Known as the Silicon Savannah, Kenya is celebrated for its use of technology to tackle world problems. Women-led startups like fintech company FarmDrive, edtech app Eneza and booking platform BuuPass are finding creative ways to meet market needs and solve community problems. Much of the hype around Kenya’s tech community has been concentrated on the capital of Nairobi. But tech innovation goes beyond Kenya’s capital, and many women are leading it.
We travelled outside of Nairobi to meet a few of the women using tech for empowerment.
The Mentor – Ruth Kaveke
Growing up in Isibanya, a rural village bordering Tanzania, Ruth Kaveke, 28, had limited access to computers. In high school, computer classes led her to develop an interest in technology. A few years later, she was one of six girls in her computer science program at university, and encountered hurdles in this male-dominated field. Ruth knew she had to carve out more space for people like her in the tech sector, and founded Pwani Teknowgalz in 2015 to provide skills training for adolescent girls in Kenya’s coastal region.
“As a child, the only place I had access to a computer was at a local cyber cafe. In high school, I chose computer classes and my peers wondered how long I would last because many other girls dropped out. But it was my favorite subject. I ended up studying computer science at university. I was shocked to find that I was one of six girls in my program. One of the other girls, Aisha Abubakar, became my co-founder at Pwani Teknowgalz.
I had several internships and the first time I shared my work — a website — with my supervisor, she was shocked, asking whether I did it myself. Even the men I worked alongside thought someone else did it for me. Eventually, my supervisor became excited about my work and I was given more responsibility.
The men I worked alongside thought someone else did [my work] for me.
After the internship, I went back to university and reflected on my experience. I could code, but was still viewed skeptically by others. I thought it would be better if younger girls were exposed to ICT and digital skills earlier in life. I shared my idea with the other girls in my program and they were excited. We shared it on social media and the response was positive, so we started training girls in two high schools in Mombasa.
We started to notice some gaps in tech education. For example, although we learned web development in class, we were not learning enough for the job market. Pwani Teknowgalz is trying to fill this gap. Our students, who are high school graduates, learn computer essentials, web development, digital marketing and python programming [a computer programming language].
Since our launch in 2015, we’ve trained over 2,500 girls. Some parents have even brought their boys for training. Many of our students struggle financially, so my hope is that they can use the skills they’ve gained from Pwani Teknowgalz to sustain themselves, support their families, and also give back.”
The Community Leader – Dorcas Owino
In Kenya’s lakeside city, Kisumu, Dorcas Owino, 28, leads the technology and social innovation organization LakeHub, which supports a community of creatives, programmers and entrepreneurs, the majority of whom are girls aged 13 to 19. She has been recognized by Forbes Africa 30 Under 30 2019 and under Dorcas’ leadership, several LakeHub students have competed globally at hackathons.
“LakeHub was the first techhub in Kisumu. The reception has been really good, because for the first-time access to entrepreneurship and technology opportunities were decentralized and people did not have to travel all the way to Nairobi to get these opportunities.
We run women-in-tech programs and an annual three-month initiative where we work with girls in high schools, teaching them how to use technology to solve problems around them. We have done this for three years now and one of the succesful innovations as a result of this is iCut, an app that connects girls affected by female genital mutilation or cutting (FGM/C) with legal and medical assistance.
I work with young people, and love that I get a front-row seat to see their lives transformed.
Although LakeHub has made major strides to help close the gender gap in technology, we still have challenges— one of them being the education system. Women might be interested in tech, but in high school they miss out on important subjects that are needed to take tech courses in university. This is why we have a high-school program, and we have also tried to solve this by running LakeHub Academy, a coding bootcamp.
Everything about LakeHub is interesting; it never feels like work. I love that I have a great degree of control and freedom within my job, which gives me a chance to keep innovating. Also, I work with young people, and love that I get a front-row seat to see their lives transformed.”
The Thought Leader – Nanjira Sambuli
Nanjira Sambuli, 31, works at the intersection of policy and technology, leading the Web Foundation’s efforts to promote digital equality in access to and use of the web around the world. She hones in on Kenya, giving us her perspective on women’s engagement with technology across the country.
“Anecdotal evidence indicates that Kenyan women are claiming their space in the local and even international tech domains, but official statistics are lacking, which makes it harder to speak authoritatively on how Kenya fares compared to other countries.
One space that shows the transformational potential of tech use by women is social media. It’s beautiful to watch women claim spaces for engagement, for discussing issues affecting women, specifically, and even for organizing. The evergreen issue of the two-thirds “gender rule” — on which the government continues to fall short — is frequently debated on social media, stirring the public conscience. [Editor’s note: According to Kenya’s constitution, no more than two-thirds of the members of elective bodies should be of the same gender. But women’s representation currently stands at 21% compared to the target 33%, and continues to be a polarizing topic in Kenyan politics.]
It’s beautiful to watch women claim spaces for engagement, for discussing issues affecting women, specifically, and even for organizing.
It’s such an exciting perch-point to assess societies’ pasts, presents and futures, and how technologies will affect these. I engage with actors from all sectors (private, public, civil society) with all kinds of backgrounds to shape rules of engagement towards ensuring that we achieve equity and equality in this digital age. Every day brings an opportunity to learn and unlearn, and challenges the notion of who is an expert, or who gets to shape the rules going forward.”
These interviews have been condensed and lightly edited.