How women in east Africa are reshaping tech

Women in east Africa are determining their own tech destinies.
Women in east Africa are determining their own tech destinies.
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When law professor Douglas Branson published the book The Future of Tech is Female in 2018, he must have imagined that the global tech industry would soon be led by women.

Four years later, that future is evident in east Africa. For a long time, men dominated all senior and c-suite tech roles in the region. But as more women gained opportunities and skills, they’ve not only joined the tech industry in droves—in 2019, women made up 30% of people in tech in sub-Saharan Africa—they’re increasingly sitting in positions of power, creating tech products and services that impact more people.

Their impact on the sector has been hard to ignore. In Kenya, women-led medium-sized enterprises accounted for 48% of such businesses in 2021, which contribute around 20% to the country’s GDP.

Through leadership of local and Silicon Valley companies, women are brushing aside hurdles in tech. Meanwhile, organizations in every east African nation have popped up to mentor and train more girls who are becoming the next generation of startup founders.

Women are finally able to lead

A decade ago, most of the top tech jobs in east Africa were held by men. Now a series of new appointments is changing the narrative that women cannot handle complex technologies. 

Last week, Microsoft Africa Development Centre (ADC), Microsoft’s engineering hub in Nairobi with up to 1,000 employees, appointed Catherine Muraga as the new managing director. She was previously the head of engineering at Stanbic Bank Kenya.

“The future (of women in tech) is promising; we have seen more women taking up leadership roles in technology departments. The growth might be slow, but it is happening,” she told Quartz.

Rosemary Kimwatu, the former public policy manager at mobile network operator Safaricom, landed the role of data protection officer at KCB Bank Group, east Africa’s biggest bank by assets. She is joining an industry led by Immaculate Kassait, named Kenya’s first data commissioner in 2020, in a period of growing global data privacy concerns. 

On June 6, Meta hired Kendi Ntwiga, formerly Microsoft’s country lead for Kenya, as its new global head of misrepresentation where she will work to scale Meta’s enforcement of community standards. She has been recognized as an emerging leader in innovation and entrepreneurship by TechWomen, an initiative from the US state department.

Faith Gitonga has spent two years as the Kenya country director at African payments company Cellulant, as has Caroline Mukiira, IBM’s east Africa general manager.

“It’s great to see more women employed in product development and innovation roles at technology companies,” Uganda-based Faith Mugambwa, fintech company Network International’s east Africa managing director, told Quartz.“I would like to see more female voices involved at key decision-making levels to increase advocacy for other women.”

The next generation of female tech leaders

Women in tech, education, government, and nonprofit sectors are coming up with creative ways to show girls and other women that a career in tech can be right for them.

A number of programs are teaching girls the hard skills to make it in tech. Women in Technology Uganda (Witu) has brought together women and girls in innovation, equipping them with the skills needed for the future economy. Over 75% of its more than 8,000 alumnae “start their own businesses or land digital jobs,” according to Witu’s web site. Tunga Hub also offers courses and skills-based training. In Nairobi, the AkiraChix coding course has taught more than 10,000 east African women how to code.

Pitch competitions can be another way to get people started in tech. In Rwanda’s Miss Geek Rwanda competition, young women pitch their tech ideas to government representatives. Girls in ICT Rwanda is encouraging school-age girls, even those in remote areas, to develop innovative tech or business ideas that can develop into practical solutions.

As part of the Africa Code Week, Burundi’s BiHub initiative holds the Miss Tech Burundi competition, where women trained in design thinking and app development face off with their ideas.

To succeed in tech, women also need to get to know one another. The Women Tech Network offers mentoring and networking opportunities in 172 countries worldwide, including Rwanda and Kenya.

Women in Tech Africa is an organization for a number of African nations including Tanzanian and Kenyan women under the general tech umbrella and seeks to “rais[e] today’s female leaders and role models for the next generation,” according to its web site.

In 2020, an initiative launched to bring together women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) from the DRC into a network to deconstruct stereotypes about women and science. Other hubs for girls in tech include Apps & Girls for schoolgirls, Vodacom’s Code like a Girl initiative, and TechChix, which seeks to bridge the gender gap in tech.

Individuals have also taken it upon themselves to educate and inspire girls. In Kenya, Linda Bonyo, Evelyn Ngatia and Audrey Cheng have set examples for schoolgirls who want to build the future by founding Lawyers’ Hub Africa, Techawatt, and Moringa School respectively.

Tanzanian auditor and blockchain trainer Sandra Chogo gained much adoration in the region last year when she wrote the first ever book that breaks down the applicable uses of blockchain technology in Swahili, a language of over 200 million speakers in Africa. She spends most of her time telling other Tanzanians about blockchain, fintech, and AI in forums.

“We recognize the things that hinder women students from succeeding…financial barriers, gender roles and not feeling believed in, a lack of encouragement to move into technology…and we want to break down as many of those barriers as possible,” says Nairobi-based Linda Kamau, founder of AkiraChix.

In DRC, engineer Therese Kirongozi has been hailed across Africa for creating traffic safety robots that have reduced road accidents. “If we look at the evolution of the world today, the revolution of artificial intelligence, we are pushing more young girls to follow suit more at the university level…because we have found that the future of mankind rests on this kind of option,” she told Sisi Afrika.

Work to do

Though women have made a lot of progress in tech, there’s still work to be done. Mugambwa, the Ugandan fintech managing director, says women still need help to make their way into leadership roles and board positions—their appointment shouldn’t happen as a result of tokenism.

“I would like to see more mentorship and coaching opportunities to help aspiring women in tech tackle any doubt they might have about their abilities or ambitions in tech,” she told Quartz.

“There is still a financial challenge, with women facing more challenges to access funding or capital for tech businesses as well as the continued gender pay gap.”