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Managing Director at Vista Prime Solutions Ltd Dr Ellen Kamau poses for a photo on March 26, 2024 at Sarova Stanley Hotel in Nairobi. PHOTO | BILLY OGADA | NMG


Sh200 'seed' that changed Ellen Kamau's fortune

Dr Ellen Karuga Kamau - under Women in AI - has developed a revolutionary AI tool to empower expectant mothers in their journey through pregnancy and early parenthood. As the Director of Tech in Women in AI Kenya and the founder and director of Vista Prime Solution, Ellen has been busy rolling out the product since last November.

Her journey as an accomplished software engineer has been protracted, but she now boasts a Ph.D. in Management and Leadership. “I’m passionate about Evacare, especially because I was a teen mother, and I know the challenges that come with that.”

How does Evacare work?

It’s an interactive AI that informs expectant mothers and walks them through the pregnancy journey. It gives information on diet, contacts of doctors in the area closest to them, and which doctors offer free services and which ones charge. It reminds them of checkups, especially for busy mothers or young girls in university who have fallen pregnant and are unaware. We are trying to roll it out in the counties.

Where did all these start, this tech journey that’s led you here?

It’s been a long journey. I was born in Nairobi, where my dad was a pastor. When I was in Class Eight, they [parents] retired and moved us to Nakuru. My mom was a housewife; at times, she’d teach. I was admitted to Garbatula High School, a national school in northeastern Kenya. I didn’t even know it existed or how they chose me. So I joined, and surprisingly, I loved it. It was far. It would take us two days to get there or even three days if no shifters were roaming around.

I finished Form Four but missed the university entry mark because of the double intake thing, I went back to the village in Subukia and stayed for some time. Life was hard. Then, one day, my mom handed me a Sh200 note and said, “Go to Nairobi and find something to do. Don’t forget the problems we have back here.” I was only 17 years old. I came to the city and secured a job at a construction firm without a national ID. I was a clerk. I enrolled for a typing course, a secretarial course, and a computer course when computers took over. I loved computers. I became a secretary, earned a diploma, then a degree, and then a Ph.D. in management. (Laughs].

Are you surprised at this journey? 

It’s been a long and tough one. I wish there was a shortcut. I’m happy that I can give a story to somebody, especially girls who don’t have the leverage, somebody down in the village or at Kibira, somebody who has nothing. I tell them, start, just start, that you don’t have to blame your parents or everyone for not being where you want.

You need to have tenacity in life. Do not just give up because you’ve missed something. Look for the next available option. The problem with most people is that they want to move from one to 10. They don’t want to work through the twos, threes and fours. 

Since leaving high school, have you been back to Garbatula? 

I’m planning to go back. I’m part of an alumni group that supports the school; we buy textbooks, helped them buy a bus, and every year when they have exams, we ensure they have geometry sets and everything they need. The shifters destroyed the infrastructure, so we helped build it back. 

What’s the most challenging thing you have faced in your adult life?

Having four children. [Chuckles] I got the first two when I was very young, 18 and 21, and by the time I was hitting 30, I was feeling too old, but I said I had to finish what I started. So, I added two more. I’m amazed nowadays when I see 30-year-olds who are not even married. We have two generations in my house, the lastborn being nine years old.

My biggest challenge has been balancing being a mother, a wife, and a woman working her way up the management ladder. You have to keep grounded and not lose any of them because all these are important parts of your ecosystem. I promised God I would not lose my husband or children for my career. Or my career for my children and husband. 

I remember when I was pregnant with my thirdborn, a client insisted that I go down to Malindi. I was supposed to fly in, do the job, and fly out the next day, I didn’t even carry my baby pack. That same day the baby came and I had to deliver in a new local hospital where I was the only patient in the private wing. They were pretty nice, though. So yes, life and work balance.

Where does play come in? 

I try to block my weekends. Those are reserved for my family. Unfortunately, when you’re a family woman, you don’t have much of a social life that you can talk about because you also have to look at your priorities. So weekends are blocked off. That’s where I get my time to debrief or just go with the children somewhere and let them play.  

What would you be doing over the weekend if you didn’t have family?

I love travelling, and I’d be out there looking for a good adventure. I love nature and wild animals, so I would be exploring.

What was the impact of growing up in a religious environment?

It has its cons and its pros. Knowing you’re the pastor’s daughter, you get a good standing in society. But it’s also a very lonely space. People forget that he’s not only a pastor but also a parent, so growing up, they would take up most of his time. But that also taught me to be accountable in life when doing something. You think of them more than yourself. It was good pressure because it helped me not deviate so much from what I was taught, not because I didn’t want to, but because it was necessary.

