Mycomputerscience class in secondary school was largely spent on social media sites (e.g., Facebook, MySpace, Hi5, etc.). However, I spent very little time learning how to code or other similar skills that could have been valuable to my classmates and myself. In the same vein, the use of technology and technology education across Africa is, to a large extent, still at its infancy. A study conducted by AT Kearney has shown that the mobile phone ecosystem in Africa has provided more than five million jobs and generated close to US$15 billion in government revenue in 2011 . It is therefore extremely likely that technology will play an important role in Africa realizing its potential.
In the evolution of many industries, the parties that come in early and develop a vested interest in becoming key players tend to be the movers and shakers down the line. A lot of technology in Africa today is male dominated but, given that the industry is so young, there is a ripe opportunity for women to jump in and claim their stake. The current status presents an opportunity for African women to break into an industry that is in its beginning stages and to become a part of the building and development process. Participating in this way will make it excruciatingly harder, if not impossible, to exclude women years further down the line.
From a development perspective, this means it is imperative to begin exposing young girls to careers in technology and teaching them practical skills such as coding and building core competencies and skills in technology development, especially mobile technology. In 2013, the penetration rate of mobile phones in Africa (as measured by unique subscribers) was estimated to be 36%, with mobile phones reading 311 million in Africa; that number is projected to reach 504 million (49%) by the year 2020 .
Currently, many African women are using technology to share information, express themselves on social media and, more generally, learn about the world around them; making them technology consumers. However, the key to unlocking the potential of the next generation of African business leaders in the technology space will be to shift their focus from considering themselves as consumers, to encouraging them to view themselves as producers and creators of technology. This is why we must empower our young girls with the skills needed to participate in this growth cycle and contribute to the development of Africa’s technology ecosystem.
Women invest up to 90% of their earnings in their families as compared to men who invest just 30% to 40% of their earnings . Advancing women entrepreneurs is a strategic approach to building stronger communities, more stable societies and sustainable economies. African women creating technology promises to be very useful to the future of Africa because they will not only build technology that impacts Africa, they are more likely to build technology that improves the lives of other women in Africa, which tends to have a downstream effect on the overall economy. The creation of relevant technology that solves problems is where the most impact will be felt.
There are three key things African countries, technology companies, nonprofits and philanthropies that are interested in change need to do in order to facilitate a technological climate where women can lead:
1. Provide Education. Current education systems have technology as a subject that students can opt in or out of. In my experiences, many girls gravitate towards other subjects, with the mindset that technology is for boys. To combat this, the government can step in and mandate technology education for all students. This will ensure that girls are at least getting exposure to technology in the classroom. Also, African schools need to shift their model from relying solely on theory/knowledge based learning to more practical skills training. While knowledge-based learning is important, practical skills training will shift perspectives and enable girls to attain hard skills from an early age.
2. Provide Access. To empower girls with these skills, access to computers and mobile devices are important. This is where technology firms in the computer manufacturing sector like Apple, Dell and Lenovo come in. Technology companies interested in being part of this movement can aid by providing computers either for free or at affordable rates to governments, schools and non-profits interested in empowering girls and women in the technology space. Many computer manufacturers already donate to a number of different causes; this specific cause will be one that reaps long-term benefits for both parties: technology manufacturers invest in girls now, thereby helping the African economy by providing higher skilled human capital while simultaneously beginning their expansion and dominance in Africa. Given Africa’s emerging middle class, technology companies need to keep an eye on the continent and begin developing their presence. The ability to connect on the Internet is the second layer of access. Companies like Facebook have begun tackling the issue of providing access to the Internet by partnering with local mobile providers to offer free basic Internet services in different countries across the continent. However, in order to get past the tipping point, we need to scale up and get more tech companies to join in the mission.
3. Provide a support system. Part of the exclusion of women and girls in technology today is societal norms that portray technology as a field for men. As a society, we need to rethink this stereotype and make a conscious effort to push women and girls into the field. Technology companies, governments, non-profits and philanthropies can also participate in providing a support system by sponsoring and hosting technology events like Hackathons. Hackathons (also known as “Hackfests”) are events in which computer programmers and others involved in software development come together and collaborate on projects. These events tend to be a day or two, at the end of which, participants pitch their ideas in hopes of winning prize money. Events of this nature will create an excellent atmosphere for women and girls to get hands on experience of coming up with, and executing on, an idea within a short time frame. Hackathons also promise to refine presentations skills and will help female technologists and aspirants develop a network and create a support system amongst them.
Technology promises to be a key industry in the development of Africa and beyond. By investing today in technology education and providing African girls with the tools and support they need, we will ensure African women are well represented in the technology sector for years to come and that their impact will be felt on a large scale through their innovations.
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