#eSkills4Girls: 3 years of promoting digital skills for women and girls

by Katharina Fries (Freelancer in Education & Develoment Cooperation) and Vanessa Dreier (GIZ)

Photo: © PSED/GIZ

As we celebrate three years since the #eSkills4Girls initiative came to life, we want to take a moment and hear what the different initiatives that form part of its network have been up to. Some of the members were so kind as to give us insight into their endeavors. What successes were they able to celebrate? But also, what obstacles have they encountered along the way? Six women share their experiences.

The network is steadily growing and there are a lot of achievements and successes to look back on. One example are the #eSkills4Girls workshops within Africa Code Week, supported by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) and implemented through our network since 2017. So far, 22.000 women and girls have had the opportunity to participate at these yearly events. In 2018, we saw prominent businesswomen such as Jemila Abdulai, Ethel Cofie and Angela Mensah-Poku coming together during Re:publica Accra, where they shared stories from their personal and professional pathways and discussed the future of women in tech. Moreover, German Development Cooperation now counts 8 projects addressing the gender digital divide in its project portfolio. International advocacy efforts are sure to continue during Japan’s 2019 G20 presidency, pledging further commitment to strengthen the #eSkills4Girls initiative.

Despite these and other achievements, the women working towards digital equity are far from leaning back, as they continue to face various challenges. The acquisition of sufficient funding for the various programmes, for example, unfortunately remains one of the more pressing issues. Numerous efforts are made to counter this, but it isn’t the only reason for concern. Modern technologies require infrastructure to run. Without the necessary equipment, the teaching never leaves the theoretical. Aretha Mare who works at Impact Hub Harare in Zimbabwe is no stranger to this. She recalls needing to rent hardware for some of the programmes she has lead, as the schools she was working with only disposed of a scarcely equipped computer lab.

Smart phones figure a popular alternative. Yet, any sort of device proves useless without adequate internet regulations. Slow connectivity and soaring charges make it hard for trainers to offer courses and even harder for participants to continue practising at home. “This is not necessarily an issue of government budget,” says Agang Ditlhogo of The Clicking Generation in Botswana. “It’s really one of policy and relevant stakeholders creating an enabling environment to foster innovation.”

Infrastructural obstacles are by nature linked to politics. While some initiatives have been able to build a stable communication pipeline with government representatives, others still encounter difficulty in mainstreaming their visions. “We really do need their outspoken support,” says Evelyn Dabonor of Soparkids International in Nigeria. “Because with it more communities and schools are open to us.” Many call for new national strategies, to integrate skill building into curricula on the one hand and to support entrepreneurship and innovation on the other.

Photo: © SAP

Upon realizing the important role policy plays in this regard, both Aretha Mare and Agang Ditlhogo have decided to pursue a further degree in this field. Agang Ditlhogo explains, “I want to go and knock on the doors of policy makers and tell them that, although ICT is not necessarily a priority, we cannot run from the fourth industrial revolution. We need to position ourselves among the global players and benefit from it.” Starting a conversation, however, isn’t always easy. Aretha Mare observes that “the legislators and parliamentarians talk about technology, coding and apps but they don’t have the skills themselves. I would suggest trainings for them, so that when we come in to present our plans they have an actual understanding of what it means. This,” she adds, “would also help a great deal in shaping the policy process.”

Initial efforts towards this are already being made. One example are the #eSkills4PolicyMakers workshops. These interactive workshops are designed to support state actors with the integration of gender equality into their educational and digital strategies and policies. By invitation of the BMZ and in cooperation with the Web Foundation and the Alliance for Affordable Internet, the first #eSkills4PolicyMakers workshops have taken place in Mozambique and Ghana. Around 50 representatives of ministries of education and ICT as well as various regulatory authorities from Eastern and Southern African countries, as well as West African countries convened to discuss gender sensitive policy design. A third workshop is currently planned in Asia for 2019.

