Pursuing a Stem course? These great women can inspire you

From left: Prof Faith Karanja of the University of Nairobi, Prof Catherine Ngila and Safaricom's Donna Rege.

Photo credit: Photos I Pool

What you need to know:

  • Donna Rege heads Safaricom’s women in technology initiative.
  • Prof Catherine Ngila is a distinguished scholar in analytical and environmental chemistry.
  • Prof Faith Karanja is the first woman to chair the Department of Geospatial and Space Technology at the University of Nairobi.

Are you interested in a course in the field of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (Stem) and you have no one to look up to?

These women have gone before you and cracked the code. And you can too.

Prof Catherine Ngila

She is a distinguished scholar in analytical and environmental chemistry. In 2021, she won the 23rd International Prize for Women in Science for “introducing, developing and applying nanotechnology-based analytical methods to monitor water pollutants”.

She was among the five eminent women scientists in the fields of astrophysics, mathematics, chemistry and informatics to earn the award.

The prize, awarded by Fondation L’Oréal and United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, came with a monetary award of €100,000 (Sh13 million).

Her innovation was recognised to be indispensable in developing water resource management systems that are environmentally sustainable.

As a professor of analytical and environmental chemistry, she analyises the ‘health’ of water, soil and air. In water, for instance, she establishes the concentration of heavy metals like lead as well as pesticides.

During an interview, she said that to succeed in Stem, “one has to have an interest in and passion for the choice of the career.”

While in Class Six and Seven, her Mathematics teacher could not take any exception from his pupils besides excelling in the subject.

A thorough corporal punishment could follow any one who failed, so she was scared. But out of that fear, she began to love the subject and by the power of that change in attitude, she did well.

Then she joined high school. She found herself inclined to science subjects that marry well with Maths, particularly Chemistry. And on this, she remembers Mr James Mackenzi, her Form Three Chemistry teacher. He made her heart jump with admiration and aspiration in every lesson.

“Oh my God! He had a way of teaching Chemistry. He demonstrated with this body how molecules move and I enjoyed that,” she says.

“He could close his eyes and demonstrate how this works. And I got so mesmerised. While asleep, I could visualise how he taught and I became so obsessed with passing Chemistry and becoming like him.”

She carried on the foundation of the training to Lugulu Girls in Bungoma County, where she ended up being the only A-level student, in a class of 40, to get a principal in Chemistry.

Prof Faith Karanja

She is a professor of geoinformation. And she is not just the first woman to chair the Department of Geospatial and Space Technology at the University of Nairobi, but, overall, she is the first professor in the department and the School of Engineering. That is not all! She is the first woman to attain a doctorate in geoinformatics in Kenya. 

She graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Surveying and Photogrammetry from the University of Nairobi. She proved her capability.

In an earlier interview, she said, “We were only two girls in a class of 27 and anytime we could go to the field or the lab, the boys could tell us, 'Why don't you take the paper and write?'. So it’s like your work is to just write and not do any observations.

“I had to put my foot down and say, ‘No! I'm here by my right and because I want to qualify as a geospatial engineer.’”

 For her, letting actions do the talking and empowering oneself with skills in emotional intelligence is the way to go.

“I tell girls, ‘You just don't talk. You prove by actions. Let them see that you can actually do it.

“Avoid emotions. Like when I call for meetings, I am actually able to control emotions. It is a learning experience and you get stronger every day.”

Donna Rege

Donna has a bachelor degree in telecommunications and information technology. She has risen from an enterprise service desk engineer at Safaricom to a governance senior manager, and digital and information technology, business manager. She also heads Safaricom’s women in technology (Wit) initiative.

She was part of the team that created structures that have made Masoko a success. Masoko is an online shop where customers can shop mobile phones and digital accessories such as earphones and headphones, as well as surveillance and security cameras.

As head of Wit, she oversees empowerment schemes that involve exposing boys and girls to the Stem world, including basic coding or scientific experiments like robotics.

Each year, they visit at least one school in each of the 47 counties, where girls see the women at work, as a way of motivating them to pursue a course in technology.

They also run a 'tech-novation' challenge for high school girls, who compete by showcasing applications tackling different challenges.

“We get the girls mentors through our campus initiative who teach them basic coding. Through that, they are able to find a solution around an issue they have chosen,” she said during an interview last week.

Her advice to girls? “You can be anything you want to be. All you need to do is be intentional about your journey.”