The female-led start-ups finding digital solutions to local problems

Linda Bonyo, the CEO and Founder, Lawyers Hub, during the interview at the firm's offices last month.

Photo credit: Diana Ngila | Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation indicates that women only make up 17.5 per cent of the tech workforce worldwide and hold five per cent  of leadership positions.
  •  In Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, only 0.5 per cent of girls wish to become ICT professionals, compared to five per cent of boys at the age of 15. 

“The way we communicate has changed so much. (It is not the same as it was) about 20 to 30 years (ago). Access to the internet is becoming the water, the food. It’s a basic human right,” said Eliz Liu the Chief Strategist at Huawei Technologies.

Speaking during a SHERO Power in Tech talk last October, he implored on girls to take up information, communication and technology (ICT) courses.

Mr Liu was referring to the emerging opportunities in the ICT world that need specialists, and women had the power to fill the gap.

For decades, women have been involved in critical technology projects, programming the first ever computer and writing the code that landed men on the moon, but systemic under-representation has always held most of them back.

Despite the growing demand for ICT skills, owing to a global population increasingly doing business and communicating virtually, the number of women in this space is evidently low.

A decade ago, getting a packet of milk meant a walk or a drive to a nearby supermarket. Now, one only needs to shop online through e-commerce platforms such as Jumia or Glovo and within no time, the milk is delivered at one’s doorstep.

Our contemporary lives are practically defined by these ICT solutions, from paying utility bills using a mobile phones from anywhere, instead of standing on the queue for hours; attending a seminar or a lecture from the comfort of your home or monitoring your kids, miles away.

Gender-based violence

Even reporting sexual and gender-based violence has gone virtual - For instance, mobile applications such as SV_CaseStudy and Report It! Stop It! are used to report related cases for relevant authorities to take action.

But how many women are part of these ICT developments?

Scanty data is available on women’s inclusion in Kenya’s ICT sector. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco), however, indicates that women only make up 17.5 per cent of the tech workforce worldwide, and hold five per cent of leadership positions.

Notably, in Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, only 0.5 per cent of girls wish to become ICT professionals from when they are 15 years-old, compared to five percent of boys.

For instance, while more women than men completed tertiary education in 2015, only 25 per cent of graduates in ICT were women.

A 2018 Technology and Innovation report by the UN attributes gender divide in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (Stem) studies to women lagging behind in ICT inventions.

Nevertheless, the push to change the pattern through awareness talks and women-to-women mentorship programs such as adopted by Unesco, is yielding fruits as Invest in Africa ICT Lead David Ajowi attests.

“More women in the country are currently getting into technology and this is very encouraging and a good trend,” he says.

In Kenya, various private sector institutions have invested in empowerment programs to nurture women into ICT inventors. AkiraChix, for instance, provides women with a unique platform to model their skills and capabilities into tangible ICT solutions.

Safaricom too, runs a Women in Technology program, which moulds interns into ICT specialists.

The government is also utilising the Ajira Digital program to equip young men and women with digital skills to access digitally enabled jobs. It has partnered with Unesco in mentoring and sensitising high school girls on Stem courses.

Women’s contributions to technology are frequently left out of history books. But lately, that’s changing — at least a little - girls around the world are using innovation and technology to solve problems.

We speak to some of the women - the shining stars leading the way for others - on their journey and achievements.

How Covid-19 helped 23-year-old found a virtual company

The confirmation of Covid-19 in the country in March last year, threw many companies into panic, pushing the government to encourage them to allow their employees to work from home.

While some Kenyans managed to keep their jobs and working from home, others especially in the hospitality industry, lost their jobs.

One Jolleen Opula, however, saw an opportunity and in August last year, founded a tech firm to help companies work virtually during that period.

Jolleen Opula, Runnovate Kenya Ltd founder, during the interview at Strathmore School, last month. 

Photo credit: Diana Ngila | Nation Media Group

Her company, Runnovate Kenya Ltd helps business owners save time and reduce cost by working with a team of virtual assistants.

Ms Opula tells The Voice that her firm provides virtual training, especially to young people, to remotely offer professional administrative, technical and creative support to companies.

“We work with business owners who are looking to outsource some of their business processes such as data entry, digital media design, social media management and administrative tasks to Runnovate virtual assistants,” says Ms Opula.

The 23-year-old graduate from Swarthmore College in the US, notes that firms she works with save up to 78 per cent of the costs of running their businesses.

“This is because working with a remote team reduces costs including office space, equipment and employee-related costs such as benefits,” she says, adding that business owners save time they would have spent on non-core tasks, helping them focus on important tasks that lead to their companies’ growth.

As a social enterprise, Ms Opula’s company mission is to equip the youth, especially in rural areas and small towns, with the digital skills they need to earn from online work.

The virtual assistants undertake the Runnovate virtual assistant training, which assures her clients of high-quality work.

The company currently has a pool of 90 virtual assistants working for different clients across Kenya, other African countries and Europe.

The company was among the five that benefited from Sh1 million by Standard Chartered Bank in partnership with @iBizAfrica-Strathmore University in the culmination of the fourth cohort of the bank’s women in tech incubation program.

“I was humbled to be awarded the money as I know many other women out there deserved the grant too. I encourage women to be confident and believe in themselves,” she says.

Ms Opula whose main support system is Female Founders in Tech, notes that there is a need to encourage girls to take up Stem and technical courses to raise the number of women in tech.

Her focus is to create more work opportunities in the digital economy and offer more diverse digital products.