Once the computers and internet are set up and running, new challenges arise. Some of the largest obstacles can’t seem to be remedied by mere funding or equipment and are much harder to address: cultural misconceptions. “The stereotype is that women are not able to do as well as men,” Mary Munyoki from the Youth for Technology Foundation in Kenya explains. She adds that many women believe this to be true. “As a girl in the African society, you are told there are certain tasks that are for men only. So you grow up with this mentality and by the time you are in high school and choosing your career, technology simply doesn’t seem like an option. This idea is already deeply rooted in your mind-set and without anyone telling you otherwise, of course you believe it.” Aretha Mare points out that introducing more girls to STEM subjects does not mean that studying sciences is the only way. “Of course we believe that other fields are equally as important, but we want to make sure that girls are making an informed choice.”

Awareness of opportunity, although important, doesn’t always do the trick. As the initiatives’ organisers have come to realise, a career in tech still seems far-fetched to many women. Most attribute this to a lack of visibly successful women in this field. Aretha Mare clarifies that “it’s not a lack of role models but a lack of access to them.” Women who are successful engineers, programmers, IT specialists or digital entrepreneurs can be found everywhere, as the publication Women in Tech – Inspiration, no fairytales shows. Many women with inspirational careers have come together in the #eSkills4Girls network.

Photo: © GIZ/Theresa Rooney

With countless issues still to tackle, what drives them to continue their work so tirelessly? The answer to this is usually the same: their own experience. “I was only introduced to computers when I came to university at 17,” Agang Ditlhogo recalls. “As I completed my studies, I looked back at my village and thought ‘There are so many little Agangs. There are so many future innovators, producers and creators here and I need to do something about it’, because I had experienced this fulfilment.” More women needing to try this was also the first thought that crossed the mind of Baratang Miya of GirlHype South Africa, when she first learned how to code. “I realized that all of a sudden I had the power to tell my story to anyone anywhere and that no one could control what I write. If we let men tell our story, it will be from their perspective. Women in Africa go through a lot and we should be able to speak up about it.” The personal becomes the professional, as these skills also come in handy when building a career in the tech sector. “Because I was able to make it in this field I want to see other girls succeeding as well,” says Mary Munyoki.

Evelyn Dabonor recalls a twelve-year-old girl who started learning programming with her. She created a game where the player has to find sanitation solutions for a community affected by an oil spill. In Nigeria, where she is based, spillages and water pollution pose a big problem. “To me, what was mind-blowing about this is that you give a child this opportunity and these tools and the first thing they come up with is about saving the world.”

Stories such as this are by no means an exception, as many network members can confirm. “When we allow women to create digital solutions, they will look beyond themselves,” says Agang Dithlogo. “Everything women touch becomes so worth it. Let’s see what we can bring to the table.” Girls helping their community with digital solutions is not limited to their physical space. Natacha Nduwimana has had a girl participating at her programme at Burundi Innovation Hub who created a chatroom specifically for young people. Its purpose is to connect and communicate about issues that concern them and they can’t talk to their families about due to traditional restrictions.

In terms of communal development there seems to be a lot to gain – and it doesn’t stop there. With an ever-evolving tech sector and a steadily growing digital economy, African countries need to prepare themselves by already offering their youth, including girls, more training opportunities. “Every girl who wants to pursue STEM should get the opportunity to do so,” says Aretha Mare. “More women on the workforce is not a matter of fairness, but an imperative for the economy,” Mary Munyoki adds. “Women’s contribution is crucial to the country’s sustainable development.” Natacha Nduwimana evokes a simple formula:  „I believe there is no development without ICT development; and there is no ICT development without women being involved.“

With countless reasons to support this cause, questioning it becomes seemingly redundant. Baratang Miya is inclined to stop justifying herself. “The truth is,” she says, “we don’t have to convince anyone that we need to learn how to code or that tech is taking over, because it already has.”

