As coronavirus spreads, technology keeps humanitarian operations going

Meet some of the women behind WFP’s technology department in South Sudan

Jun 15, 2020 · 7 min read

Story by Musa Mahadi and Tomson Phiri

More and more females are powering WFP’s complex operations in South Sudan. Photo: WFP/Musa Mahadi

Not since World War II has the world been disrupted as it is right now due to the coronavirus pandemic. As a result of the economic disruptions, humanitarian needs have surged around the world and humanitarian agencies are in need more than ever.

South Sudan confirmed its first coronavirus case in mid-March. To save lives and prevent its staff from contracting and spreading the disease, WFP activated preventative measures including freezing all travel except for critical missions. Some of its 1,200 strong employees immediately started teleworking from home while others initiated work shifts. Knowing lockdowns and restrictions in travel would soon be imposed, rapid response teams were quickly deployed to the field.

Thanks to modern technology, people’s details can now be verified at the click of a button. Photo: WFP/Gabriela Vivacqua

To continue mounting an effective response serving the 5 million people WFP helps in South Sudan, technology is crucial to coordinate and ensure assistance is delivered to the right people. It falls to the IT team, predominately made up of young women, who make this all happen, providing tech solutions like SCOPE and SCOPE CODA, ensuring connectivity in remote locations, conferencing and maintaining a high-level of cyber security.

In South Sudan, WFP aims to have a diverse, inclusive and gender-balanced staff complement.

“Our workforce should reflect the people we serve,” says Matthew Hollingworth, WFP’s Country Director in South Sudan.

In 2017 only one female worked in its IT department, now there are 10 and is likely to increase. Meet some of the trail-blazers going where there seemingly was no path before but who are now leading the way.

Deborah Bongiri leads WFP’s IT help and service desk that is powering the complex operation in South Sudan. Photo: WFP/Musa Mahadi

Deborah did not choose IT but IT chose her. It’s no coincidence she is one of the few trailblazers at WFP’s IT department.

She scored highly in science subjects at school. She qualified to pursue her dream course in civil engineering. But then IT happened.

“The funny thing is I never had a dream of studying Information Technology,” she says with a hearty smile. “I applied to four different universities. IT was the last preference and surprisingly they all offered me IT degrees.”

Frustrated, she went to Makerere University in Uganda to find her dream engineering course but although she met entry requirements, she was told the intake was full and placed on a waiting list, her only hope was for someone to drop out.

“My spirit was high, I had the points and was ready to get my hands dirty,” she recalls. “In the first month I would attend engineering lectures by the day and IT lectures by night.”

But for the first time in a very long time, none of the admitted students dropped out. A month passed but there was still no vacancy in engineering. She had to decide.

“The whole family sat down to advise me, I then decided to concentrate on IT,” says Deborah. “Here I am doing what has become my passion and pushing my career up the ladder.”

Deborah providing assistance to a colleague. Her team is charged with fixing IT related problems. Photo: WFP/Musa Mahadi

Now armed with a bachelor’s degree in Information Technology, Deborah made the trip home to South Sudan to look for a job and contribute to the development of her then newly-independent country. Whilst she joined a leading telecommunications company, she didn’t get to do IT. Instead she was employed as an administrative assistant.

“Honestly speaking I did not like my job,” she says. “The IT in me wanted to be put into use. I spent most of the time with colleagues in the IT department and I learnt a lot from them.”

It did not take long before Deborah got an opportunity elsewhere, and joined WFP as an IT assistant based in Abyeyi field office where she was providing IT and telecommunication support to staff. She doubled up as the systems administrator.

“I was motivated by WFP’s large operations. I am still motivated by it,” she says. “I knew I will not only make a difference but also learn from the best brains both from South Sudan and abroad.”

Now very much a veteran, Deborah works as Senior IT Operation Associate at WFP’s main office in Juba and leads a team of three, running WFP’s help desk. Her team provides IT support for the office in Juba and 15 other offices spread across the country.

Meeting the needs of WFP’s 1,200 strong staff compliment is not for the faint-hearted. Photo: WFP/Musa Mahadi

Like any other job, Deborah says her job also has some challenges. “Some people’s perception of IT is based on gender,” she says. “Others still think ladies in IT cannot perform as their male colleagues which is wrong.”

As she grows in her career Deborah says ICT is very interesting and exciting what makes it adorable is the way it is changing people’s lives every day.

Dawa Flowrence poses for a photo in front of WFP’s ICT service desk office in Juba. Photo: WFP/Musa Mahadi

Originally from Yambio in the western part of the country, her early life was a blend of many cultures. She was brought up in both South Sudan and Uganda.

The first born in a family of four, she is determined to succeed to be an example for her younger siblings.

“I did not enjoy my childhood,” she says. “My parents lived in South Sudan and I was staying in Uganda. I missed everything parents would offer a child. It somehow affected me.”

Flowrence’s father suffered a stroke just before her final exams.

“Dad was sick and my mother would struggle to send us school fees and also take care of dad,” she says.

She still chased after her dreams and thanks to her unwavering determination she enrolled for a diploma course in computer science. Upon graduation, she immediately enrolled for her bachelor’s degree in computer science graduating with honors.

Whilst in university, she developed a keen interest in computer programming and software development and developed an encryption software much to the delight of her lecturers.

When she came back to Juba, life was challenging. She joined the ICT Society of South Sudan, putting her skills to use in developing future ICT enthusiasts. She trained young people in computer literacy through a peace foundation.

In 2018 Flowrence joined WFP as an ICT Operation Assistant. Part of her role is to support staff with ICT problems as well as configuring computers and printers.

“Joining WFP was a dream come true and fixing IT-related problems is a source of joy and pride,” she says.

Winnie Cirino a onetime newsreader on South Sudan’s biggest television station. Photo provided by Winnie Cirino.

Winnie is a woman of many talents. A Telecommunication Engineer by trade and a journalist by practise, her passion for humanitarian work first manifested itself in her journalism work. As a news stringer for the Voice of America radio premier show Focus on South Sudan, she covered mostly humanitarian stories across South Sudan.

She spent over four years fighting food insecurity by raising awareness of the plight of people affected by years of conflict in the country.

“When I was a journalist, I covered some stories where some families depended on leaves and wild fruits to survive,” says Winnie. “I thought it wise to join the struggle to save the lives of vulnerable people.”

Winnie posing for a photo in front of her office in Juba. Tech solutions such as SCOPE have strengthened WFP’s accountability systems. Photo: WFP/ Musa Mahadi

Since joining WFP as IT Operations Assistant (SCOPE) in January 2020, part of her daily task includes configuring and installing ICT equipment as well as setting up a web-based application used for beneficiary registrations and distribution of assistance.

She also provides support remotely to colleagues in remote locations with limited access to internet and telecommunication network.

“I find ICT very interesting, it’s a kind of job that keeps you on your toes,” she says. “Every click translates into food reaching a malnourished child in the village.”

Winnie spent part of her childhood in a refugee camp in Kiryandongo Refugee Camp in Uganda following fighting in South Sudan. It was there that the spirit of humanitarianism was born.

She hopes to inspire many young women in South Sudan to join ICT.

“ICT is very engaging and creative,” she says. “You are always on the edge. You are always learning and yearn for more with new technologies emerging every day”

On what she thinks about women working in what used to be predominantly a men’s only field, Winnie is very clear.

“There is nothing meant for only men as long as it’s something that can be taught and learned,” she states.

And, we couldn’t agree more!

Learn more about WFP’s careers that save lives and its work in South Sudan.

World Food Programme Insight

Insight by The World Food Programme

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