Nurturing techies; from iHub, Sendy to Pezesha

In March 2010, Jessica Colaco co-founded iHub, an innovative centre to nurture techies into either developing information or technology-based problem solving applications or related businesses.

Jessica Colaço, the co-founder of the iHub. 

Photo credit: Evans Habil | Nation Media Group

Much still, sharpen their skills through learning exchange programs with experts in the profession.

“iHub was technically bringing together the whole technology each other develop mobile applications or businesses,” she says as we sit down for this interview at a restaurant in Lavington.

By 2015 when she exited, more than 500 techies had gone through the hands of the University of Nairobi computer science graduate.

A couple of them went into tech-business while others got jobs in related companies.

She identifies Sendy and Pezesha as some of the start-ups groomed through the iHub.

Sendy is a software company with a digital platform connecting customers to drivers, hired to transport goods.

Pezesha, on the other hand, provides a digital financial ecosystem for connecting micro, small and medium enterprises to capital.

During the launch of the iHub in March 2010, she was shocked to see a handful of women techies out of the 300 in attendance.

This encouraged the 37-year-old to co-found AkiraChix in 2014, purposely to mentor women with information, communication and technology (ICT) related training.

“I could meet women graduates in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) not confident in getting jobs in Safaricom or Huawei,” says Ms Colaco, who served briefly at the female-only tech mentorship institution.

“But when we held a forum involving research scientists from IBM, they got inspired to believe in themselves.”

Now, Akira Chix has become a stepping stone for women in Stem, she says.

“I get requests from colleagues to mentor younger women but when I talk to them, they don’t have a sense of why they need the mentorship...they need to be prepared for the mentorship,” shares the computer scientist who attributes her achievements to her mother.

She currently runs Brave, a company that recruits technology professionals for companies. She co-founded it with a Nigerian-American partner in 2015 after leaving iHub.

They are also developing a digital system for large companies for workforce planning and management.

Ms Colaco has exposed herself to refined tech professionals in San Francisco, USA and can clearly cut the line on ICT deficits in Kenya.

She says knowledge and experience sharing is far much open in San Francisco. When it comes to Kenya, the professionals are still reserved with their expertise, she observes.

With the Kenyan Treasury stretching its tax hands to the pockets of entrepreneurs in tech-enabled-businesses, the future is likely to go south for the start-ups, she says.

Since the beginning of the year, the government started charging a 1.5 per cent digital service tax on gross transaction value on businesses offering services through the digital market place.

“A 1.5 per cent tax is a lot of money. With that taxation, start-ups will surely collapse. And if that tax is increased over time, then businesses will certainly shrink,” she says.

Lawyers’ hub easing access to justice

For Linda Bonyo, the founder of Lawyer’s Hub, Covid-19 was a blessing in disguise. That many lawyers and the Judiciary turned to virtual operations improved her firm’s clientele base.

Tech statistics reveal the uphill battle women have had to face in the digital space; innovative ones like Linda Bonyo have, however, perfected their creations; tackling entrenched gender inequality.

Photo credit: Diana Ngila | Nation Media Group

The legal-tech organisation started in 2017 and headquartered in Kenya, promotes access to justice through technology.

Speaking to The Voice at the Lawyers Hub offices in Nairobi, Ms Bonyo explains the hub provides innovative and technology-driven solutions to policy, legal practice and access to justice, with a focus on technology-driven enterprises and policy alternatives.

The 35-year-old lawyer notes that the hub focuses on bringing about justice innovation and giving new ways of accessing court proceedings for lawyers.

Ms Bonyo established the hub to provide sustainable and inclusive tech policy across the African continent.

It currently operates in several countries including Nigeria, Ghana, Uganda, Rwanda and South Africa, among others, where it provides innovative and technology-driven solutions to policy and legal practice.

“The Lawyers’ Hub also runs the Africa Digital Policy Institute, Africa Law Tech association, The Africa Start-up Law Accelerator and convenes the annual Africa Law Tech Festival and the Africa Legal Innovation week on Justice Innovation,” she says.

The former immigration lawyer adds that the hub also works with start-ups to help them overcome challenges including scarcity of resources, by offering investment and fundraising training.

In 2020 alone, Ms Bonyo says the hub virtually convened policymakers, academia and legal-tech organisations from 36 countries, curated rapid tech solutions under the Global Legal Hackathon, and developed key policy briefs for the African continent on artificial intelligence, data privacy and digital identity, tech and migration, and taxing the digital economy.

The hub now boasts of 15 employees with 1,000 registered members locally and more than 3,000 in Nigeria.

Last year alone, they held 113 webinars targeting lawyers, policymakers, academicians and legal-tech organisations, which attracted about 28,000 participants.

Being a woman, she regrets, has on several occasions worked against her.

“Many people always ask me who my husband or boyfriend is. Some even say there is a man behind my brilliant idea of the hub. They do not believe a woman can come up with such innovation,” she says.

The high cost of internet is one of the biggest challenge her venture and other similar investments face.

“The taxes on internet ought to come down to ease the cost of doing business. As things stand, it is unsustainable. We, for example, spend Sh270,000 on internet, which is way too high,” she says.

Ms Bonyo is a Tech Women Fellow 2020, a member of the Real Facebook Oversight Board, and was globally awarded as a Good ID community champion on Privacy in 2020.

Apart from being a passionate policy innovator, she also sits at the cusp of Technology, Society and Law. Her future plan is to make the hub a global company.