Women IT geeks click in men’s domain

Monday December 13 2010

The all-girls team of AkiraChix, which won a software development competition.

The all-girls team of AkiraChix, which won a software development competition. 

By JEVANS NYABIAGE [email protected]

Information technology, long dominated by men, is taking on a feminine look. While the arguments over how to get a better gender balance in the tech space fly back and forth, there’s a small army of women who are making a mark in the tech world.

Experts say it’s increasing availability of jobs that pay well and career talks that have helped women to explore opportunities in technology. Although their numbers are less compared to men, some women are outperforming men in this field.

Dr Reuben Marwanga, the dean of the faculty of Information Technology at Strathmore University, says the number of female students in ICT and business courses has been increasing.

Strathmore University runs an innovation incubation programme, which Dr Marwanga says currently has 24 incubates, more than half of them ladies. At the United States University USIU), Nairobi, Ms Regina Mutoko is the IT and Multimedia Director and a member of the university’s management council, while Telkom Kenya has Jane Karuku as deputy chief executive officer.

Ms Isis Nyong’o is the business development manager of Google’s operations in Kenya, and some of the firm’s sub-Saharan markets while at the Communications Commission of Kenya Ms Mwende Njiraini works neck to neck with male telecommunications engineers.

Also making inroads in expanding technology access is Gladys Muhunyo, the director of Africa Programme, Computer Aid International, which donates computers to schools. Ms Muhunyo, is also a member of Linux Chix Kenya, a group of female IT enthusiasts pushing for the use of open source software.

Ms Constantine Obuya, who ten years ago resigned as a programmer at the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) to establish the African Centre for Women Information and Technology.

During the graduation of 180 girls under the Samsung Real Dreams programme, which Ms Obuya’s organisation implements, she said: “ICT breaks barriers to trade and creates access to wider markets. But this is only so if technology brings everybody on board.”

“We target women because even with coming of the fibre optic cables and growing of lucrative sectors like BPO (business process outsourcing) which can create thousands of jobs, women stand to lose out.”

To prepare girls for an increasingly computerised world, the centre operates programmes to train high-school and university students. Through its “all girls camp,” high-school girls receive training in web design. So far more than 2,500 girls have graduated from the centre.

A month ago, the all-girls group, AkiraChix, catapulted the female tech power when they beat men to emerge winners in a 48-hour software development competition.

The group of five ladies, part of AkiraChix, won Sh1 million in the IPO48 competition on October 31 with their M-Farm concept. Different groups were given 48 hours to develop and execute a web or mobile business concept.

AkiraChix president Judith Owigar said in 48 hours, AchiraChix were able to come up with M-Farm, a mobile information resource centre that focuses on delivering real time information to the farmers on market prices, weather and agro-supplies.

Jamila Abass, one of the M-Farm developers, says M-farm’s uniqueness is socialisinf farmers. “It’s not just about information, it’s about the community,” Ms Abass says.

“The application allows farmers to buy and sell produce; it links the farmers to the suppliers thereby reducing the negative effects of the middlemen and the brokers.”

Linnet Kwamboka says Akirachix encourages entrepreneurship among ladies in IT and provides mentorship and networking. She is ladies who have carved a niche in digital content development.

The University of Nairobi graduate developed a mapping application, designed several websites and is the founding member of an association of female content developers.

AkiraChix runs a project known as the Akishika Training which gives technology skills to youth, mainly girls, in poor urban settlements.

“This is in line with our goal to empower girls through technology. The students are taught both programming and graphic design so that they may get jobs or start their own businesses,” Ms Owigar says.

Su Kahumbu-Stephanou, is remembered for her iCow idea, the voice based mobile application that helps farmers track the oestrus stages of their cows, helping them to manage breeding as well as nutrition up to the calving day, that the inaugural Apps4Africa competition.

Ms Kahumbu-Stephanou says Kenya’s farmers are generally small scale and cannot afford industrialised production. “The biggest aspect that is missing in this sector is information,” Kahumbu-Stephanou says.

The iHub, Nairobi tech incubation, also houses a number of female techies. One of them is Jessica Colaco, who manages the centre. Ms Colaco is a fan of the mobile web, and says users and developers need to get together to scale ideas into projects that can meet the growing demand for information.