Women challenge male domination in African tech

Women constitute only 30% of professionals in Africa’s tech industry, but a number of programmes are preparing female students to assume their rightful place at the heights of the new economy.

Image : Jono Erasmus/Shutterstock.com

She Code Africa was founded in 2016 after Ada Nduka Oyom graduated with a degree in microbiology from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. As an undergraduate, she steered two campus tech communities. Now, she leads Google’s developer community programme for sub-Saharan Africa. 

All of this, she says, is a testament to her passion for building strong, sustainable communities. “It just ties down to me wanting to build a proper community because I know how much of an input communities have played in my growth in tech,” she explains. 

The gender disparity issue is global but the problem is particularly pronounced in Africa. According to Project Syndicate, in sub-Saharan Africa the overall female labour-force participation rate has reached 61%, yet women constitute only 30% of professionals in the tech industry. 

She Code Africa started by showcasing and celebrating women in African tech and then moved to training those starting out. Oyom explains that this pivot was necessitated by the requests they kept getting. 

“It should not be about celebrating the stories alone but also about providing resources to upcoming women. It is one thing to inspire these women to come into tech and it is another to provide them with requisite skills. Many companies almost do not do anything to help but spotlight the women in their company on International Women’s Day.”

“We have gone beyond what the average tech community for women does, which is just to randomly host one or two events, but go the extra mile to create a safe space for women and to provide them with resources. Being able to mitigate these issues puts us ahead of our peers and makes more women want to be a part of our community and that shows our impact.”

She Code Africa is one of several enterprises that directly provide resources and skills to women hoping to break into tech. Zuri, co-founded by Seyi Onifade, uses Zoom, YouTube and recorded videos to help women develop in technology and rise through the ranks of companies. The organisation links students to mentors and uses a learning management system to assign and grade students’ assignments.

Haneefah Abdurrahman Lekki, the programme coordinator at Ingressive for Good, which offers micro-scholarships, training and talent placement, helps to manage a community of over 15,000 members. Activities include monthly webinars, hackathons, hackfests and events designed for women.  

“Businesses complain about the absence of quality technical talents in Africa and we are working to fix that. My goal is to build the number-one most engaged tech community in Africa,” she says. 

‘Learning to escape a hard job’ 

Olabisi Animashaun, 25, majored in English Literature at university and once worked as an administrative secretary and receptionist at an entertainment company in Lagos. Searching for something “new and meaningful”, she quit her job and set her sights on a career in tech. 

“I’ve always been fascinated by apps and how they always seem to meet users’ needs, so after quitting, I decided to pursue it. I started learning for a while on my own by taking up some courses and watching tutorial videos on YouTube until I saw the opportunity on the Ingressive for Good Instagram page.” 

She later moved to Zuri where she received three months of training, including a project phase where students were grouped into teams and given a project to design within five weeks. Her team worked on a medical aid app and gave two presentations at the end of training. 

“I learned a lot while training, especially during the project phase. Working with others, giving pitch-like presentations, meeting deadlines, reiterating upon feedback, etc. It was challenging but fun. It made the whole effort worthwhile. Like I was finally doing things that meet people’s needs,” says Animashaun, who hopes to upskill to front-end development. 

Challenges 

One of the main impediments facing these organisations is funding. Oyom says that being able to get funds to train more women across Africa is increasingly difficult given the numbers of women who would like to join the programme and boost their skills. Every day, She Code Africa receives requests from 200 to 300 women who wish to join the community. 

“One challenge is location. Being in Africa means we have to put in two times the required work to get funding compared to our colleagues in Europe.”

And when they do get the funding or an indication of interest in donating, they can face payment issues such as problems with intra-Africa money transfers.  

“The first challenge would be funding and being able to get key partners and licences. There are thousands of interested women but sometimes there is a lot of work in hand. We have a lot of women graduating but I really hope we can increase that,” says Lekki.

Funding and sourcing programme mentors

Oyom funded the activities of She Code Africa out of pocket before the upscaling of the organisation required links to established sponsors. Some of their programmes have specific sponsors and they also receive funding from general donations. 

She Code Africa mentors who are already established in their field help to source financing, as does their ever-growing alumni network. 

“Everyone involved with SCA is a volunteer. The mentors are professionals and for some programmes we get sponsors to compensate the mentors. Others are our alumni from two or three programmes before.”

Zuri practices a similar system; their tutors and mentors are a mix of volunteers and people they employ on contract and pay. 

“Even those that volunteer, we still give them some money just to help them with getting data. But we get a lot of people willing to volunteer because people have gone through the programme, seen the effects and are always willing to help others,” says  Onifade. 

Next steps

One of the most important functions of the programme is providing the basic resources that talented techies need to establish themselves. Women who attend the programmes enjoy access to stipends, data bandwidth and gadgets to enhance their learning. 

“We say the first 50 people to finish this particular task would get a data subscription for the rest of the month. Or sometimes when we ask them to present, we award the best teams,” Onifade says, explaining the reward system they have put in place. 

A Zuri platform called FundMyLaptop helps struggling students with laptop requests. Sometimes they provide full funding and at other times, they help students to share donation links with their friends and family. The road can be long and expensive, but the payoff can be huge for successful students.  

“We have been able to train thousands of people across Africa, especially women. Based on our records, people that actually complete the programme get a new job or get promoted at their current job within six months of completion,” Onifade says. Zuri helps to touch up CVs and provides career counselling throughout the process. 

She Code Africa places its top-performing students with pre-arranged internships at the companies. 

“We call them our hiring partners. There is a job page on our community’s website and we have an opportunity newsletter which we specifically send to our alumni,” says Oyom. 

While developing and training tech talent is far from a quick and easy process, the result is a tech sector gradually becoming as diverse, representative and exciting as Africa itself.

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