How Tanzania is betting on coding to help close the gender gap in its tech sector

Teenagers coding at the Apps & Girls offices in Dar es Salaam.
Teenagers coding at the Apps & Girls offices in Dar es Salaam.

Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

Every Saturday morning Hyasinta Luhanga, 18, squeezes into a room in the Majumba Sita neighborhoodnear Dar es Salaam’s international airport with more than two dozen girls. They’re there to learn how to code.

Luhanga is a participant in a program by social enterprise Apps & Girls, which aims to train future female programmers, and in doing so, hopefully close the gender gap in the nation’s technology industry. Even though almost equal (pdf) numbers of women and men enroll for science and technology courses in Tanzania, the unemployment rate of women in the field is more than twice that of men, recent research by the government shows.

This mimics global trends. Even nations that have dramatically closed gender gaps in education and labor force participation have struggled (pdf) to increase women’s participation in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields. For instance, women hold about 26% of computer and mathematical jobs in the US, slightly below the level in 1960. For a country like Tanzania, which has a promising, budding tech industry, solving this problem could be vital to its future.

Luhanga first joined the coding classes through an after-school club activity organized by A&G at her secondary school. With a keen interest in math and science, and ambitions to own her own start-up, she figured the program was a great way to pursue a career in the tech sector. With no computer at home, she now goes to the center every evening to practice, workshop ideas, review data, and design with three other teammates.

The teenage girls who participate in Apps & Girls come from all over Dar and are from various socioeconomic backgrounds. Since its launch in 2013, A&G has taught more than 1,900 girls web programming and how to build smartphone apps. Since the organization also acts as an incubator, participants are mentored on how to create a business plan and how to pitch to potential partners. They are also connected to possible funding and employment opportunities.

Brainstorming session

Coding has become the new lingua franca of the digital age, taught by schools and non-profit organizations across the world. These efforts have been magnified as automation and artificial intelligence look to dramatically change the nature of jobs. In Africa, where there’s a new discussion over how to create meaningful, large-scale employment for its fast-growing, young population, coding is increasingly seen as an important skill to have.

For girls and women in Africa, who face exploitation, lower job security, and are largely excluded from the formal sector, coding offers them a promising way into a nascent industry. Female-focused coding programs have sprung up across Africa: from Botswana (The Clicking Generation), Madagascar (Django Girls), Cameroon (Genius Centers), to South Africa (Girlhype), Rwanda (Digital Opportunity Trust), and Kenya (Moringa School). In Tanzania, programs like She Codes for ChangeBuni DivazBRAC, and TechChix have launched over the years.

Yet the buzz over coding programs in Tanzania—and in many African countries—belies some of the infrastructural and labor issues facing the female populace. For over a decade, Tanzania has sustained a relatively high economic growth of 6 to 7% a year, according to the World Bank. Yet high population growth and increasing urbanization have left 12 million Tanzanians living in extreme poverty, even as 800,000 young people enter the labor force annually.

Gender disparities persist too, with women accounting for the highest proportion of people who have never attended school at all, according to the Tanzania National Bureau of Statistics. Women were also least likely to be employed in the formal economy, whether in the public or private sectors.

Tanzania’s tech ecosystem isn’t as advanced as in KenyaNigeria, or South Africa. The East African nation has just one tech hub, Buni, and the internet penetration among its 54 million people stands at a paltry 13% as of 2016.

Many organizations like Apps & Girls face shortage of funding for both equipment and space

An optimistic view, one held by Apps & Girls founder Carolyne Ekyarisiima, is that these deficiencies could act as a catalyst. Big cities like Dar, Mwanza, or Dodoma have a lot of needs, and innovators could help create accessible solutions in sectors as diverse as water and energy supply, healthcare, and waste management, says Ekyarisiima. For young girls, learning to code early can also help develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills, as well as confidence.

“We believe that if women or girls have those digital skills then they stand [a] bigger chance of being independent and having their voice being heard,” Ekyarisiima said.

