Saturday, March 2, 2013

Tech talk for girls

By TERRY GACHOKA

When I was young, I believed I could be anything I wanted to be, so my dreams kept changing. The only constant was my love for, and good grades in, mathematics and sciences.

Then my older brother Michael who, ironically, is a marketer, introduced me to computer science.

“I enrolled for the degree course at the University of Nairobi and was looking forward to interesting classes. I was shocked when I realised that I was one of only five girls in a class of about 50. The boys looked at us as if we were lost.

It had never occurred to me that sciences were considered a man’s forte because I had never experienced this prejudice when growing up.

“I graduated and landed my first job. Sadly, the stereotype against women in sciences existed even there. Interestingly, at my second workplace, of five programmers, four of us were female.

People thought this was weird, but given my background, I now felt that I belonged. The four of us would chat about encouraging more girls to get into sciences. We never got to actualise our plans, though.

“In 2010, I attended the launch of iHub, a meeting place for the techie community, focusing on young web and mobile phone programmers, designers, and researchers. Once more, there were few women.

After that launch I got together with other female techies and AkiraChix was formed. Linda Kamau, Marie Githinji, Catherine Kiguru, and I funded AkiraChix with our own resources, We were joined by Angela Oduor and Gladys Kitony, and I eventually left employment to be the president of AkiraChix, a non-salaried position.

Mentoring female techies

Akira is a Japanese word meaning ‘energy’ or ‘intelligence’. So AikraChix is an association that networks, trains, and mentors female techies. We want to tell girls about the opportunities available in this field.

I want to help create a society where we are all equally empowered and forging ahead together. So we have developed a tech training programme for youths from Nairobi’s slums.

Our first training was in Dandora. Then we got the support we needed to acquire training premises in Lavington. We faced a lot of teething problems, including some mentees dropping out because they could not raise the bus fare to the new premises.

After a year of taking courses ranging from basic computer packages to programming and design concepts, entrepreneurship, and business development, our inaugural mentees graduated in August 2011.

Our second group is currently in session. This time we limited the number to 20, all girls from Kawangware and surrounding areas, within a walking radius of the training premises.

“Given the background of our mentees, we also impart life skills and, together with a female full-time staff member, we are available to the girls to discuss any issues they face.

Our classes run from Monday to Thursday half-day. on Fridays, people from the tech industry encourage the girls. We also provide sanitary towels and toilet paper because these are basic needs that sometimes force the girls to skip sessions.

“With support from corporate entities such as Seneca and InfoDev, AkiraChix organises outreach programmes to high schools and universities to enlighten students on how technology can serve as a means of social and economic empowerment. It has been worthwhile.

For example, girls from Precious Blood Riruta formed a tech club and reached out to us for mentorship. I have also been mentoring a former Kenya High School girl for the past year.

“Apart from AkiraChix, I am also the founder of JuaKali, an online directory for micro jobs that I am creating. I envision an application where manual workers can post their details on the site via SMS.

Employers looking for skilled manual workers can go online, find a person with the skills they are looking for, and send an alert, which the worker will receive on his or her mobile phone.

After the two are linked and the job is completed, the employer can go back to the site and give a testimonial on the particular worker. My JuaKali creation is made possible through a Kenya ICT Board grant.

“I am passionate about women and technology. I love working with young girls; seeing them transform from being shy to bold women right before my eyes is powerful and fulfilling. In my tech work, I want to go more into user-centred applications. It is no longer about making awesome programmes; I want to serve a need and provide tech solutions for Africa.”