Opinion

How tech geeks in Africa are transforming IT education

Failed by academia and constrained by convention, geeks are self-organising to equip themselves with the expertise and experience needed to solve social problems and enhance their personal development.

It is not just in the UK that ICT education has been found to be deficient - schools and colleges in many countries are failing to provide learners with the appropriate combination of technical and entrepreneurial skills that they need to convert skills into income and social change.

In resource-deprived settings like those in Zambia these problems are particularly acute especially when compounded by the added disadvantage of discrimination.

Zambia, like the UK, is awash with unemployed graduates. Lusaka, like other capital cities in the region, has far more IT graduates than tech jobs. Universities have done a poor job of equipping them with the appropriate mix of technical and entrepreneurial expertise that they need to feel confident developing their own businesses or securing the funding necessary to apply technology effectively to the development problems that they have identified in their communities.

Geeks are not all taking this lying down however; many are building social networks off-line and online to fill the gap left by deficient education. The recent boom in establishing technology innovation hubs across Africa is one manifestation of this refusal to be defeated.

I am writing this article from BongoHive – Lusaka's Technology & Innovation Hub. BongoHive effectively fills a void left between university education and (self) employment. It is a place where technology enthusiasts and entrepreneurs meet to share experience, learn and collaborate on their latest tech projects. Workshops, bar-camps and mobile app building competitions are organised to provide focused themes for member activities.

Today I am sat in the back row of a Joomla Clinic for website developers; 30 young geeks are hanging on to every word of the Joomla guru who is explaining how to integrate online shops to the web sites they are currently working on. The Q&A session goes on two hours longer than advertised; such is the hunger for practical knowledge.

Most geeks attending are mainly the usual suspects: twenty-something males, but Ella Mbewe is one of a small group on women attending. Women find it particularly difficult to make their way in the IT field whether due to glass ceilings in the UK or the glass ladders in Lusaka. Yet Ella refuses to be bowed; discrimination does not daunt her, it makes her more determined.

“Who am I to think that I can organise women in IT in Zambia?” Ella Mbewe asked herself, “But if not me who else will do it?”.

Borne of her personal frustration at being laughed at by male IT students while studying for a diploma in computing at a Lusaka college, Ella was inspired to form the Asikana Network (Asikana means women's). Ella was motivated by a presentation which Linda Kamau made at a recent BongoHive event. Linda was the lead developer at Ushahidi a well-known success story of Africa software development.

Encouraged and supported by the BongHive leadership Ella and her team have been building a growing network of women (and a website, naturally) to raise the profile of this issue.

Discrimination simply made Ella more determined to do something to remove the obstacles that prevent women from fulfilling their potential in the occupation of their choice.

Ella herself not only graduated but earned an internship setting up computer local networks and then paid employment on the IT help desk of a well-known international organisation.

“The Asikana Network will not only provide a forum for women's voices in IT but it will provide practical assistance and effective support in the form of mentorship, placements and training. By coming together and supporting each other we hope to counter the discrimination that constrains women and reserves IT as a male domain in Zambia. Perhaps we will even receive virtual support and encouragement from women and men outside of Zambia who wish to see us succeed?”

You can "like" the Asikana Network on Facebook and maybe send them a message of support. Their website and full organisational launch will be in May.

Tony Roberts (pictured) is the founder and former CEO of UK international development charity Computer Aid International. He is an expert on the use of technology to support international development programmes and healthcare and education in developing countries.

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This was first published in April 2012

 

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