
Challenges that I had faced are pretty much the challenges faced by most women in many careers: Stereotypes. I always say fight with your books and let your work speak for you.
What is your advice to budding women in STEM?
I think sometimes it can get so difficult that we forget to enjoy the journey and process. My advice is to enjoy the moment for what it is – every part of it. Embrace those challenges, create opportunities, and celebrate every milestone and achievement.