Last month, I had the opportunity to attend the Digital Opportunity Trust (DOT) Youth Unconference in Kigali, Rwanda. The Unconference served as a platform for over 100 youths from 10 countries in the DOT network to come together and learn from each other’s experiences on ways to improve the impact of their social enterprises. To say these young people were an inspiration would be an understatement — they were intelligent, civic-minded, and passionate about technology and its ability to improve the economies of their countries.
For example, I met one young man developing sustainably produced menstruation pads, made from shredded banana leaf fiber, that sell for half the cost of normal pads allowing more young girls to stay in school when they otherwise would have to stay home. Another young woman produces and sells solar lamps to communities without power. I also met an entrepreneur who conceptualized a new method for inexpensively producing flour from carrots and other root vegetables that can be made into porridge as a safe solution to mother and child malnutrition.
The Unconference, with the theme of “Create Your Opportunity”, included youth-led workshops which focused on barriers to digital opportunities, and what youth can be doing to address those challenges. Many of these young people highlighted the way gender and culture factors into access and education around technology. More than one workshop discussed the digital gender divide, and discussed the importance of engaging girls in ICT as early as possible — and how to continue encouraging them as they get older. Christelle Kwizera, a panelist and mechanical engineer from Rwanda, put it this way: “When you start in primary school, everything looks normal. There are boys and girls. But when you go to college and engineering school, there are fewer women [and] you start to realize that all of your colleagues are male… You have no role models, so I wanted to return to Rwanda and be that role model.”
My own session, which was co-led by an exceptional young woman named Aisha Abdul-Qadir, discussed how young people adopting the Principles of for Digital Development at an early stage can leverage digital technology to start companies, innovate new technologies, and/or improve their community. The Principles can serve as a guide to can help them achieve broader adoption and sustainability for their work. Participants in the session shared challenges they have faced in implementing programs in the past, what digital tools and solutions were available to them at the time, and what resources they wish they had. These insights will help our team at the Digital Impact Alliance (DIAL) shape new content that will be launched later this year.
It was such an honor to meet these young social entrepreneurs, each at a different stage of their journey. I believe it will be only a few years — if not sooner — until we see the impact they’ve made around the globe.
Allana Nelson joined the Digital Impact Alliance (DIAL) in March 2017 as the Program Manager for the Principles for Digital Development on the Insights and Impact team. In this position, she is responsible for promotion, education, and advocacy of the Principles. Prior to joining DIAL, Allana worked at USAID on technology-based solutions to the Ebola response and recovery efforts in West Africa.