Molenbeek goes geek with digital training and creative hub

Summary

A self-taught programmer was so fed up with the digital divide eating away at his neighbourhood, he founded a creative space where young people gain digital skills and create their own start-ups

Digital revolution

The federal minister for the digital agenda, Alexander de Croo, has earmarked almost €20 million to teach children and young adults the basic skills of coding and internet security. The Digital Belgium Skills Fund focuses on youngsters from disadvantaged backgrounds, including the Brussels’ municipality of Molenbeek.

Last year, the community received €500,000 from the fund. “We used that funding to establish an ecosystem that didn’t exist here,” says Ibrahim Ouassari, who organises technology-related events in Molenbeek. In 2015, he founded MolenGeek.

“Before that there was nothing here to make computer and internet technologies and innovation accessible to young people from lower-income neighbourhoods,” he says. “We are very proud to have inspired many initiatives that are emerging now, and to see that we really started a tech movement that addresses the specific needs of certain neighbourhoods.”

Today, MolenGeek is a creative space and open workspace where young people can work on their projects, exchange ideas and be challenged. The core of the project is a coding school where youngsters learn to code and program. Each course generally takes six months and transforms job-seeking young adults between 18 and 25 years old into web and mobile developers.

Hack the system

Ouassari, who dropped out of secondary school, is a self-taught programmer, coder and web developer. He likes to say that MolenGeek helps disadvantaged and disillusioned to “hack the system”.

“For the majority of jobs you need the right diploma, the right references and sometimes even the right name,” he explains. “These things are of little importance at MolenGeek.”

We started a tech movement that addresses the specific needs of certain neighbourhoods

- Ibrahim Ouassari

Just don’t go calling it a coding or programming workshop. MolenGeek, he adds, is much more than that. “Our students receive an intensive training in coding, project management and entrepreneurship, while working on concrete and real cases provided by customers, public administrations and private companies.”

Everything they learn, he continues, “they learn by doing. With this methodology we can guarantee a useful and relevant training, which immediately prepares them for a job or an entrepreneurial activity by working on their own start-up ideas.” 

Background in computer and ICT is not necessary. “Motivation is more important than a skill set,” Oussari says. “Our preselection is based on motivation, because everything else can be learned.”

He does recognise, however, that more work needs to be done to improve mainstream education, before young people can recognise the value of digital training. But once that’s done – and done well – the young people, he says, come out filled with energy and motivation. “The potential is there, we just need to activate it.”