Contest synergises girls and tech

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Team SYNERGY is made up of four 16-year-old girls from the Liger Leadership Academy: Soucheng Dara Lorn, Leza Sorn, Molinaka Lim and Dyna Chhem. SUPPLIED

Technovation 2021 is an international competition sponsored by a global tech-education non-profit that empowers girls and families to become leaders, creators and problem-solvers.

This year, a team of Cambodian girls from the Liger Leadership Academy (LLA) called SYNERGY has made it to the semifinals with their app Bung Baitong, which aims to reduce the overall usage and environmental impact of paper receipts.

Having reached the semifinals will give the girls a chance to enter future rounds of the competition at the final World Pitch stage which will be hosted virtually from the US later this summer on August 12-13.

The local chapter of the competition – Technovation Girls Cambodia – has been organised here by USAID’s Development Innovations since 2014. It is an annual 12-week global tech entrepreneurship education and competition programme targeted at Cambodian girls ages 10-18.

The broader purpose of the competition beyond the educational aspects is for the girls to help build a better future using technology by learning how to identify problems in their community and then use technical skills like coding along with practical business development skills taught to them through the programme to create a mobile app to help address a particular problem.

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Chanda Cheng, Liger Leadership Academy Foundation Technovation facilitator. Photo supplied

Chanda Cheng, LLA’s Technovation programme facilitator, tells The Post: “LLA is more than just a school. In addition to the essential standard curriculum, we educate students using projects and opportunities derived from experiential-based learning.

“We hope to empower them to become leaders of tomorrow. We saw that Technovation was a good programme and related well to our institutional vision of what a modern and progressive education should be, so we’ve been participating since 2017.

The quartet of 16-year-old girls from LLA – Soucheng Dara Lorn, Leza Sorn, Molinaka Lim and Dyna Chhem – that make up team SYNERGY are excited about their success in the competition so far.

“At first our school introduced us to the programme and we got to decide whether we wanted to participate in Technovation. Since we’re all roommates at school we agreed to form a team because it would be easier to communicate and work together,” says Soucheng.

Dyna says: “It’s an annual programme, so actually some of us have joined more than once. This is my third year so far.”

All of the girls agree that they’ve learned a lot already from the programme, which has introduced them to skills like coding for apps as well as business and entrepreneurial concepts that are often neglected subjects in high school education.

Leza says she really likes how the Technovation programme was designed because it gives young girls a chance to speak out about their community’s problems as well as help come up with solutions for them.

“This programme has empowered us as girls to really see our potential in pursuing careers in technology. Before, we didn’t have that much opportunity [for tech education] because it was looked at as being just for boys. And by joining Technovation we believe we can also make some positive impacts on Cambodia,” she says.

Molinaka says: “This programme has benefited me a lot. Being a part of it, I have learned more about coding, which was not something I knew how to do or even wanted to do before this but it’s really crucial to understanding a lot of the technology we use every day.”

Among the 25 projects from 25 teams from Cambodia participating in Technovation 2021, SYNERGY is the only team to have passed to the next stage as a Global Summit Semifinalist. The finalists that will go on to the last leg of the competition called the World Pitch have yet to be determined, leaving the girls cautiously hopeful about their chances.

The girls say they came up with the idea for the Bung Baitong app because they learned how toxic the paper receipts commonly used by businesses are and they wanted to reduce the need for them.

“Before Covid, all of us loved to go to the cafe together. Sometimes we found it very annoying to randomly find crumbled paper receipts in our bags and just anywhere and everywhere, especially for small purchases like drinks that can’t even be returned and don’t need to be kept track of.

“We kept that in mind and during our brain storming sessions we did a little research about paper receipts and that’s when we found out how toxic they actually are. The worst part is they can’t be recycled. So we started to discuss the idea and then we gradually developed more features for our app,” Soucheng says.

The origins of the app’s name are somewhat obvious if you speak Khmer, but less so otherwise.

“Bung means receipt and baitong means green. Green receipts. Our goal is to eliminate the use of paper receipts and help our environment stay green and beautiful,” Leza says.

The Bung Baitong app will benefit both the shops and their customers by reducing costs and environmental impacts through the use of a convenient digital receipts system.

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The girls’ app Bung Baitong or ‘Green Receipts’ is a mobile application that facilitates and encourages both customers and coffee shops to go green and stop using paper receipts. Photo supplied

“Specifically, the cafe or shop doesn’t need to spend money on paper receipts anymore and customers don’t have to worry they might lose their paper receipts if they really do need them because it will automatically save in the receipt folder in our app,” says Molinaka.

The app is not quite ready for launch yet. The girls say it’s not functioning that well yet because it’s the first time for anyone on their team to attempt the coding required – but they hope to complete a functional demo of it in the near future.

Because of the relative complexity of their app, this year the girls say the most challenging part for them has been the coding. They know very basic coding and this app requires far more advanced coding than they have experience with in order to work.

Due to the Covid-19 situation they’ve also all been stuck in their hometowns learning remotely while schools nationwide remain shut down for in person classes, making the collaboration process even tougher.

“We only had a chance to be together for the first four weeks. After that it has all been done virtually, so it’s really hard for us and we don’t really have the usual degree of training from the Technovation team. We have no one looking over our shoulder that can quickly help us fix our errors. We’ve had to learn to troubleshoot and fix our own problems and learn more coding on our own from websites and YouTube,” Dyna says.

Still, despite their struggles this year, the girls say that by joining the competition they’ve been provided with a platform to advocate for environmental causes. And though they may not be experts yet, their hard skills in areas like coding and writing business plans have definitely improved.

Molinaka says she will encourage all young girls to give the competition a try.

“There’s nothing bad that will happen to you if you join up, so why not take a chance? It’s an opportunity for you to learn more about yourself and to think of ways to help your community. Honestly, there’s really no downside and you will probably find out that you can actually do a lot more with tech than you think you can,” she says.

Their facilitator Chanda points out that the process is just as important as the end result in this type of educational experience and the girls have been given an opportunity to learn more about themselves, explore their own potential and figure out what they’d really like to do for a career.

“It’s also good for their personal growth as they learn to work together as a team and this year was even more challenging because they were all in different places. They have also become much more confident when presenting their ideas as compared to the previous years,” he says.

Chanda says all of the faculty and staff at LLA – as well as the rest of the student body – are very proud of team SYNERGY’s success in making it to the semifinals of the competition this year.

“We’ve seen them working hard even though this year they were working on it from home. They never complained or ignored their responsibilities as team members. Instead they showed that they had the discipline and maturity to constantly give their best effort even when working unsupervised,” Chanda says with pride.