When were you most “problematic” as a girl? 

You couldn’t be, not with my mom around. The kind of discipline we were given in that home by my mother never gave us room for deviancy. That woman was militant; she still is, even now, at 86. My dad was calmer and never raised his hand at me. The number of times we were beaten by our mom is countless; sometimes, we were punished summarily for something one of us siblings did. Our parenting now is different from our parents.

What have you had to unlearn?

First, I have had to attend many parenting seminars. [Laughs]. I have had to unlearn that children now are not the same as children 30 years ago. Everything has changed. I had to unlearn impulse punishment and take each child as their own person. 


What do you remember when you, a pastor’s daughter, first discovered you were pregnant at 18?  

First, I discovered that I was in love. [Laughs] My husband and I have been in a relationship for the longest time. I think I’ve lived with him more than with my parents and anyone else in the family. We were in the same primary school, where the relationship started in Class Eight, all through high school. And when we moved in together, everybody was against it. They said we were both too young. I remember my uncle telling me that love does not pay bills, nor does it feed children. But we stuck together. It wasn’t easy, but God has brought us this far. 

What has sustained this marriage for so long? 

Everybody else was waiting for us to break up, so we had to prove them wrong. [Chuckles] We kept telling each other, ‘Remember that we are not separating. Divorce is not an option.’ We were not going to give them fodder. So we stayed together. 

It’s remarkable that your teenage pregnancy, something of great difficulty, has finally borne fruit in an impactful product that addresses maternal health.

Great difficulty? Stop giving it a beautiful name; it was trauma. [Laughs]. When I got pregnant, we were excited, but I was told at the clinic that I had to terminate it because I was underweight. I was less than 50 kilogrammes. Being a Christian, I refused. I wasn’t going to do such a thing. I told them to do everything they could to help me put on the weight. I was 42 kilogrammes during that clinic visit, and by the time I gave birth, I was 46 kilogrammes. Amazingly, there was a time when weight was a prayer item for me to add weight. Now, it’s a prayer item for me to lose it. [Laughs loudly].

How life changes. 

How life changes. I think that’s what brings about this passion for this project; the need to sensitise women at this crucial stage of their lives; pregnancy. 

How important is faith in your life? 

It’s the glue that bonds the family together. Having a shared value of faith is important because you have the same direction. And that’s why in the church, they tell you, do not be unequally yoked to an unbeliever. I go to Citam, and I’m part of the counselling team for young couples. If you come as a non-believer couple, we will marry you because your beliefs and convictions are the same; you are moving in the same direction.

However, a Christian and a non-Christian, that is a problem because you believe in different things; you are walking different roads. A Muslim and a Christian? What will the children follow? We are looking at generations to come, not just about the two of you. So, having the same spiritual outlook, whatever that spirituality looks like, is crucial. 

When was your faith shaken greatly? 

When? You should ask me how many times! Oh, it’s many times, especially when you have total faith in God and things happen and they don’t happen as per your expectations. It’s very difficult running a business as someone of faith because sometimes you are presented with an opportunity to bribe to get business. And you need that business. You need that money. Do you just let God be? Those are times my faith has been tested, and I’m happy I never compromised. 

From being handed Sh200 by your mom to where you are now, a doctor running an impactful business, how has that changed how you relate to money?

It’s created humility. A lot of it. I identify with people who lack. Being able to have means now, maybe even some abundance occasionally, makes you realise that God has entrusted you with the money, He could have given anyone that privilege but He has given it to you. That makes a big difference in how I look at money. You’ll not know when I have money and when I don’t. Money doesn’t change me. 

Any last thoughts?

Imagine you are a nanny. You have been called for a meeting between nannies and home managers. You find there are maybe 100 nannies, with only two other men you can spot waiting. The first assumption in the room might be that you have called for the meeting. Or you are a sponsor of the meeting. That’s how it feels like to be a woman in tech. You are always one of the few women in a room, and there is always an assumption that you are a representative sent to represent a man. Or your husband owns the company. Or your father. 

When I meet people with such assumptions, I usually tell them, ‘Yeah, there’s a man behind this company, and He is God’. ‘You will discover that most women have a better work ethic. We start and finish a project with the same energy, and we do a job knowing that our reputation is already on the line. 

You said God is a man. Why do you think God is a man? 

Because the Bible describes him as a He. I think everything else in the world is feminine, but God is male. It’s a universal truth. God has a place for men, He created man in His image and likeness. He has a special anointing for men, only that men don’t know their position. And I feel bad to see that most men have relegated that unique position to a woman, which is not right.