On this Throwback Thursday, I wanted to take you back to the time I met this inspiring young woman, Aisha Abdul-Qadir, at the Digital Opportunity Trust (DOT) Youth Unconference in Kigali, Rwanda. Aisha is a youth ambassador for DOT, an organization that engages young people around the world using digital technologies to transform their communities through social enterprises. DOT currently has 98 innovation hubs, training centers and partner locations in Kenya.
Aisha joined DOT last year because she was drawn to the organization’s tech-related activities and programs, as well as their focus on digital inclusion. Shortly after joining, while still a student at Technical University of Mombasa, she entered DOT Kenya’s social enterprise competition along with her friends, Dorine Kamau and Ruth Kaveke.
From this competition, Aisha, Ruth, and Dorine founded Pwani Teknowgalz, a community-based organization that aims to inspire and educate high school and college-aged girls in Mombasa in technology-based programs, such as web development and coding, so that they can pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). The unique name of their enterprise is rooted in both the culture of their area, and their vision of the future. “Pwani” is the Swahili word for “coast”; Mombasa lies in the coastal region of Kenya and they carefully selected this phrase so that the community could identify with their organization. “Teknowgalz” is a combination of the words “technology” and “knowledge”, with the addition of the slang term for girls; it represents their vision for young women in Mombasa to become educated in tech.
Aisha and her friends founded Pwani Teknowgalz because they could personally relate to the desire to become better educated in technology. Aisha first encountered the field of technology when she entered University, some five years ago. She had always been fascinated by computers and how they connected the world, and Aisha wanted to know more about what digital tools were available since she did not have a chance to explore these interests when she was younger. She faced her biggest challenges in information communication technologies (ICT) during her first semester, having entered university with a lack of previous experience and ICT skills. She didn’t give up, however, and instead went the extra mile to cope with both the curriculum and her passion for web development. Aisha fully believed that ICT could provide numerous opportunities for herself and other women. As she told me, “ICT connects the world.”
In her class of 60 at University, Aisha was one of only six young women enrolled in ICT programs. After graduation, only three of those women entered the software industry. At first, Aisha thought this problem was isolated to only her school, but after visiting other universities in the area, the Pwani Teknowgalz founders realized that the problem was much more widespread. They began asking themselves why girls were not taking advantage of the education and career opportunities available in ICT, since the technology sector was growing. They reasoned that part of the problem had to be a lack of exposure and engaging programs targeted for girls.
“Girls and women don’t take up opportunities available in ICT, not because they have a negative attitude [toward it], but [because they] lack the mentorship and exposure they need to embrace it,” Aisha said.
To combat this, they started a small group at their university to train young women on web development with space and resources provided by the university itself. The training was so popular that they opened it up to women at other universities. The seeds for Pwani Teknowgalz were sown.
Since joining DOT Kenya and founding Pwani Teknowgalz, Aisha and her friends have been very busy bringing exposure and education of ICT to girls in Mombasa. They have partnered with DOT Kenya to host Mombasa’s Mozilla Club, part of a global network of community members growing digital literacy and ensuring that the internet remains a global public resource. They have also engaged 350 young women from 11 different high schools in the area, completed 52 projects, and have run four programs, including a Django Girls programming workshop and Technovation mobile app challenge.
The Technovation challenge is Aisha’s favorite initiative that Pwani Teknowgalz has undertaken; it is part of a global challenge that invites young girls to solve real-world problems in their community, using technology. The program invites young women to express their own ideas, builds their confidence in the technology space, and pitch their solutions to a panel of judges.
Aisha believes the greatest barrier to women pursuing technology-based careers are social and cultural stereotypes. She is most bothered by the belief in some cultures that girls cannot code because coding is only meant for men (Aisha loves to code, and she considers web development to be the highlight of her career). She strongly believes that to overcome these barriers, young women must be ambassadors for change. Aisha has confidence that this can be achieved by creating a network of female mentors in the tech industry, who can serve as role models to young girls and be someone they can look up to and be inspired by.
“We will know that the digital gender gap is closed when the number of women in the software industry increases, [and] we see more women in tech start-ups. When we see more women tech leaders… is when we can that equality in ICT has been achieved.”
Pwani Teknowgalz makes this goal their ultimate mission, creating a safe space for girls to network, share ideas, and collaborate. They foster a community culture, including families and parents in workshops and hosting events where they can see what amazing projects their daughters and sisters are working on. Pwani Teknowgalz recognizes the positive role parental support plays in influencing girls to pursue STEM careers.
So what is next for Pwani Teknowgalz? In Mombasa, they are looking to set up a well-equipped computer lab where girls without access to computers and other resources can come to be trained. They are also working on a digital inclusion program, reaching beyond Mombasa and into the greater coastal region of Kenya. They recently set up a second branch of Pwani Teknowgalz in Eldoret, Kenya called Rift Teknowgalz (because it is in the Great Rift Valley), founded by Mercy Wafula after she visited Mombasa and was inspired by the work Aisha and her team were doing. Aisha would like to open more branches throughout Kenya, to educate as many young girls as possible.
I am honored to have met Aisha and Ruth. They are truly incredible young ladies, and to hear them talk about their passion for the role of young women in ICT is inspirational. When asked why she felt it was so important to educate girls in ICT, Aisha said, “Girls are always considered vulnerable and lack the opportunities and space to use their creativity to bring change to their communities. I am a girl, and I believe when we are given the right exposure and mentorship, we can do great things that will contribute to building our communities and connect with the rest of the world.” Aisha’s personal slogan is “ICT skills are essential for every girl child.”