Judith Owigar: Portrait of a GroundBreaker
Judith Owigar is the Founder of JuaKali Workforce, a social enterprise creating livelihood opportunities through connecting informal economy workers to clients on demand. Through JuaKali, Judith is pioneering an innovative model to increase employment in Kenya through building the capacities of the informal economy. Judith is also the Co-Founder of AkiraChix, a social enterprise providing training, mentorship, and outreach programs for women in technology. AkiraChix works to connect and support women and girls in tech through a variety of programs including CodeFest, an all-female hackathon, and Geek Girl Fest, a festival for high school and university students to learn programming and practice collaborative problem solving. On this week’s feature of GroundBreakers’ Portraits of a GroundBreaker Series, our discussion with Judith ranged from the importance of changing gender norms around women in tech to a more holistic way to think about workers in the informal economy.
What motivated you to start AkiraChix?
I studied computer science and experienced a lot of gendered attitudes while I was in school. I later was working in a software company with friends where four of the five people on our team were women. Based on experiences in that company and the challenges we faced as women, we decided to create a network of women in technology. We wanted to create a space where we could come together and learn from each other. Our goal was to be so good that nobody would question us. We started having meetups and going to hackathons as some of our first events.
I was later involved in a research project involving the collection of data to better understand how workers in the informal economy use technology. Doing this research made me realize how informal workers are often treated like they are invisible in our society and I wanted to use technology to make them more visible. The informal economy is the largest employer in Kenya and the only sector where jobs are growing.
“We have also seen a scarcity mentality. Some men feel that if more women enter into the tech space there will be less opportunities for them. We work to change this mindset by showing that if we have more people who can build better technology, it means that there is more opportunity for everyone. With time it has been changing, but it is a slow process.”
What advice would you give to young people who want to become social entrepreneurs?
You have to begin with why you want to start a social enterprise because it is a challenging journey. You have to run a business and pay salaries — if there is no money, you’re the first to go without a salary. Social entrepreneurship also teaches a lot of persistence, which is a necessary life skill. It is also important to surround yourself with people who will cheer you on and who you can talk to because the journey can be very lonely. I would advise young people to get into circles of like-minded people who can encourage them.
Who are some of the people who inspire you in your work?
I have learned a lot from my mom as she is very hardworking. She has pushed me to stand up for myself and this has been very helpful in running a business. I am also inspired by Wangari Maathai and how she stood up for what she believed in. She sacrificed a lot for her work and we are still enjoying the benefits of her efforts to help protect the environment.
“The future of Kenya is in the informal economy. Job growth has been stagnant in the formal economy but has been growing in the informal economy. We must figure out how to make workers in the informal sector more credible as most people think that informal workers are substandard and not as qualified.”
What challenges did you face in starting AkiraChix?
Funding is a major challenge and I’ve had to do a lot of bootstrapping. Managing people can also be a challenge — finding and keeping the right people can be tough.
For the JuaKali startup, the market has been a challenge — is the market ready for such an enterprise? JuaKali essentially functions as an Uber for workers in the informal economy. For a startup in the tech space, there is a lot of training that we have to do beyond marketing since this is a new concept.
How have you seen attitudes and public perception around women in tech change?
I’ve seen several changes. When we first started AkiraChix, many men in the tech space did not see that there was a problem. They think that tech is a meritocracy and do not realize all the structural factors that prevent women from entering the tech sector. Young girls are brought up to think that careers in the STEM fields are not for them. Some girls in AkiraChix tell us how they are discouraged by their friends from doing technology. Some have also been discouraged by their fathers from pursuing STEM careers.
In addition to public attitudes and perceptions around technology, some people don’t know where to get information about STEM careers. Some girls may not know that this is a possibility. Through our training program in high schools, we try to expose young girls to careers in technology and how this fits into their personal dreams.
We have also seen a scarcity mentality. Some men feel that if more women enter into the tech space there will be less opportunities for them. We work to change this mindset by showing that if we have more people who can build better technology, it means that there is more opportunity for everyone. With time it has been changing, but it is a slow process. There is still a lot of work that needs to be done.
What are your thoughts on the future of the informal economy?
The future of Kenya is in the informal economy. Job growth has been stagnant in the formal economy but has been growing in the informal economy. We must figure out how to make informal workers more credible as most people think that workers in the informal sector are substandard and not as qualified. Informal workers should be seen as more credible and this will help them build their business capacity through selling more services and attracting more customers.
We have a large and growing young population that we should be viewing as an opportunity. The youth population has a lot of creative energy and is looking for opportunities. If we support those working in the informal economy to build sustainable and scalable businesses then this helps increase employment for the young population.
What is your vision for AkiraChix?
Our vision for AkiraChix is to support women who create solutions through technology. We want women to be creators and not just consumers. Women are always problem solving and we want to take that ability to solve problems and connect it with technology so that they can create the solutions they envision. When we build solutions that target women, these solutions benefit the entire community.