Women In Tech In Africa: Progress, Challenges, and What Comes Next

The continent of Africa has 54 countries and 1.26 billion people. It is home to major urban centers, some of the greatest natural wonders of the world, unbelievable cultural history, and devastating poverty. Though it is often depicted through stereotypes, particularly in the Western world, centering largely around these images of natural beauty and poverty with little else, all over the continent, Africa has tech leaders and innovators rising.

Much like the rest of the world, African nations struggle with gender equality, and, again, like the rest of the world, these disparities are particularly stark in the technology space. The question now is: how do we address these issues?

Challenges to Technology Growth In Africa

The first place to look is challenges to technology growth in Africa in general.

The brilliant Raissa Malu, whom I’ve had the great pleasure of working with, cites a few major issues.

One of them is having the right mentality and resources to foster technological innovation. When I asked what the biggest challenges we needed to tackle, she said: “ We need to believe in our ability to perform in tech.” Raissa, who has been organizing Science and Technology week in the Democratic Republic of Congo since 2014 (the sixth annual event, just last month, was a roaring success), described the event’s impact:

“Today, young and old, men and women, do not see science and technology as foreign or inaccessible. They become familiar to them, and they have more and more confidence that we can also perform in these areas, women and men in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. This is absolutely remarkable and so important for our country to take off.”

As progress is made, progress will quicken, not only because technology builds on itself, but because leaders create role models, and role models help guide the next generation to success.

Education is also essential. For the first time, the Democratic Republic of Congo dedicated an entire month to science and technology, and it included an initiative of Science Caravans organized in 6 cities by the Education Project for the Quality and Relevance of Teachings at the Secondary and University Levels which created STEM educational programming specifically designed with the context of the DRC in mind.

Another concern is the lack of digital connectivity and digital infrastructure. However, that might be changing. Nunu Ntshingila, Facebook’s head of Africa, said that “Facebook’s biggest aim in Africa is to bring people online.” With 145 million active users, “Fundamentally, we still have a region that is under-connected,” but extremely high in potential. Viola Llewellyn of Ovamba solutions expressed a similar sentiment: “Africa is frequently undercounted and underestimated.” With women like these actively seeking to help capitalize on the potential across the African continent, the change will come.

Challenges Facing Women in Tech Specifically

From an entrepreneurial perspective, it may surprise many to learn that sub-Saharan Africa has the highest rate of women entrepreneurs in the world at 27%. However, “most female-led enterprises are small businesses with little opportunity for growth… they are, for the most part, one-woman enterprises oriented to consumers...In the technology industry particularly, few women attempt start-ups.”

Part of the reason is cultural. Although each country in Africa has its own cultural values, many have strict notions about the role of women. In the DRC, Raissa Malu says, women are generally considered to be unable to achieve much and relegated exclusively to the home sphere. This perception is so strong that some will go so far as to think that successful women are actually just effeminate-looking men.

Odunayo Eweniyi, a successful co-founder and business leader of Piggybank.ng in Lagos, says, “Many times, women are not allowed to aspire ‘too high.’ As a result, they tend to participate in the least risky ventures.”

This phenomenon explains why women are more likely to lead businesses, but their ventures are lower risk but without expansion opportunities.

Access to capital is a major barrier for women in tech in Africa as well, although that is also inextricably intertwined with these cultural issues. Sahar Nasr, Egypt’s Minister of Investment and International Cooperation said many investors suffer from the “misguided a perception that women are high-risk customers to lend.”

Some of that perception is certainly from bias, conscious or unconscious, but women also have a harder time receiving loans because they do not have collateral to put up. While the need for collateral in and of itself is normal for the finance industry, women don’t have the necessary assets because “African tradition stands in the way of most women to own property.”

How to Support Women in Tech in Africa

The most powerful force for helping budding women in tech in Africa are the women, like those I’ve mentioned in this post, and many, many others, who are already active technology leaders in their communities, cities, or countries. Not only do these women act as role models, to plant the seed of what might be possible, but they can also establish networks and mentor one another, which is especially important to help them break through the barriers caused by the stereotypes and cultural limitations they face.

A lot of incredible organizations are running summits, creating networks, and otherwise supporting women in tech in Africa. Useful & Beautiful and Women in Tech ZA are hosting the “Women in Tech and Digital Conference,” which, while its intent is absolutely to provide role models and mentorship specifically for women, it is not just a “women in tech” conference. It’s a tech conference with an all-female lineup to counterbalance the norm of having all, or mostly, male speakers.

Other organizations include the Women in Tech Africa SummitWomen in Tech AfricaAfrican Women in Technology, and Africa Technology Business Network, which founded the #HerFutureAfrica project.