'Here is why I refused to study medicine'

Monday September 1 2014

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She had an “A” in her national secondary exams and could have followed any of the traditional career paths many Kenyans choose — medicine, engineering or whatever.

But she was a rebel and became a programmer instead, and a rejection by the American Embassy of her application for a tourist visa to attend a workshop at the Hacker School in New York prompted her to start her own developer school in Kenya.

Nineteen-year-old Martha Chumo defied the odds and rejected an offer to study medicine at a public university, opting instead to teach herself how to develop web and mobile applications.

Through a series of online programming study sessions on different sites, Ms Chumo is now not only a force to reckon with in the developer world but also the founder and director of the Nairobi Developer School.


It is these exemplary hats she dons with pride that attracted international recognition from the Africa Leadership Academy, and persuaded the MasterCard Foundation to shortlist her as a finalist for the Anzisha Prize 2014.

Ms Chumo talked to Nation.co.ke on Thursday and expressed her optimism that she would win the Anzisha Prize.

“I am still excited about being among the finalists and I can’t wait to be in South Africa for the Anzisha Week so that I can interact with other young entrepreneurs from across the continent,” she added.

The Anzisha Prize was launched in 2010 and targets young entrepreneurs between 15 and 22 years old who have started ventures in different sectors of the African economy.

In 2012, Kenya came close to winning when Diana Kerubo Mong’are, then a 16-year-old and the founder of Planet Green Project that recycled waste, became the First Runner-Up and was awarded $20,000.


Ms Chumo believes she is up to the challenge and hopes to bring home the coveted prize and fund her programming school that was conceived after she was denied a visa to go to the US.

“It was in my frustrations after being denied the tourist visa that I came up with the idea to start the school. The start-up funds were the same ones that I had fundraised online to enable me go to the US for the Hacker School programme,” she added.

The self-taught developer had applied for a workshop program at the Hacker School and was accepted. She immediately started raising money online to allow her to attend the three-month programme, but a visa issue with the American Embassy killed her hopes.

“I applied for a tourist visa since it was a workshop but was denied on the basis that I had no adequate social ties to Kenya (and) thus no guarantee that I would come back after the programme,” said Ms Chumo.


It was that experience, however, that opened up her world and made her realise that she could actually start a developer school locally and grow it to levels even greater than the prestigious Hacker School.

The Nairobi Developer School started officially in September 2013, offering a three-month programming course that is purely hands-on.

“We have been able to train 88 young developers and the current class of 22 students. Those who have completed include a programme that was sponsored by Unesco for South Sudan where the learners developed mobile apps like one for sending peace messages, studying basic English and a gaming app for painting the country’s national flag,” she added.

The school is run using money paid by those sponsoring the students, along with grants obtained from international donors.

Expenditures are kept to a minimum by using existing structures as opposed to opening new offices, with the school offering its lessons in buildings occupied by the organisation that sponsors the learners.


The lessons are project-based and the learners get practical training on how to develop apps and later are expected to develop an app that would determine how well they had performed.

“The program now has one day of learning every Thursday for 10 weeks. So it’s basically 60 hours on primarily mobile app development. We use a platform called MIT App Inventor to give someone a smooth introduction into programming,” said Ms Chumo.

The MIT App Inventor is a step-by-step guide to developing an application for Android that includes the use of video tutorials.

Ms Chumo came across the platform while on an internship after high school in 2012 at Akili Dada, where she learnt how to create apps using available online resources.

After several weeks of learning, she got her first job as a junior developer to work on web and mobile applications locally.

She then got her first breakthrough when she was given an international offer of $5,000 to work on an open-source project for an Israeli organisation.


“Programming has money and the good thing is that you can become an entrepreneur through being innovative and creating a niche for yourself,” said Ms Chumo.

As an “A” student who graduated from Kenya High School, she took the challenge of avoiding traditional careers and decided instead to try to create jobs for other youngsters by venturing into an industry that is still new in the country.

“The government invests a lot of money in national schools and I feel we who get a chance to study there should be creating jobs. If an “A” student is looking for a job, what should the rest of the country do? We should be developing the country not waiting for help,” she added.

Ms Chumo looks up to two techie women in the country: Jessica Colaço, the co-founder of WMIAfrica and AkiraChix and the director of partnerships at iHub, and Shikoh Gitau, the founder of Ummeli.com and a user experience researcher with Google.

Ms Gitau is also a computer scientist and holds a PhD and an MSc in computer science from the University of Cape Town, in South Africa. Ms Colaço was also the founding manager at iHub between 2010 and 2011 and research director at iHub Research  between 2011 and 2013. She was named in the Business Daily’s Top 40 Women Under 40 in 2009, 2011 and 2012.


These and other women in the predominantly male technology industry are a great motivation to Martha Chumo, who wants to one day stand out as a leading techie.

She urges young people to embrace programming as technology is changing every day and to be creative as the industry has a lot of room for innovation.

“Tech has no much input for one to, for instance, build an app — all you need is a creative mind and a computer and you will make it,” she concluded.

The second-born in a family of three, Ms Chumo came for the interview with Nation.co.ke with her mother, Florence Wambua, who admitted that allowing her to pursue a career that is pretty new in the country was a hard choice.

She, however, urged parents to allow children to choose careers they have an interest in and support them all the way.


“I have never been the traditional parent who wants her children to do careers like medicine because personally I felt I did not get the best, as somebody was making the choices for me, so I ended up in teaching simply because my mother was a teacher,” said Mrs Wambua.

Ms Chumo will be in South Africa between September 18 and 25 to participate in Anzisha Week and to attend a gala that will reveal the Anzisha Prize winner and runners-up, who will bag a total of $75,000.

The other Kenyan shortlisted for the prize is 18-year-old Tom Osborn, who is the founder of Greenchar, a clean-energy project that produces smokeless charcoal briquettes and distributes environmentally clean cooking stoves.

Others from across the continent are Sam Kodo (Togo), Gabriel Kombassere (Ivory Coast), Benedicte Mundele (DRC), Winifred Selby (Ghana), Nteff Alain (Cameroon), Noah Walakira (Uganda), Nteff Alain (Cameroon), Chineye Okoro Onu (Ghana), Chukwuwezam Obanor (Nigeria), Jeffrey Mulaudzi (South Africa) and Thato Kgatlhanye (South Africa).