Glamorous geeks: The young women driving change in IT

Saturday May 26 2012

Ms Linet Kwamboka. Photo/WILLIAM OERI

Ms Linet Kwamboka. Photo/WILLIAM OERI  

By PHYLLIS NYAMBURA

They have spent years in classes where they were greatly outnumbered. After joining the job market, they were the sole females in their departments.

Through the years, stereotypes have followed them; that they are not feminine or not normal.

But the young women in the technology arena are not fazed. They are determined to be the agents of perception change as Kenya’s braces to become a knowledge economy driven by the ICT wave.

After talking to 10 of the so-called ‘female geeks,’ we found that they love their fashion and lip-gloss as much as they are fascinated by gadgets.

1Kaburo Kobia, 37, Project Manager, Local Digital Content, Kenya ICT Board

Mention Tandaa grants, and the name that is likely to precede it is Ms Kaburo Kobia. The government funding, which is meant to spur growth in the local digital content, has given millions to technology start-ups.

“My work is inspiring as I get to work on projects that are helping to define and grow the ICT industry in Kenya,” she says.

Kaburo holds a BA in fine arts from Ohio Wesleyan University and an MA in design interaction, New Media, from the University of Westminister.

She has previously worked as communication director at World YWCA, online sales and development manager at Nation Media Group, and information architect at 3mice Interactive Media.

She doesn’t define herself as a techie and argues that technology is not just for scientists and engineers: “I’m an artist and I consider myself a part of the technology field.

“For Kenya to generate innovation in technology we need the participation of people—women—from all fields. This will enrich the solutions that are created.”

Passionate about getting more girls into the technology field, Kaburo says we must start with girls in primary school.

Apart from a love of gadgets, this young woman loves apps. “I have nearly 100 apps on my phone and lots on my desktop and browser. There’s an app for everything, and I use them like an extension of my brain. “

2Shikoh Gitau, 30, User Experience Researcher, Google Africa

Shikoh believes she is where she is today by the Grace of God. Born prematurely at Pumwani Hospital to semi-literate poor parents, she says there was every opportunity for her to become part of a negative statistic.

But 30 years later, Shikoh is not only healthy but more technologically literate than most.

In 2010, she joined Google Africa as a user experience researcher, a job that requires her to advise the technology giant on what users need.

It’s a job that fits her like a glove, for besides her great strides in education, she is animated and opinionated. Previously she worked at Microsoft and the Centre for Multiparty Democracy.

Quoting bible verses, Shikoh says her secret to success lies in having a strong support system, and her great relationship with God. She admits that she loves gadgets:

“I own two smart phones, four laptops, one desktop and an Ipad, but that’s because I love technology.”

A computer science PhD holder from the University of Cape Town, in 2010 Shikoh won the prestigious Google Anita Borg Award, making her the first recipient from sub-Saharan Africa.

She was recognised for her cellphone-based application aimed at easing the use of traditional medicine, M-Ganga.

In 2011, through her charity, Gueting Education Trust, she set up a computer centre with 14 computers at her rural home in Kamwaura, Molo District “to expose children early”.

Integrating computer know-how in the education curriculum, she says, is the way to go if the country is to develop.

3Linet Kwamboka- Program Coordinator, Kenya Open Data Initiative- Kenya ICT Board

One of Linet’s difficulties is in not letting the cat off the bag on her age. With an impressive career portfolio and a job that involves hobnobbing with top government officials, industry leaders and international donors, while influencing open data policy, age expectations are immense.

Remarkably, Linet has been able to achieve all this in a record 23 years.

“Thankfully, people only get to know my age after the meeting has been concluded. Most people have been supportive and call me a future leader,” she says.

She doesn’t dwell on it, and maintains that she is “the leader of the future on condition that the future starts now”.

For now, she is busy making sure that certain government data is freely available online for public consumption. In her opinion, this will inform policy makers and help to increase accountability.

Prior to her appointment in 2011, she was a Geographic Information System (GIS) and software consultant for multiple firms, including the World Bank. Linet is the author of the datascience.co.ke blog, founder of the books2schools initiative, a co-founder and business development advisor of the Akirachix group of women in computing and a partner at the Smart Nairobi project with the University of Nairobi and Columbia University.

She graduated in 2010 with a Computer Science degree from the University of Nairobi and self-taught GIS, data analysis and mining tools within the MIT Open Course Ware program.

For her contribution in society, last year she was recognised as an unsung hero by the US ambassador to Kenya.

4 Catherine Kiguru, Chief Innovator, 26, Ukall Limited

Kate, who was orphaned at the age of 14, says it is thanks to her parents’ savings, that she was able to complete school. The software and mobile applications developer turned techpreneur fell in love with the computer in Form one.

Her love for gadgets would see her graduate from Kiambu Institute of Science and Technology, where she attained a diploma in Computer Studies.

In December 2010, at the age of 24, she co-founded Ukall Limited, a boutique ICT company and assumed the position of chief innovator (read CEO).

Despite financial constraints, she was able to design, develop, test and implement an end-to-end payroll and HR application which is flexible, easy to use and allows for efficient bulk data capture and processing.

She has worked at Kencall EPZ, Trancom Kenya and Kiambu Water & Sewerage Company. To mentor young girls, she is also a co-founder of Akirachix.

5Pauline Wanjiku, 25, IT Project Manager Consultant,

Pauline works with start-ups incubated at the Nailab, where she manages web and mobile projects. Inspiration from her mother saw graduate from Graffins College in 2010 with a degree in business information technology, a program offered through affiliation with Limkokwing University of Creative Technology, Malaysia.

While still in college, she started working as a system administrator at a clearing and forwarding company, before joining Orange Works Ltd as a software developer in 2009. “More women are needed in technology to inspire more girls and develop female-friendly solutions,” she says.

