Africa Wired

From Africa Renewal: 

Groundbreaking technology by women, for women

By Bo Li

There was a time when technology was a male-dominated field. However, with the advancement of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education, ICT infrastructure and availability of capital for start-ups, the past decade has witnessed the rise of a new generation of IT girls and “cyberellas” in Africa.

A growing number of them are reaching the top of the industry as entrepreneurs.

Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest regional female Total Entrepreneurial Activity (TEA) rate in the world, with 27% of its female population engaged in entrepreneurship activities, according to the 2012 Women’s Report by the Global Entrepreneurial Monitor (GEM). 

This year, Catherine Mahugu of Kenya, Teresa Mbagaya (Kenyan in Zimbabwe), Clarisse Iribagize (Rwanda), Julie Alexander Fourie (South Africa) and Uche Pedro (Nigeria) were listed among the most promising young African entrepreneurs by Forbes, a US business magazine. Aged between 26 and 30, all of them are founders of businesses specialized in the most cutting-edge technologies, such as e-commerce, mobile applications and cloud storage. 

Soko, which means ‘marketplace’ in Swahili, is an online platform connecting international shoppers to handcrafted accessories from the developing world. It is one example of tech companies by women for women. Founded by 27-year-old Catherine Mahugu, it enables talented artisans in emerging economies, who are mostly women, to promote and sell craftworks using basic mobile phones. The mobile-to-web technology gives women direct access to the global marketplace, and helps transform them from manufacturers to entrepreneurs. 

Teresa Mbagaya, the head of Econet Education, launched several educational programmes with mobile technology in Zimbabwe, including the EcoSchool project. Through the use of tablets and the EcoSchool app (software programme) designed by Ms. Mbagaya’s company, Econet, students were given on-the-go and affordable access to world-class educational resources.

The EcoSchool app significantly improved the learning experience of girls who lived off campus and could not stay late in libraries. With light-weight portable devices they were able to study after school and pay as little as $5 per month for the studying materials.  

Recent years also saw the emergence of “girls’ clubs” for women in science and technology in several African countries. Ethel Cofie, Judith Owigar and other like-minded female tech entrepreneurs created organizations like AkiraChix (Kenya), Tech Needs Girls (Ghana) and Asikana Network (Zambia), where female techies meet up for action-packed workshops, trainings and networking events. These organizations also aim to change perceptions of women and girls pursuing education and careers in STEM subjects, paving the way for more to venture into innovation and technology.

A study by Icteum Consulting, Meraka Institute/CSIR titled “Women in the Information and Communication Technology Sector in South Africa” found that in core IT categories, women were over-represented in technical sales and system analyst positions, while being drastically under-represented in programming, engineering and management.