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Are African Female Techpreneurs Lagging Behind?

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On February 8, I saw a tweet from the Nigerian Federal Ministry of Communication Technology asking tweeps to check out its recently launched and newly revamped website. I followed the link to review its changes and one thing in particular stood out to me. On the front page of the site, there were several pictures, and I noticed that the pictures on the website predominately featured men. One of the pictures in particular highlights the Minster's support of one of Nigeria's leading technology hubs, the Co-creation hub, an organization supporting young Nigerian techpreneurs and software developers. This picture also features mostly men. I am left with the question: where are Africa's female techpreneurs? And what can be done to increase their participation in the tech space? In response to this observation, I tweeted back almost immediately to the Ministry, "@ngrcommtech I like the new website... now let's get more women and girls disrupting the tech space in Nigeria -- mostly men in that #cchub pic." I visited the website of other African tech hubs and notice a similar trend -- where are the women?

The Co-Creation Hub is not the only techspace with this problem. Organizations like the FATE Institute for Venture Design (IVD) also struggle with recruiting female techpreneurs. In 2011, the FATE IVD recruited its first class and out of the 16 fellows, 15 were men. In the summer of 2012, the MIT AITI program worked on a project with the University of Lagos in Nigeria and of the 53 participants, only eight students were female. In Ghana, of the 42 program participants, only eight students were female. Similar trends can be found among tech hubs throughout Africa: Activspaces in Cameroon, KLab in Rwanda, or Ihub in Kenya. In thinking about solutions, how do we ensure that African women and girls are included in conversations about Africa's technological innovation and development?

UNESCO reports that African women constitute 29 percent of researchers in science and technology in Africa, and more must be done to increase gender equity, equality and empowerment to ensure an integrated, developed and prosperous continent. The number of women who pursue science and engineering programs in higher education institutions are indeed fewer than men. Last year, I met Nigeria's first Minister of Communication Technology, Honorable Omobola Johnson at the 18th World Congress on Information Technology in Montreal. In addition to discussing Nigeria's progress in the ICT sector on a global platform, the minister also attended presentations by theWorld Summit Youth Award program where young techpreneurs were recognized for using the internet and mobiles to put the United Nations Millennium Development Goals into Action. In my discussion with the Minister and her Special Assistants, I stressed why gender inclusion was important as she thought about various ICT initiatives -- particularly why mentoring and empowerment programs are crucial to creating a solid pipeline and ecosystem of African women and girl techpreneurs.

Indeed, certain cultural norms have shaped biased institutional strongholds that will take time to change, but women and girls cannot continue to put their success or lives on hold. Early this year while in Lagos, I had dinner with one of Nigeria's well-known young techpreneurs, Nkemdilim Uwaje, CEO at Futuresoft Nigeria. In our conversation, I asked her what it's like being a young African female techpreneur, and she said that, "when it comes to ICT I don't do the gender thing to be honest, there are just not enough Africans in the tech pipeline. The IT literacy rates here are so low across board that gender does not make much difference. We need better qualified IT people regardless of gender." While she spots no particular gender difference, she mentioned that her father started her business. She said, "My dad started the business in 1999. He always told me that it was my company, so when I was ready to start my own business in 2008, I inherited it." Nwaje's father served as her role model and mentor into a male-dominated industry.

Nwaje gives back by mentoring girls at the Women's Technology Empowerment Centre (W-TEC), a non-profit based in Nigeria working to encourage Nigerian women to use technology to empower themselves. She says, "I do career talks for girls regarding ICT at the WTEC summer camp every year. So that girls can understand that ICT is a good career, but I also do the same at universities and both male and female students need that, as their exposure to ICT is very, very limited."

Lagos-based ICT consultant, John Ajah talks about his college experience. He said "I studied engineering in university and in a class of 85 we had seven ladies, and five of the ladies were in the top 15 percent of the class. So imagine the possibilities of women and girls, when in a predominantly male class we've got ladies leading the show. It will be good to see more ladies interested in tech and getting involved at an early age, because it takes time and commitment to build a career in this line."

In the past five years, many institutions and hubs throughout Africa have been established to facilitate technological innovation and development but many of these institutions and hubs should do more to increase the participation of women and girl techpreneurs. These institutions and hubs have a responsibility because they have a platform that attracts various types of resources and stakeholders such as investors, and government officials. Funders should also ensure that hubs strategically work to increase the participation of women and girls through marketing, extensive grassroots outreach and empowerment programs. They could also foster partnerships and collaborative efforts with entrepreneurs, non-profits, policymakers, and educational institutions to come up with strategies that may increase the participation of women and girl techpreneurs. Mentorship will also be effective in helping female techpreneurs understand entrepreneurial opportunities available in the ICT sector.

Individually, African women are pushing the envelope in how business is done in Africa using technology as an effective tool and platform for change but collectively and collaboratively, more needs to be done. Many of these institutions and technological hubs ought to look ten years ahead and as they engage the next group of fellows or tech innovators they ought to be inclusive and help facilitate a solid pipeline and eco-system of African women techpreneurs. Women like Nkem Uwaje, Dorothy Gordon, Omobola Johnson, Ory Okolloh, Oreoluwa Somolu are doing their bit but more needs to be done. More collaborative platforms need to be created to mentor and empower the next generation of African women and girls tech innovators and entrepreneurs especially as these newly created institutions and technological hubs promote, create, develop and enable innovation in Africa using technology -- let us be sure to increase the participation and include the voices of African women and girls.

Join Mary Olushoga in further conversation on women at the 57th Session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women which is being held Monday, March 4, 2013, 8:30 AM, Guild Hall, Armenian Convention Center, 630 2nd Avenue, NY, NY, 10016

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