Part 2: How Communication and Technology are Changing the Faces of Africa

Shanley Knox — Contributor — @ BylineBeat

(Brooklyn, New York) For Chisenga Muyoya, software engineering is an art.  

“It’s like being an artist,” Muyoya said. “You can come up with something from nothing. It’s very, very fulfilling.”

Muyoga’s art of choice, however, isn’t one that is easily achievable for women in her country. As a Zambian woman pursuing a career in technology, Muyoya worked against both cultural and personal challenges to arrive at her current position as software engineer at the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDs Foundation.

“The role of a woman in society is just to have babies, take care of them, and that’s about it,” Muyoya said. “You’re never supposed to be the main breadwinner or be extremely successful.”

Muyoya’s success in technology holds an importance she said she feels reaches beyond her own life. She knows she is a pioneer - one of the first Zambian women to show what success looks like in a sector that has been primarily dominated by men.

According to Lukonga Lindunda, co-founder of BongoHive, Zambia’s first technology and innovation hub, most Zambian girls are told from an early age that they are unfit for the sciences or complicated, difficult careers. However, it is just this type of work that could hand women the kind of power and financial stability not only to change their own lives, but to begin closing a talent gap USAID reports is growing in Africa’s information and communications technology (ICT) sector.

“ICT is one of the fastest growing job sectors, and there are not enough people to fill all the jobs today, and the situation will only get worse on our current trajectory,” a USAID official said. “Training women in ICT is critical to meet the talent gap – otherwise economies will slow down without sufficient talent for this critical sector. The World Bank has found that the gender disparity in wages is more due to the lower paid sectors women tend to pursue than differences and wages within the same sector.”

In 2010, the United Nations population division reported  there were 511.2 million females in Africa and 511.1 million males - making women the majority in Africa. To ignore their widespread talent is what Anne Simmons-Benton calls, “a simple math problem.”

Simmons-Benton is a gender and trade specialist at DAI, an employee-owned, international development firm. In her work with technology and gender disparities in Africa, Simmons-Benton said she has seen African women, in particular, not able to be used to their full capacity. This is often due to marginalization, which leads to a lack of education and, finally, a lack of access to higher-paid sectors like ICT. Including women in technology, she says, will increase return on investment - not only because 100% of Africa’s workforce potential will be utilized, but because women can target mobile applications to the needs of other women and girls - many of whom are struggling to utilize mobile applications and other technologies because of a lack of literacy.

“Women are natural innovators,” Simmons-Benton said. “They know what the problems are. So, if you leave them out, you’re not going to get the correct solution - and that’s been a real problem in development in Africa.”

Maureen Agena, field officer for the Ugandan nonprofit Text to Change, pointed out that most tech issues in Africa primarily affect women and children - particularly in areas of health and micro business. Muyoya and Agena both agreed this puts women in a unique position to create applications and innovation that solve problems on a localized level. Women are the ones influencing the next generation, Muyoya pointed out, and thus should have access to helping create the solutions to pave the way for it.

If women are, indeed, those with the greatest potential to assess problems and create solutions at the local level, they are in a unique position to develop applications that target local problems. This kind of focused problem solving is exactly the market Lukonga says BongoHive is pushing individual programmers toward investing in. 

“We want to focus more on people creating solutions out of the local problems that are available. That is a big opportunity for developers,” Lukonga said. “I mean you can do it in your bedroom, you can do it wherever. And if you can look at a  local problem, you’re obviously in a better position than Facebook or Google or Microsoft… basically you have the whole local market.”

It’s just the kind of freedom Lukonga is describing that Simmons-Benton says makes ICT the perfect market for women to enter.

“ICT is one of the best fields for women to be in,” she said. “A lot of it you can do from home. You don’t have to be somewhere else. It’s one of those areas women can continue to use while they’re in childbearing years and continue to be involved in and do from places other than miles away from home. I think that’s a really good connection between women and ICT. There’s going to be different applications they think of that help them in their daily life.”

When women find solutions, they are more likely than their male counterparts to share them with the next generation, according to Regina Mtonga, a software developer working as the site administrator for the Zambian nonprofit Asikana Network.

“When women acquire their ICT skills, they tend to share that knowledge with others,” said Mtonga. “Men bring change pertaining to self problems, women bring change pertaining to more wider faced problems.”

Some of Africa’s most successful applications have been developed in partnership with women like Ory Okolloh, who co-created Ushahidi, a Kenyan website that collected and recorded eyewitness reports of violence using text messages and Google Maps. Afterward, Okolloh began working as the Google policy and government relations manager for Africa. Other female leaders in Africa’s ICT growth include Juliana Rotich, co-founder of Ushahidi, and an information technology professional who has developed web tools for crowd-sourcing crisis information, and Dorcas Muthoni, founder of Openworld, a software consulting company.

Many of the applications specifically developed for women are created to boost healthcare, particularly around maternal and newborn health, according to USAID officials. Examples include Mobile Mama, which provides tips/advice for pregnant mothers via voice or text messages, and services that can remotely diagnose remote diseases such as cervical cancer.

Asikana Network created the first online crowdmap tool for women’s tech hubs in Africa in September of 2012. Included in it are applications and groups from across the continent. Egypt’s Harrassmap, for example, is a tool giving women a way to anonymously report incidences of sexual harassment as soon as they happen through using a simple text message from their mobile phone. Kenya’s Akirachix is developing a force of women in technology through networking, mentorship and training. In Uganda, Women in Technology is an initiative that seeks to encourage, inspire and train more women in the tech field through networking, training, mentoring and partnership.

Beyond support groups and applications, there are female-run companies beginning to use technology to seek out economic solutions in Africa. The Ugandan company Solar Sister, for example, is empowering women through solar technology with a woman-centered direct sales network. Program coordinator Evelyn Namara said the female-run company has technology at the core of its business, combining the breakthrough potential of solar technology with a deliberately woman-centered direct sales network, and using tools such as FrontlineSMS to send out bulk texts encouraging women to sell products, creating Google documents to consolidate data and providing inventory management systems to track lanterns in the field.

“Mobile technology can help women be more productive and efficient in whatever work they do by eliminating travel, improving access to markets, having better data/information, etc. This can add to the overall economic growth of a country,” a USAID official said. “The idea is to create sustainable livelihoods for women living in poverty with entry-level jobs for tasks such as transcription, cataloging, and digitization. Workers benefit from dramatically higher and more stable livelihoods, on average doubling their income within six months.  Such jobs bring new income into low-income countries from high-income countries.”

Income increase for women, in particular, is what USAID says will lead to investment in families and communities, and better social outcomes.

Muyoya said the typical jobs she sees women engaging in are marketing and public relations-based positions. However, she said she believes that there are a lot of programming jobs opening up in Zambia centering around companies seeking to migrate from paper based systems to computer based systems. She said her hope is that, during this shift, there will also be a push toward issues of salary and equity within gender being dealt with, as well as the stereotypes surrounding women in IT.

She said she believes that the more women participate, the more their work in technology will be seen in a positive light.

“Women make up majority of the population in Africa,” Muyoya said. “It only makes sense to me that to only allow women to participate in certain activities will limit the growth of my country.”

Editor’s Note: Shanley Knox manages a social enterprise building the capacity of female artisans in rural Uganda. She spends several weeks in southern and central Uganda each year.

Series Schedule: Part 3 of How Communication and Technology are Changing the Faces of Africa will be published on September 18, 2012.

Read Part 1: How Communication and Technology are Changing the Faces of Africa