Women techies putting Kenya on the global map

Top from left: Judith Owigar, the founder of JuaKali; Ory Okolloh of Omidyar Networks; and Dorcas Owinoh, the co-founder and director of LakeHub Kisumu. Below from left: Juliana Cherotich, technologist and entrepreneur; and Jamila Abbas, Lilian Nduati, Linda Omwenga and Susan Oguya who developed M-Farm.

Photo credit: Photo I Pool

What you need to know:

  • Women in Kenya, like in many other countries worldwide, have historically been underrepresented in the technology industry.
  • But a number of women stepped up and paved the way for many others, who are in, or looking forward to joining, the industry that is rapidly changing the world.

Did you know that the person widely recognised as having pioneered computer programming was a woman?

Ada Lovelace propelled programming and computers to what they have become today. Every year on the second Tuesday of October since 2009, her legacy is celebrated and a technology award, the PRACE Ada Lovelace Award that was named after her in 2016, is awarded to an outstanding woman scientist.

Despite this phenomenal achievement, women in Kenya, like in many other countries worldwide, have historically been underrepresented in the technology industry.

However, a number of women stepped up and paved the way for many others who are in or looking to join the industry today.

In 2008, Juliana Rotich and Ory Okolloh co-founded an open-source platform called Ushahidi for crowdsourcing crisis information.

What started in Kenya as a platform developed to map reports of post-election violence went on to transform the international flow of data and information. Ushahidi was used to monitor elections in Kenya, Mexico and India, track violence in the Eastern Congo and map the post-earthquake crisis in Haiti.

Prior to Ushahidi, Ms Okolloh co-founded Mzalendo in 2005. The website helps Kenya’s electorate to keep track of the activities of their member of Parliament, monitoring and analysing every bill, speech and MP who passes through Parliament, thereby promoting transparency and accountability in government.

Ms Rotich went on to co-found BRCK in 2013. An innovative technology, the company’s goal was to build the most reliable internet routers in the world and has grown to become the biggest Wi-Fi provider in sub-Saharan Africa. The 2010s saw more women pioneer tech innovations.

In October, three women—Jamilla Abass, Linda Kwamboka and Susan Oguya—founded M-Farm, a tool for small-scale farmers after winning a tech competition and bagging Sh1 million, which they used as seed capital. Their tool sought to link farmers with urban and export markets via SMS and a web-enabled marketplace.

They could get information pertaining to the retail price of their products, buy farm inputs directly from manufacturers at favourable prices, and find buyers for their produce. The farmers could also access up-to-date market information through M-Farm’s marketplace and current agri-trends.

Inspiring power

Also, in 2010, Judith Owigar joined forces with a group of Kenyan female software engineers passionate about changing the landscape of the technology field and created a community that would grow to become Akirachix.

The community’s aim was to support, connect and inspire women in the tech space. Steadily, it morphed into a training programme for girls and young women. Their plan took off after Craft Silicon, a Kenyan fintech firm, donated a bus with computers and drove it across Nairobi’s informal settlements to give girls a chance to learn more about tech.

The same group had previously volunteered at Ushahidi, around 2008, where they were the first ever female volunteer coders at the organisation. She attributed her success to personal drive, hard work and the confidence to take risks.

“Many women are afraid to rock the boat and, many a time, want to be likeable, to be given the permission and validation to try something new. Do not wait to be ready, you will be too late,” Ms Owigar said in a past interview.

Five years later, in 2015, she founded JuaKali Workforce. With her social enterprise, she aimed to create job opportunities by linking informal economy workers with clients, on demand.

JuaKali was a pioneering innovative model that further aimed at creating a culture of reliability and good quality in the informal sector and, consequently, boosting employment rates in the country.

Reflecting on the past decade, Dorcas Owinoh said the number of women in science and technical professions in Kenya has risen steadily, raising hope of bridging the gender gap in a segment skewed in favour of men.

“There has been a growing recognition in recent years of the need to increase diversity and inclusion in tech, as well as support women in tech. Most companies now understand the benefits of having a more diverse tech workforce,” she said.

Ms Owinoh attributed the rise of women to the country's growing tech sector and the increased availability of tech-related education and training opportunities. An example is Lakehub’s FemiDevs, which runs coding programmes for young women in western Kenya.

She is the current director of programmes at LakeHub, a community space for creatives, entrepreneurs and budding IT professionals created to spur innovation and entrepreneurship in Kisumu through training and mentorship programmes.

In 2017, she mentored four teenagers to develop i-Cut, an application that connects girls affected by FGM and medical assistance. Additionally, the apps allowed girls being forced to undergo the procedure to press a panic button and alert local authorities.

However, Ms Owinoh first entered the tech scene when she developed SokoNect, a mobile app, in 2012. Her multi-platform tool was built to link farmers to a ready market for their produce and eliminate the need to involve middlemen.

While there has been some progress, Ms Owinoh says there is still a long way to go to achieve gender equality in the industry. Kenya's technology industry remains overwhelmingly male-dominated, with women holding a small proportion of tech-related jobs and a lower representation in leadership positions.

To counter the low representation, Aisha Abubakar founded PwaniTeknowgalz in 2015 alongside her then classmates Joan Nabusoba and Ruth Kaveke at the Technical University of Mombasa. So far, the hub has equipped over 6,000 young women from marginalised communities with employable practical skills in science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem).

Ms Abubakar said albeit the successes they have witnessed over the past seven years, challenges continue to linger, hindering more women from taking up more space in tech. The non-profit organisation has struggled with a lack of adequate resources, which has limited the capacity to run their programmes.

“We receive applications from between 500 and 1,000 applicants at a time but can only accept a maximum of 20 girls because we do not have the computers or the space to host them, despite having the actual manpower to do so,” she said.

As a woman, her capabilities were often questioned when she appeared with her co-founders to pitch their innovation. It was even more challenging operating in Mombasa where patriarchal norms are deeply rooted and the myth that women cannot do it alone is still engrained in the minds of many people.

Another glaring challenge that Ms Abubakar faces is the lack of adequate role models to mentor women entering the tech industry. In Mombasa, most women among the few tech specialists are not outspoken and do not usually offer themselves to mentor the younger generation.

Despite the shortcomings, she is confident that the future of women in technology in Kenya and on the continent is bright, as more women are now pursuing careers in technology. She urged them to believe in themselves and take up more space.

“Ada Lovelace has already set the pace for us. As long as you are passionate and you put in the work you will succeed in this industry,” she said.

She insisted that women must not shy away because there is a growing importance of technology in various industries and sectors, as well as the growing demand for tech-related skills.

As such those women who are courageous will not only access opportunities but will be likely to succeed in the field.