6Jessica Colaco, 29, iHub Research Lead and iHub Founding Manager

Jessica, who is involved in mentoring technology start-ups, calls herself a mobile technology and robotics evangelist.

“I believe the robotics and manufacturing industry in this country is untapped hence we need to build that skill set,” she says.

The founder of Mobile Boot Camp Kenya, co-founder of AkiraChix, TEDGlobal Fellow 2009 and bass guitarist was named one of the top 40 women under 40 by the Business Daily in 2009 and 2011.

In 2008, she organised the first Facebook Developer Garage in Kenya.

Jessica draws inspiration from her mother and holds a Bachelor of Science degree in computer science from the University of Nairobi. As an undergraduate, she developed a mobile application known as Wireless Map Service (WMS), which received accolades from the public during the 10th annual IEEE Engineering Students Exhibition in September 2007.

7Judith Owigar, 27, President of Akirachix and Technology Entrepreneur

A coder, a blogger and a tech enthusiast, Judy holds that for Kenya to become a top ICT Hub, investing in women is the way to go.

The woman who is passionate about technology and women issues, heads the Akirachix organisation, which supports women in technology.

The organisation is seeking to increase the number of women who are creators of technological solutions and in effect change the perception of technology by women.

In 2007, Judith, was named Best Female Engineer at the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers students’ exhibition.

In 2009, she was named one of the Top 40 under 40 women by the Business Daily newspaper. Last year, she won the Anita Borg Change Agent Award and was honoured by the US Embassy in Kenya with the Unsung Heroes Award.

“There is a lot of mystery around technology. People associate it with what they see in movies. Unfortunately in movies most of the characters that are portrayed as techies or IT gurus are men hence reinforcing the stereotype,” the computer science degree holder from the University of Nairobi quips.

8Isis Nyongo, 35, Vice President and MD, Africa at InMobi

Given her remarkable credentials and experience at a young age, Isis, could easily be tucked away in an air-conditioned office somewhere in Europe. But her love for the African continent has seen her take roles in the rapidly expanding mobile market, in a bid to foster development.

“I am Africa’s biggest champion. Having built my career in Africa, I draw inspiration from people who chose to dedicate their lives to building a better Africa,” she says.

In 2011, Forbes Magazine named Isis one the 20 youngest power women in Africa and Business Daily has named her one of the top Kenyan women under 40.

She holds an MBA from Harvard Business School, a degree in Human Biology from Stanford University and started off as an intern at Times Square Alliance in 2004.

Previously she worked at Google as the business development manager. At InMobi, which is the world’s largest independent mobile advertising network, she strategises on enabling advertisers to reach mobile Internet users by placing ads on mobile websites and applications that users access.

The woman who says she ‘off the market’, says one great fallacy is that successful women are off the radar for most men.

“When I was a teenager it wasn’t ‘cool’ for girls to be book-smart. Fortunately, I ignored such ridiculous ideas. As an adult, it hasn’t been my experience that ‘success’ and ‘intelligence’ negatively impact personal relationships for women or men.”

9Alice Wanjira Munyua, 40s, Project Coordinator for Catalyzing Access to ICTS (CATIA), Convener, Kenya ICT Action Network (KICTANET), Head of the .ke Domain

It hard to believe how many hats Alice has to juggle: mother of two, ICT policy professional in several arenas, advisor.. but they are roles she handles amply.

Her more than 10 years’ experience in ICT policy, communications regulation, and a Master’s in Social Communication from Gregorian University, Italy, has given her great insight. Alice has worked in the civil society, private sector and the government.

Last year, she was awarded the African Network Information and Infrastructure Service Award, for contribution to improving and sustaining Africa’s Internet community.

She serves as chair of the Kenya Network Information Centre (KeNIC), the commonwealth Internet governance Cyber security initiative and is vice chair of the Government Advisory Committee of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers.

Alice also chairs an ITU working group preparing for the World Telecommunication Information and Communication Technology Policy Forum (ATPF) on Internet-related public policy issues.

Previously, she has served as a board member of Kenya Communications Commission of Kenya (CCK) and is currently the convener the Kenya ICT Action Network (KICTANet) and the East Africa Internet Governance Forum.

Last year, she chaired the United Nations Internet Governance Forum in Nairobi in September. Alice advises that one has to have a healthy sense of self-esteem and a thick skin to make it in the profession.

To encourage more women into the profession, in 2010, Alice participated in a Microsoft initiative, Digigirls, which had brought high school girls together to interact with women in ICTs in.

10Juliana Rotich, 34, Executive Director, Ushahidi.com

It is not possible to talk about Kenyan’s young icons without the mention of Juliana Rotich. The IT graduate came into the limelight during the 2008 post-election chaos, when she helped to set up an online platform, Ushahidi.com, for people on the ground to report what was happening in their areas. More than 45,000 citizens took part, marking ushering in the era of citizen journalism.

Today, Ushahidi has grown from an ad hoc group of volunteers to a focused organisation, catering for diverse needs.

The world has taken note. The woman who was educated in Kenya before moving to the US for further studies and working in the IT field for 10 years has received a basket of accolades.

She was named one of the Top 100 women in Technology in 2011 by the Guardian newspaper, and Social Entrepreneur of the Year 2011 by The World Economic Forum.

Ushahidi platform was recently recognised in the Future Quotient Report of the 50 Stars of Seriously Long-Term Innovation.

“A good brain is a good brain irrespective of gender. We should provide opportunities that increase the skills level of both women and men,” the globetrotting Juliana, says.

Juliana shares that Ushahidi will be very involved in the up-coming general elections: “We are working on how citizens can better report information through an android application. This will allow citizens easy reporting of election malpractices.”