Medical inventor, entrepreneur, youth activist, traditional ballet dancer and full-time student at American National College, one might wonder: is there anything Rakitha Malewana doesn’t do? At merely 22-years-old, the Sri Lankan Malewana has made Asia’s Forbes 30 Under 30 list, developed nano-technologies to control the spread of cancer and HIV/AIDS and built a non-profit organization, Ideanerd, to help advance STEM education in Sri Lanka.
However, Malewana had to overcome many challenges to reach this level of international success. Malewana grew up during Sri Lanka’s most violent civil war, which killed over 100,000 people. As a child, he remembers witnessing “burnt and charcoaled houses [along with] blood rivers and split body pieces.” Eventually, Malewana left school to be home schooled for several years by the “most influential person in [his] life” – his mother, a science teacher.
Today, in between classes, Malewana continues to conduct research and innovate solutions to the spread of cancer and HIV/AIDs at his science and medical research company Hamzter while running his non-profit Ideanerd, which provides high-quality STEM education to youth in rural areas.
Despite enduring difficult life experiences, Malewana remained optimistic at heart and “learned a lot of life lessons,” he says. Malewana’s advice to other youth? Get involved in extracurricular activities, remove taboos and make education interesting. Ultimately, he believes investing in youth will “boost our countries’ economic growth while also contributing to social harmony.”
Ahead of the United Nations Association of the United States of America 2018 Global Engagement Summit on 23 February, Global Daily interviewed Malewana to hear how other youth can follow suit to make progress on the Sustainable Development Goals. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Global Daily: How and why did you decide to start Hamzter, and its baby initiative Ideanerd? Why are you focused on science and technology?
Rakitha Malewana: I strongly believe that science and technology have the power to change the world. However, until the year of 2011, there was an absence of a medical research culture for non-degree holders in Sri Lanka. While I was doing my first medical research at the Medical Research Institute, I met thousands of school children in my country who wanted to experience new ideas and overcome boundaries to satisfy their intellectual curiosities. But unfortunately, in that time, there were no proper helping hands for those kids.
I realized I needed to strive hard to lay a platform in this field on behalf of all the other students who wanted a research and innovative culture. That’s how Ideanerd was formed.
The main aim of Ideanerd by Hamzter is to establish an open forum where researchers, scientists, and innovators from various disciplines can join, brainstorm ideas, and transform those new ideas into action. Most of these researchers and innovators are undergraduates, high school students or people who have no related paper qualification. Up to date, we have empowered more than 50,000 young people who are under age of 30 by conducting programs on scientific research and innovation.
The organization is not only about conducting research and experiments. This initiative is about gathering attention to inspire people and educate them about the value of civic engagement to build a society filled with good health and wellbeing. We are advocating for people, especially marginalized youth, through advocacy programs on sexual and reproductive health issues with a special focus on HIV/AIDS.
GD: What motivates you?
RM: After I started working in this field, I volunteered to teach children of HIV-positive individuals who are living around Colombo slum areas. In early 2016, a Sri Lankan six-year-old child in Kuliyapitiya was refused entry into school because his mother was HIV positive. The journey to those places and hearing heart-breaking stories candidly changed my life.
There, stigma and discrimination against an HIV-positive individual are sky-scraping. Seeing the brutal reality of pain of HIV individuals is the major motivating factor for me to continue my work on behalf of the HIV-positive community.
GD: What active role can young people play in the implementation of the 2030 Agenda?
RM: Active citizenship and focus on the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are the keys to the implementation of the United Nations’ agenda to improve the world by 2030. By focusing on these 17 goals, young people and their organizations/initiatives can focus on specific fields/targets. They can translate the Sustainable Development Goals into local, national and international platforms by getting involved with advocacy and policy-making processes. Young people can work to unite diverse groups across the world to fight for these common goals and this can be effectively implemented via social media and communication platforms. Moreover, young people need to get involved in decision making. They have the great potential to establish mechanisms to achieve SDGs and transform our world into a better place for all.
Global Daily: What policy changes would you like to see in Sri Lanka?
RM: As a person who is working to achieve SDG 3 (to ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages) and SDG 9 (to build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialization and foster innovation), I strongly believe that we need to enact innovation-driven technology and health policies that guarantee a wide range of political support, such as: awareness creation, R&D support, support for commercialization and regulatory improvements. Moreover, it is important to encourage youth to engage in technology and health-relevant discussions, train experts and create centers of excellence as well as ensure policy coordination and guided implementation by implementing National Councils. We need to focus on getting the most out of national thought leaders. Developing national health policies to reduce health inequality while reducing stigma and discrimination are also important. As emerging leaders, we need to try our best in every possible way to change mainstream viewpoints to achieve the global goals by 2030.
GD: What are the biggest challenges young people face in Sri Lanka?
RM: Corruption. It slowly poisons young people and people who actually need to make a difference in our society. Mishandling of policies, government official bribes from top to bottom are largely affecting our economy and harms almost all sectors of the country.
GD: What’s your advice to other youth who are looking to get involved in entrepreneurship and activism?
RM: As young people, it’s our duty to work hard and take the lead in our communities to establish a world enriched with well-being. Overcoming challenges are the passion of our generation and we need to believe ourselves as we are never too young to be changemakers because we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.