Photo: © PSED/GIZ

The keys to success

Over 250 million women less are online than men according to ITU. This especially affects women on the African continent. Therefore, women all over Africa have founded initiatives to encourage other women to learn digital skills. “The problems we face should actually push us to do more,” Aretha Mare declares and there is a lot that can be done to narrow the gender digital divide. As the women speak of their work, various strategies emerge.

Building confidence among girls

To address the low self-esteem among girls and women when it comes to STEM, all of the initiatives have found different ways to make them feel more comfortable in their own skin. For example, The Clicking Generation in Botswana have created confidence mentorship classes that feature storytelling: “We have professionals come in and tell the girls how they got started, having the same background as them and at first not knowing their way around either.” Activities such as these can be a valuable tool to encourage girls and women who still feel insecure about entering the field.

Building a team of motivated volunteers

Agang Ditlhogo describes building her team as one of the biggest successes she has had. She was able to recruit a large pool of volunteers for her initiative by spreading the word through social media. While it showcased their work, this was also a channel to get people excited about contributing to the case. A flexible work model prevents her volunteers from feeling overwhelmed. “We make them understand that they don’t have to commit to a lot, it’s just a few hours here and there. That makes it effortless,” she explains. “It is easy for people to just jump in and then cut back again if need be.”

Building partnerships and cooperating

Building bridges with like-minded partners has proven to be a sure way to success and the possibilities are many-fold.

Private sector

Impact Hub Harare and Burundi Innovation Hub were able to consolidate corporate partnerships with companies providing them with devices for programmes taking place in poorly equipped spaces. GirlHype is currently working on building an internship programme with different companies and the Kenyan chapter of the Youth for Technology Foundation contacted local companies to bring in speakers as role models.

Universities

Universities, TVET facilities and other institutes proved valuable partners for both physical and human resources. GirlHype were able to allocate teaching opportunities at the University of the Western Cape, while the Youth for Technology Foundation invited members of the Kenyan academia as mentors for their students.

Schools

Those initiatives working in school settings have a variety of stakeholders to address. Burundi Impact Hub have found that the schools’ community, especially the administration, are far more likely to agree to a programme when they can see a concrete product that benefits them.As part of one of their school programmes, students came up with a library management system that can be operated via an application. Aretha Mare suggests that the school teachers go through the same training segments as their students. Providing teachers with digital skills guarantees continuity and might encourage them to create their own coding clubs at their school.

“The various partnerships have allowed us to reach more women and get the word out,” Mary Munyoki explains. Despite having created strong local partnerships, some initiatives still see obstacles in taking these strategies to a regional or international level. But increasingly more opportunities to connect across the continent are emerging. Natacha Nduwimana from Burundi Innovation Hub recalls being approached by women from South Africa and Kenya, wanting to adapt a technology competition she has created for their countries. She believes that this is a good way to expand the network. Cooperation can and should be fostered on all levels. It has become apparent that many initiative leaders share the same concern for their projects and face similar issues. But they are also coming up with witty solutions. The network boasts a wealth of experience and knowledge. Pooling their resources and supporting each other is a sure recipe to multiply their potential. Their tireless work is key for the development of their communities and they have become highly valuable partners for the #eSkills4Girls initiative. “What I want to highlight is that we should not think of Africa as very much behind,” says Aretha Mare. “When we talk about the digital economy people look at us with a funny eye. But we really need to embrace this. The girls we work with do not have any prior computer experience. Just commitment, enthusiasm and passion. You would actually be amazed at what they are able to achieve. We know the capacity is there, what needs to be done is just nurture it. It won’t be long until we see female innovators from Africa.”

These women are a force to be reckoned with and should anyone be looking for role models, they will certainly find them here. Mary Munyoki sums it up aptly. “We have seen a lot of women being visionaries, change makers and innovators. And we only need to spark their confidence and get them out there, so they can be advocators and ambassadors for other women to see the transformation that is happening.”