Panel at the United States International University on women in tech. The conference was about women in tech.

Tech leaders in Kenya, and what we can learn

Panel at the United States International University on women in tech. The conference was about women in tech.

Kenya has a community of technical talent, entrepreneurs, and leaders who are ready to take on major challenges. The western world should be opening it’s doors to collaboration rather than making it harder to work together.

World powers

“The United States is a world power right now,” he explained. “But it might not always be that way. The dynamics of world powers could change in your lifetime.” I was 13-years-old when I heard this for the first time in world history class.

Politics and world order evolve and change with time. This can seem scary, but there are lessons we can learn by working together with the world instead of individually. In the last year, populist politics took a stronghold in the United States. I believe it’s the right time for the western world to start thinking about and connecting more with the diverse world around it.

Technology talent and companies in Kenya are taking off, so how can the US tap into this market to find benefits for both sides? Take a look at Kenyan startups on AngelList.

A delegation trip to Kenya

Each year, TechWomen brings women in STEM from the Middle East, Central Asia, and Africa to spend time in Silicon Valley. The women are called Emerging Leaders, and they work at technology companies for a few months in the fall, contributing to a knowledge exchange between people and cultures. This year, we hosted two of these women at Fitbit.

Panel at the NaiLab, based at the iHub in Nairboi. It felt just like a startup in San Francisco. The room was full of students from a coding and design school AkiraChix where low income students can attend for 1 free year of school.

After the Emerging Leaders leave the U.S., the TechWomen staff, members of the State Department, and participants from Silicon Valley go on a delegation trip to some of the representative countries to see their work in action.

Last week, I went on one of the delegation trips to Nairobi, Kenya. The women I spent time with were from Kenya, Rwanda, Morocco and Nigeria. They were accomplished leaders in STEM careers, working in a variety of fields. Their projects included creating sustainable architecture and housing, working on financial technology startups for Africa, creating systems for recycled water, and many more.

Let them learn

“The first and primary national disaster in Kenya is that half the population is not being used to their full potential,” explained the Keynote speaker at the Tech Women Conference last Wednesday.

Mentorship panel at a public girls’ boarding school.

Primary school is free in Kenya, but there are still costs to families such as purchasing uniforms and other yearly fees. These fees can make going to school prohibitive. After primary school, which is 8th grade in the US, school is no longer free. This means families in poverty have to decide which children they can afford to send to school. More often than not, boys get to continue their education while girls stop going to school to help at home.

Motherboard workshop with students at a primary school.

As an outsider in Kenya, the students seemed so excited about the chance to learn. We taught a motherboard workshop to one of the primary schools, and the students were almost fighting over who got to do each task in the workshop.

Unfortunately, if girls aren’t present for these learning opportunities, they won’t have the chance to excel. The only way to get more girls and women into STEM fields, is to have them present at school when this early learning is happening.

Technology in Kenya

Tech in Africa has leap-frogged tech progress in the western world. Few people have laptops or computers, but a large majority have smart phones.

Financial tech companies have been hugely successful because of this trend. MPESA is a company founded in Kenya that allows people to transfer money using data on their mobile phones. People can use MPESA almost anywhere in the country to pay for things, and in some places it’s the only form of money accepted. An article from The Economist states that around 25% of the country’s gross national product flows through this platform.

Newspaper we received on arrival to Mount Kenya University. Along with tea, of course.

The time to start working with companies in Kenya is now. The Kenyan government has a goal to connect 1 million Kenyans with online freelance jobs this year. Kenya is the 10th largest supplier of online talent, and it’s the 1st in Africa.

Kenya is a developing country. Infrastructure for electricity and plumbing is shaky, corruption is evident, and the public primary school system still has a long way to go before it’s up to par with the western world. But despite these issues, the Kenyan people are eager to learn, optimistic, and highly qualified for jobs all over the world. Take a look at Kuhustle, a startup connecting companies with talent in Africa.

Same problems, different continent

“What exactly does Feminism mean? How do I support women in the right way?” This was a question that came from a student at a Mount Kenya University panel discussion.

At another networking event later in the week, women were talking about gender equality issues in the workforce. American women in tech are having the same issues with gender inequality as tech women working in Kenya.

This became a common theme throughout the week. The main messages coming from women of all nationalities were similar. Support fellow women instead of knocking them down, mentor those 10 years younger than you, and be confident in your decisions. The goal of feminism is to work towards equality, so anyone fighting for that message is an ally.

Image from a primary school visit.

Get involved!

Bring diversity into your workplace

Find someone to work with from Kenya, or even just someone different from yourself. There’s always a risk in working with people or companies in a developing country, but Kenya is making it easier. Hire a freelancer, partner with an African company like Safaricom, or work with venture capital firms from outside your network like Savannah Fund.

Teach your skills and mentor

Lack of qualified teachers and facilities means learning STEM is harder in Kenya. Find ways to share your skills and experience with a young, diverse, global audience. Reach out to programs like AkiraChix in Nairobi.

Work on projects to spread digital literacy

One great example of this is RACHEL, the Remote Area Community Hotspot for Education and Learning is a combination of freely available software and content modules that make it easy to bring online educational materials into places with limited or no internet access.

Join a network, or contribute to a project

Work with programs to promote cultural exchange and learning. Travel or host people from abroad, so you can exchange knowledge and create stronger links across the world.

TechWomen — women’s mentorship and knowledge exchange.
WECREATE — an entrepreneurial community center for women interested in starting or expanding an existing business.
YES program for high school exchange — scholarships for high school students from countries with significant Muslim populations to study for one academic year in the United States.
Power Africa — a program to transform Kenya into a “newly industrializing, middle-income” country.
Bridge — Bridge International Academies is the world’s largest education innovation company serving the 700 million families who live on less than $2 USD per day.
International visitors leadership program — the U.S. Department of State’s premier professional exchange program.
Kubmo — Growing a global community of women in technology. Reach out to partner on coding, design, or mentorship workshops. This is a project I started a few years ago to connect with women around the world.

Bring technology learning to kids in rural Kenya

Donate to Safaricom’s 47 in 1 project — 47 in 1 aims to build a solar-powered computer lab in a public school in each of the 47 counties in Kenya, which would increase access to STEM education.

The 47 in 1 computer pod we visited at one of the slum primary schools. The pod is a standalone structure. The inside is filled with computers for students to take technology classes. TechWomen participants from the Kenya delegation trip have committed to raising $10,000 to go towards this project.

Seeing a bright future

Each time I leave the country and step outside my comfort zone, I realize how little I know. All the amazing women I got to know last week will shape the world to be a better place.

A leader at a rural Maasai school, reading Swahili on a tablet for the first time. The tablet was connected to RACHEL, the Remote Area Community Hotspot for Education and Learning.

As a global community, we need to embrace the diverse knowledge of people from all corners of the world. Differences in nationality, religion, socioeconomic upbringing, and culture are all reasons we approach problems in unique ways. Let’s fight to work together with the world, instead of embracing policies that will drive us apart.