FIELD BLOG SUBSCRIBE TO RSS
Kenya's Female Entrepreneurs Make Their Digital MarkPosted by: admin on Wed, 2011-11-30 17:22
Kenyan women have been at the forefront of some recent newsworthy ICT innovations such as iCow and M-Farm. Dinfin Mulupi covers their success stories and finds that their entrepreneurship might help open doors for disadvantaged women across Kenya. Read more….
Farmers in Kenya are benefiting from two technological innovations that have earned praise within the international development community. Called iCow and M-Farm, they help small farmers to manage their herds, access market information and connect with agricultural extension services. Both products were also developed by women, who have made their mark in the Kenyan technology sector in recent years.
The iCow is a mobile phone app for cattle farmers created by Su Kahumbu-Stephanou, an organic farmer who was inspired by her own challenges and experiences. Currently used in 27 Kenyan countries, iCow was created initially to help farmers track the fertility cycle of their cows, but it now incorporates other services like helping farmers gain access to veterinary officers and animal feeds. It also collects and stores farmers' milk and breeding records and sends farmers best practices for dairy management. The innovation received first prize in the 2010 Apps4Africa competition sponsored by the U.S. Department of State.
Also enjoying success is the all-female team of Jamila Abass, Linda Kwamboka, and Susan Eve Oguya, co-founders of the market-access tool M-Farm. The SMS and web-based application uses SMS short code 3535 and disseminates agricultural information to farmers. Farmers also use the platform to access real-time price information on different products at different markets and locations. This has eliminated the need for them to go through middlemen to make sales, potentially increasing the farmers' earnings. The co-founders entered the inaugural IPO48 technology competition and walked away with a Ksh. 1 million cash prize.
These are two of many cases of women making a mark in Kenya’s technology sector. Others include Juliana Rotich and Ory Okolloh, co-founders of now-famous Ushahidi, the open source crowdsourcing tool. Others include Judith Owigar, President of AkiraChix, an organization of women professionals and students in the technology field; and Jessica Colaco, developer and manager of the iHub, Nairobi’s technology innovation incubator.
It is thus no wonder that when Forbes released its list this year of 20 most influential young women in Africa, the majority of Kenyan women on the list were from the ICT industry. They included Okolloh, Isis Nyong’o (Managing Director of InMobi Africa) and Olga Kimani-Arara (Google Country Manager Kenya).
What is driving women to ICT?
Women's successes in the ICT sector come amid strong investor interest in Kenyan tech innovators generally, with an increasing number of start-ups receiving funding. Meanwhile, widespread penetration of mobile phones in Kenya and Africa as a whole has created a brisk market for mobile apps and other products and services.
Government efforts to start digital centers across the country also are broadening access to technologies. These "pasha centers" (pasha means "inform" in Swahili) will have between 10 and 20 computers connected to the internet, as well as fax machines and printers, among other equipment. The centers will provide a wide range of electronic services to the community including e-mail, e-learning and e-banking.
Ushahidi Executive Director Juliana Rotich said that women are "hacking the system," in that they are taking advantage of the relatively independent nature of technology access to move into a male-dominated space. Though men still far outnumber women in the sector, a few women are producing high-quality innovations that are attracting venture capitalists' attention.
In mid November, two Kenyan women were honored for their achievements in technology at the 11th Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing (GHC) in Portland, Oregon, U.S. Anne Ikiara , general manager of the NairoBits Digital Design School, won the 2011 Anita Borg Social Impact Award. NairoBits equips youth and women in Nairobi slums with basic technology skills. Another winner was Judith Owigar of Akirachix - an association that inspires and develops women in technology through networking, training and mentoring - who walked away with the 2011 Change Agent Award.
Still a long way to go
As much as Ikiara celebrates the international recognition she has received so far, she is also aware that many Kenyan women are left behind in technological advancement.
“In the field of ICT, I strongly believe that Kenyan women have made significant strides in the last 10 years. However, the majority of women in rural areas and in urban non-formal [sic] settlements are unable to take advantage of the immense opportunities provided by ICTs,” said Ikiara.
“Women don’t have their fair share of engagement with ICT compared to men. The majority of women have yet to take advantage of the immense opportunities provided by technology. If we are not very careful, ICT could end up further marginalizing women if they continue being unable to take advantage of opportunities provided by it,” cautioned Ikiara.
Some of the challenges to participation of women in ICT development include cultural practices, illiteracy and ICT policies that lack a gender focus. Ikiara explained that most percentage of illiterate women and those only speaking local or regional languages face barriers to ICT usage.
“ICT can only be useful and meaningful, particularly to poor Kenyan women, if they provide relevant information and the tools needed to address women’s needs and demands,” said Ikiara.
Very few women are enrolled in training programs for technology-related careers. For example, it is very common for an Information Technology (IT) or Computer Science class of 30 students in Kenyan universities to have only two or three female students. Organizations such as Nairobits and the Africa Centre for Women Information and Communication Technology (ACWICT) have helped improve the situation in the last decade by offering free training in basic computer skills to women and young girls, mostly in rural areas and informal settlements. This has enabled some women to find employment and start businesses.
Groups like the AkiraChix, which aim to inspire and develop a successful force of women in technology, have managed to bring together female technology experts and students to support each other as well as mentor others. Such efforts in networking and training are expected to increase female participation in technology as users, developers and managers. They intend to reach out to more girls in secondary schools in rural areas through mentorship programs and career talks. This, organizers say, is the first step in increasing the number of women who use and develop new technologies.
Focusing on particular ICT needs of women
Ikiara recommends a gender-aware participatory method to assess the ICT needs and demands of women, especially in the rural areas, before programs are packaged.
“There are numerous potential uses and areas where ICTs could contribute to poverty reduction and improved economic opportunities. However, it is important to realize that women have very different uses for technology and as such programs should then be developed that help women to use technology that they feel comfortable using,” said Ikiara.
Kahumbu-Stephanou warned that one of the problems in the area of gender sensitivity is the tendency to feel that women are always the underdogs and should thus be treated differently in every sector, at all levels. This can create problems and even excuses for poor product delivery, she noted.
“We run the risk of celebrating the mediocre based on the fact that it was produced by a woman. In my opinion this does not do women any favors either. My feeling is women must just make it happen for themselves. As long as there is no discrimination in the ICT learning space, we have no excuse and should not expect any favors because we are women,” said Kahumbu-Stephanou.
is a business journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya. She is currently the
East Africa corresp for an online business paper based in Cape Town in
Picture Courtesy: Marc Steinlin_Flickr