Kenya’s Awesome Women Tech Trailblazers
While attending university in Kenya, Susan Oguya was one of ten women studying computer science in a department of 80 — almost the same ratio of women to men in the same kind of class at Stanford University, says NPR. Oguya, who was raised on a farm in western Kenya without a computer, is now a computer programmer and a member of Akirachix, a collective of women who are computer programmers who are using their skills to make a very big difference
As Akirachix‘s president, Judith Owigar, tells NPR, the group is inspired by the cult Japanese film Akira: “So akira is a Japanese word. It means energy and intelligence. And we are energetic and intelligent chicks.”
The members of Akirachix are using their skills to foster small and key changes in people’s lives in concrete ways. Oguya has created a mobile phone app that allows farmers (including her relatives) to check crop prices via text messages, thereby skipping the “corrupt middlemen,” as she says. It’s an innovation that decentralizes knowledge and therefore control by connecting those who produce goods with market prices for those goods.
Most Kenyans have mobile phones but not landlines because, for years, the country was “too poor to lay copper telephone wire in the ground,” says NPR. While growing up, Oguya’s household had no computer but she was able to learn about the ROM, RAM and more from books her uncle, who worked in Nairobi, left. When home for the holidays, he would bring his monitor, CPU, keyboard and mouse and set it all up in her family’s living room.
Oguya still faced plenty of obstacles when studying computer science at the university in Naitobi. Her teachers didn’t think she could program the app for crop prices she had in mind. A chance meeting with a computer researcher, Jessica Colaco, in the university hallway led to her joining other women who were learning to code. Akirachix arose from these meetings and Oguya, after graduating, turned her app into her own company, M-Farm, which has a staff of 18. The app is used by 7,000 farmers.
Other apps created by Akirachix members include one that brings help to learn math and reading to village schools. Akirachix has also received a grant for mobile social networking and created an open source project for Computer Aid International, MagMe, for visual accessibility. The group also holds workshops for teenage girls in Nairobi.
By fostering a next generation of IT workers, Akirachix is playing an important role in the Kenyan government’s push to become a middle class country by 2030. Technology plays a big part in this plan: the government has laid hundreds of miles of fiber optic cables and a $7 billion technology hub is planned for outside Nairobi.
What really stood out to me in reading about Oguya and Akirachix is that their comments about the struggles of Kenyan women in the tech industry do not sound too different from what you hear about women in the U.S., where computers have become ubiquitous. For all that, women remain underrepresented in IT and there’s a real need to encourage more girls to enter the STEM industries and guide them into studying computer science and engineering. For all of us, the Akirachix’s stories are great inspiration — and something to learn from.
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