From Prototype to Product: Women Leveraging Tech in East Africa

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Meet a group of inspiring women who are expanding the horizons of technology and entrepreneurship in East Africa. 

By Sachi DeCou (Co-founder, Juabar Design)

There is a hum of excitement in the air as you walk into the room. Young people are busy building models with legos, learning basic programming and showing off the robots they’ve created during their weeks of robotics workshops at the KINU in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. This was the final day of the first session of workshops designed to give a hands-on experience with technology to youth in Tanzania. The project is the brainchild of Catherinerose (CR) Barretto, co-founder of the KINU and one of many inspiring women expanding the horizons of technology and entrepreneurship here in East Africa.

In Nairobi, Kenya Juliette Wanyiri, a young electrical engineer and member of iHub research, runs the robotics program at the University of Nairobi FabLab. She is working to create an iHub based maker space for tinkering, rapid prototyping and as she describes it: “giving people the opportunity to go from prototype to product.” The drive to give local developers and entrepreneurs the opportunity to expand their skills, learn and create their own solutions is helping to grow ideas into viable, marketable solutions in East Africa.

There is a growing community of women in East Africa working to develop new products and services that leverage technology and a drive to share newfound knowledge and skills with other women. FemTanz is a program started by TANZICT (The Information Society and ICT Sector Development Project in Tanzania) working with female entrepreneurs using technology to grow their businesses. The program offered women entrepreneurs a series of business-orientated workshops and mentorship from other successful local business women. In Uganda Women in Technology Uganda is an initiative which is working to close the existing technology gender gap and create a positive social context which encourages more women to enter into technology fields.

In East Africa the mobile phone is most people’s first and most common engagement with digital technology and the internet. Mobile money platforms such as M-Pesa are facilitating mobile based commerce at every social level. They are giving many women who run small businesses new opportunities to leverage technology. As Catherinerose of KINU points out, even the local egg lady is using M-Pesa to sell eggs through her basic Nokia phone.

Ronda Zelezny-Green, an expert in gender, learning and mobiles for development, currently based in Nairobi, offered me insights from her research with girls at a school in Nairobi. One girl commented: “…mobile phones here in Africa, they help us […], let’s say it’s the most important thing. […] we don’t have computers and laptops and all of that so the mobile phone, it helps people.”

In spite of the technology leaps that abound on the African continent there are still numerous challenges to connectivity access. An important figure working to solve this problem and many others through technology is Juliana Rotich, co-founder of Ushahidi, and the iHub in Nairobi. The team’s latest contribution to the landscape of technology access is the BRCK, a backup generator for the internet, providing consistent connectivity access through Ethernet, wifi and 3G and eight hours of backup power for when the power fails, a common occurrence throughout much of the continent. By directly addressing the challenges of connectivity in East Africa new opportunities arise for small business owners and rural communities, expanding the power and reach of technology tools to women across the continent.

SachiDeCou_photoAbout the guest blogger: Sachi DeCou is co-founder of Juabar Design, a startup based in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania focused on providing energy and connectivity access to off-grid communities via mobile charging kiosks. Since 2001 she has worked in the U.S. and abroad to address urban transportation and energy challenges. 

Photo credit: Juabar Design