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Interview: Tech education in Africa, with a focus on female empowerment

During a trip to East Africa in the early 2000s, Sonal Kadchha found a lack of secondary education and few teachers, which eventually led her to teach women in the region how to code

When Virgin Atlantic set up a new flight route from London to Nairobi in 2008, Sonal Kadchha had a chance to visit East Africa as part of a charity expedition, where she helped build dormitories for local primary schools in the Masai Mara region of Kenya.

But while she was taking part in the project, Kadchha, now the founder of charity Educating The Children (ETC), began to think that buildings weren’t enough.

“While out there, I noticed the classrooms were overcrowded with hundreds of children,” she says. “That made me think: what’s the point of providing them with resources if there are no teachers around to teach them?”

Kadchha set up UK-registered charity ETC to tackle this, encouraging teachers to volunteer to teach primary school children in Kenya.

Although this was a great start, the volunteers then realised there were no secondary schools for children to move on to once they had finished primary education, despite there being 47 primary schools in the region.

That is where the charity’s focus on “female empowerment through education” began. After spending time in the local area, the charity decided that a secondary school for girls would be the “best solution” to drive the community forward.

Alongside the teacher volunteer programme, ETC went on to build a secondary boarding school for girls, called Sekenani Girls High School, which over time grew from a few girls being taught under a tree to several classes for more than 400 girls.

From girls to women in tech

Once the ball was rolling to give girls in Masai Mara a secondary education, Kadchha turned her attention to encouraging women to take part in software careers.

Realising that software engineering “is becoming an essential skill in the world”, she created Code Queen, an ETC initiative, to tackle youth unemployment in Kampala.

Kadchha says there is a huge startup community in Uganda and East Africa, but although there is talent in the area, the youth unemployment rate is around 80%.

Local businesses claim there is not enough “trained talent” available to them – a problem many will be familiar with.

Kadchha says: “Although there are higher education institutions, the workforce isn’t really geared up with the right skills.”

The problem isn’t unique to that area – some tech-related degrees and courses don’t always teach tech skills in a practical way so that students can take them straight to the workplace.

“So we thought that would be a good area to focus on, given that software engineering is one of the world’s most in-demand professions,” says Kadchha.

Code Queen specifically trains women in how to code and, much like in other areas, Kadchha says there is a struggle to get Kampala’s women to join the technology sector, which she puts down in part to a lack of confidence.

“It’s not really to do with it not being acceptable or they don’t have the capabilities,” she says. “It’s more to do with their mindset and their belief whether they can do it or not, so a lot of our training is focused on mindset as well.”

There is a lot of anecdotal evidence that women avoid the tech sector because it doesn’t feel right for them. For example, young girls say tech seems too difficult, and even successful women in the sector are likely to get imposter syndrome, doubting their own ability.

Code Queen sessions are aimed not only at teaching women coding, but providing them with a “safe space”.

The classes are run in partnership with local businesses in what is called the Innovation Village, a startup ecosystem in Uganda that acts as a lead partner for the charity.

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For participants, everything is free – women taking part in the course have access to free Wi-Fi and laptops, which many of them wouldn’t have without the scheme.

Local software engineers volunteer to teach the women, but the charity will need support to continue expanding into the future.

Kadchha says: “This kind of stuff helps to reduce the barriers to entry, because I think for a lot of these poor women, cost is an issue.”

A lack of role models is often cited as a reason young women don’t choose to work in the technology sector, because they can’t see anyone in the industry who is like them and so assume the sector has no place for them.

As well as coding skills, the women who take part in Code Queen are taught soft skills, introduced to other women in the tech sector who act as role models, and are given the opportunity to take part in hackathons with the aim of solving real challenges for local businesses.

Most women are recruited to the initiative locally through the Innovation Village, which is a part of the community, or through word of mouth.

Women who have taken part in past cohorts often come back to teach or talk to current students, acting as ambassadors for the project.

“I worked in Uganda during my corporate career and it struck me how talented the youth was,” says Kadchha. “I was surprised to learn that Uganda has one of the highest youth unemployment rates at 80%. On the other hand, you’ve got software engineering, which is one of the world’s most in-demand professions, including in Africa and, uniquely, it can be done anywhere in the world as well.

“We’ve got a real opportunity to match this global demand with local supply.”

Changing plans for the coronavirus

But, as in most of the world, the coronavirus pandemic hasn’t made things easy. Locally, the outbreak forced the sessions to be 100% remote, which meant they were not accessible to everyone.

“We did see a large drop-off when we transitioned because we live in a world of internet inequality, so a lot of these women don’t have access to laptops or Wi-Fi,” says Kadchha.

Other challenges also arose, such as difficulty in maintaining a sense of community during remote sessions, but for those who were able to join, their technical skills “came out much stronger”, says Kadchha.

“What we did see is that the students who did manage to make it online were more engaged, were less shy to ask questions and were better able to make use of the tools,” she adds.

When the pandemic finally blows over, the charity may look at a hybrid model with both online and physical classes, depending on what works best for individuals.

But in the meantime, ETC needs sponsors for each of the students taking part to give them access to the resources they might need for online classes.

“Jobs and digitisation were important themes even before Covid-19, so now it’s even more important,” says Kadchha. “We wanted to find an innovative way to make an impact on young unemployed women which was forward-looking and empowering by tapping into the future of work and education.”

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