Mombasa women seek to close gender gap in science

Thursday April 26 2018

US Embassy Cultural Affairs Assistant Fatuma Dubow (left), her colleague Faith Biko (second left) and TechWomen members during the launch of Mombasa Girls in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics at Swahilipot Hub on March 17, 2018. PHOTO | WACHIRA MWANGI | NATION MEDIA GROUP


Contrary to the traditional belief that technical courses are meant for men, women are slowly getting attracted to the scientific field.

The few, who have studied engineering and other technical courses, are out to demystify the myth. They have encouraged girls in secondary schools to join them in the world of technology.

One such woman is Ms Umikaltuma Ibrahim, a geomatics engineer.  

Ms Ibrahim chairs Tech Women Kenya, a group of female professionals who run the Mombasa Girls in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), a new scheme that is seeking to significantly close the gender gap in the scientific field.

The professionals recently met at Swahilipot, an innovation hub in Mombasa, to launch the second phase of the STEM programme. The event was attended by technology enthusiasts and brilliant beneficiaries drawn from girls’ secondary schools in Mombasa County.



The group believes that their efforts will bridge the wide gender gap in Kenya by nurturing creativity and innovation in girls. When the first phase of the programme kicked off in 2016, no one knew what to expect. They planned to visit 180 girls in 12 secondary schools in the Coast region and introduce them to basic computer programmes, mobile App development, robotics, engineering and design. 

In one school, narrated Ms Ibrahim, the pupils had never had access to a computer.

“At a school in Likoni, we met a trainer with good ideas on App development. The school had no computers and we had to get them computers and take them through the basics,” she said.

"We have come a long way, some of the girls could not express themselves in English and I encouraged them to express their ideas in Giriama or Kiswahili," she added.

The girls who trained in the first phase of the programme are now volunteers in Mombasa STEM Phase 2 programme.

Ms Ibrahim says she had never been technology-savvy despite performing well in her Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education examinations to get admission in Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology for a bachelors degree in Geomatics Engineering and Geospatial Information Systems (the discipline of gathering, storing, processing, and delivering geographic information).


“I had no idea that my course would be computer-based, I thought it was all about geometry and mathematics; I almost quit in the first semester,” she said.

Being a Muslim, she understands the society’s perception of hijabs in the engineering and technology field.

“Our mental picture of an engineer is a person in gumboots and overalls, but we need to change the perception. We want these girls to understand that they can do it by seeing us in the fields,” she said.

She says they instil self-belief in the girls in the male dominated field. After her undergraduate degree course Ms Ibrahim worked in Somalia as a geographic information systems officer for a year before returning home to pursue her masters degree.

“I am currently working for the United Nations as a Geographic Information systems analyst. We collect data, analyse and present it in a way it can be used to make informed decisions,” said Ms Ibrahim.


In 2014 she was among six women professionals selected for a mentorship and exchange programme initiated by the US Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.

She was attached to Autodesk, an engineering design company in San-Francisco for four weeks. Before they left for the US, the group drafted a project to assist Kenyans back at home.

“When we came back we held a STEM workshops to share our experiences but later decided to train young women,” she said.


Some of the girls from various secondary schools within coast region during a science forum at Mama Ngina Girls School in Mombasa, on April 11, 2016. PHOTO | LABAN WALLOGA | NATION MEDIA GROUP

“We work full time during the day and hold our meetings at night. During the weekends, we travel to Mombasa to mentor the girls,” said Ms Ibrahim whose hopes to make the programme sustainable

“One objective is to make these idea ingrained in our curriculum. The girls come up with intelligent solutions but we cannot do anything without the government’s support. If we can have these projects piloted by the county government we would be happy,” Ms Ibrahim said.


Ms Sandra Kambo, is a quality engineer who studied software engineering in Malaysia, admits science subjects were not her preference.

“In the university I did a foundation course in IT where we took mathematics for computing. It was so different from what I had studied in high school,” said Ms Kambo.

After the course, a friend convinced her to take up software engineering. There were only two women in a class of more than 100 students.

“Software engineering is not as difficult as many people believe, there are so many resources online which makes it even easier,” she said.

Having worked in as a software engineer, she hopes to get more ladies into the technology space.

“During my first job, I worked in an engineering department that had two women against 40 men. The men were so aggressive and got promotions, that is when it occurred to me that I had to do something,” she said.


Ms Kambo then embarked on a mentorship programme, which she did with Ms Ibrahim in Nairobi.

In 2014 she was selected to join five female professionals in the Techwomen programme.

She says women in the male dominated world experience low confidence, despite having above-average abilities and skills.

“A man may be wrong and he will argue as if he is right.  In schools some girls are always scared to express themselves, but we need to change this perception,” she says.

“I want get more women into what we are doing,” adds Ms Kombo.

Ms Ruth Kaveke, 27, knows too well the hurdles when it comes to professional inclusion and progression in the tech space and hopes to rise above them.

She studied at Asumbi Girls High School and later joined Technical University of Mombasa to pursue a degree in ICT.


During her internship she did an e-commerce project which impressed her supervisor.

After her internship, she shared her experience with a group of girls before she began training them.

Ms Kaveke is the Director and Founder of Pwani Teknogalz, a community based organisation in Mombasa which inspires girls in secondary schools and universities within Mombasa County through Technology and STEM programmes. The 2017 TechWomen fellow was attached to Mozilla in California where she learnt more on web security.

“I am so passionate about training girls, I resigned from my job and ventured into freelance web development to mentor more girls,” she said.

 “We had 33 projects with 11 schools in the first phase of Mombasa girls in STEM fair. Students from Hassan Joho Girls Secondary School came up with a GIS project after collecting data from people and local hospitals. They found out that garbage was making people sick and after making their presentation, former Mombasa Senator Hassan Omar pushed for the clearing of the garbage,” she said.


During the visits to the schools an encounter with girls who were scared of touching a computer reminded of her schools days.

“I had never touched a computer when I joined secondary school. When the teacher asked if we had ever operated a computer, I was sacred to say no. Only one girl said she had never used a computer and everyone laughed,” she said.

“What inspires me is that the girls have gained confidence and are performing well in class,” she said.


This year, the project aims to train young professionals on STEM curriculum that will be used to train 200 secondary school girls in 12 public and private schools in Mombasa County.

The trainers will assist the girls develop projects to be displayed at the STEM fair in August.

“We are showing the girls that whatever they learn in school can be used to solve problems in the society,” said Ms Kaveke.