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Group out to fill yawning ICT gap

Tuesday March 20 2012

A lady browses through the internet on her laptop. Women professionals in the technology realm seek trainees from low income areas in a bid to shore up their numbers Photo/FREDRICK ONYANGO

A lady browses through the internet on her laptop. Women professionals in the technology realm seek trainees from low income areas in a bid to shore up their numbers Photo/FREDRICK ONYANGO  

By MUTHOKI MUMO [email protected]

Margaret Kamau is nervous. This is the first interview panel she has ever faced and it could make the difference between a career in ICT and a life spent selling boiled maize in Kawangware, a low income residential area in Nairoi.

“Have you ever touched a computer?” One of the interviewers asks. The answer is a timid “no.” She has also never used mobile money transfer service M-Pesa and has only heard of Facebook.

In any other interview, the decision to spike her application would be a foregone conclusion. But at this forum conducted by Akirachix, a meeting of female technology professionals, she was almost perfect.

Akirachix was screening candidates for a free 10-month crash course in computer programming, entrepreneurship, and mobile application development.

“We look for girls from slum areas. Working computer knowledge is an added benefit, but if the girls demonstrate drive, we pick them,” said Akirachix president Judith Owigar.
Barely out of the university themselves, the eight Akirachix founders started AkiShika  training programme in 2011 in response to the low number of Kenyan women pursuing technology professions.

Data from the ICT Board indicates that women make up only 15 per cent of ICT professionals in Kenya. This information is reflected at the local technology centre, the iHub, where out of 6,072 members, only 949 are women.

“There are very few of us. It’s definitely a male-dominated community,” said iHub founder Jessica Colaço.

In their self-appointed task, Akirachix is following in the footsteps of Nairobits — a local organisation that conducts multimedia and technology training for disadvantaged youth from the slums.

Last year, 36 students were selected for the maiden AkiShika programme. Only 18 graduated.

“Commitment to the programme was a huge factor. Some of them didn’t realise what they were signing up for,” said Ms Linda Kamau, who coordinates the initiative.

The yawning digital divide between the genders is further aggravated by poverty. “One of the questions we ask in these interviews is whether they can afford bus fare. Sometimes even Sh60 per day is too much,” said Akirachix member Marie Githinji.

Despite this decidedly grim picture, women are making inroads in the industry. Some of the recognisable faces in Kenya’s ICT business are female.

Ms Ory Okolloh and Ms Juliana Rotich were behind Ushahidi, touted to be Kenya’s second greatest technology export after M-Pesa. In government circles, Ms Kaburo Kobia manages the local digital content at the ICT Board while Ms Katherine Getao is heading the eGovernment directorate.

At the United States International University (USIU), the IT support staff is 50 per cent female. “This was not a deliberate policy. It just goes to show you that there is a pool of highly talented female technology professionals in this country,” said the institution’s IT director, Ms Regina Mutoko.

Women seem to be slowly taking over top jobs in local and multinational organisations. The trickle down effect however, is still a challenge. Far from the boardrooms, the average Kenyan woman is not able to leverage on technology to improve her life.

“There might be a woman at the helm of the big companies, but if all IT support staff are men, the impact on the community is significantly diminished,” said Ms Anne Ikiara from Nairobits.

For their efforts, Akirachix have gained international accolades. Last month, they won Google RISE funding for their training programme.

The award is given by Google to organisations doing work to increase access and interest in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Out of 400 applicants, only 26 organisations received the award.

In 2010, the group received part of a $35,000 grant from the World Bank’s InfoDev for social networking activities and to provide support for the work for the Mlab consortium — a mobile innovation entrepreneurship incubation initiative.

Individually, each of the Akirachix members has a long list of accolades and accomplishments. Ms Judith Owigar was the recipient of the Anita Borg Change Agent Award in 2011. This was in recognition of her efforts to promote networking, training and mentorship among technical women in computing.

Ms Katherine Kiguru, another member, founded her own IT company, Ukall Limited, last year. Ms Jessica Colaco, another co-founder, is a former TED fellow, manager at iHub, and one of the founders of Mobile Boot Camp Kenya.

In the development agenda, providing women with technological skills has risen in priority and urgency. Researchers reckon that technology can help women overcome traditional barriers that have left them isolated and without a voice.

By the end of their vetting process, Akirachix will be a step closer to providing 20 girls with this voice. Given the programme’s track record, the number will likely be greatly slashed by graduation day in March 2013.