Elham Mohamed, 18, takes two buses every day across the traffic-clogged streets of Dar to reach A&G’s offices. The coding classes, she said, gave her “a chance to change” and “question every aspect of my life.” Many girls her age, she lamented, “live as if the internet doesn’t exist.” Teaching young girls to code, she adds, can help them challenge traditional gender roles and make some parents even reassess whether marriage is a girl’s best option.

Structural challenges

To help boost the overall tech sector, the Tanzania Commission for Science and Technology (COSTECH) has been researching how to create incentives for invention and innovation for both enthusiasts and financiers. Besides its advisory role, the commission also hosts the Buni Hub in its offices. The space has helped kickstart some of the country’s top start-ups, including e-book distribution service HadithiApp and school management system ScholarDream.

Hyasinta Luhinga, 18, at the Girls Entrepreneurship Summit in Dar es Salaam

Magreth Mushi, who works with the commission’s research arm, says this direct engagement with developers can help address some of the structural problems facing girls in tech. The shortage of women in technology, she said, isn’t about lack of talent but about the plethora of factors that discourage them at home, at school, and in the workplace. One way to address this: Increasing connectivity and digital literacy. Mushi is also a board member of the Get More Active Girls in Computing (GetMAGIC), a global non-profit that exposes middle and high school girls to various STEM disciplines.

“The way it’s advertised, the internet is all about social media,” she said. Many people don’t see the internet “as a powerful tool that can bring change in the community.”

Apps & Girls’ protégés have been able to skirt some of these challenges, designing platforms that enable students to borrow and buy books at affordable prices, report sexual harassment on public transportation, and receive health and social education. Their work has been nominated for prestigious awards like the Anzisha Prize for young entrepreneurs.

Ekyarisiima says that to replicate this success effectively in and out of urban centers, they will need more funding. The organization currently lacks funding for both equipment and space, and the schools they work with cannot provide them with as many computers as they need.

Before expanding, they also want to standardize their coding curriculum and translate it from English to Swahili. A&G is currently working with the University of New Hampshire’s Center for Social Innovation and Enterprise to improve their business strategy and tap more sources of funding. Eventually, the UNH support is set to help A&G scale up the program to reach thousands across Africa by franchising its coding modules.

Carolyne Ekyarisiima inspecting the mobile app developed by one of the young coders at the Entrepreneurship Summit.

‘Yes we can’

Last November, Luhanga joined almost 40 girls at the National Central Library in downtown Dar es Salaam, as part of the Global Entrepreneurship Summit. The participants came from 10 secondary schools to present their ideas and compete for whose idea was most innovative, and with the most potential for social impact.

The two-day event was a vivid display of the culmination of months of preparation. Decked in their school uniforms, young girls tested apps on their phones, tweaked their ideas, and polished their presentations. Mentors, diplomats, and government officials arrived, and during an interlude, the students all got up and sang Nas’s “I Know I Can.”

At the event, Luhanga and her teammates proposed an app which would link households experiencing water shortageswith vendors willing to supply them at any given time. During brainstorming sessions in the lead up to the competition, the girls had discussed how they would go about enlisting vendors and clients if they should demand clearance certificates from suppliers for safety reasons, and how much they should charge.

To their dismay, Luhanga’s team was not one of the top three winners. Noting their disappointment, Ekyarisiima told the girls it was important to be cognizant of their learning curve and put more effort into their projects. “We need to keep believing in what we really want to do,” she told the girls.

Afterwards, a teary-eyed Luhanga said she wasn’t happy with how things worked out. She wanted to win to prove to friends and family why the coding classes were crucial in her life.

However, she described how the meet-ups with hercoding group reminded her that technology was an enabler and that coding, coupled with hard work and passion, could help her lead a better life. “You can really grow your mind with coding,” she said. “I love it.”

This story was funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation through the Innovation in Development Reporting grants’ program, a media-funding project operated by the European Journalism Center. 

Article originally appeared here

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