Tech + Health

01.05.14

Geeking Out: Uganda’s Women are Creating the Next Generation of Girl Geeks

Young women are learning to program computers far from Silicon Valley, developing apps that will help their neighbors—and themselves.

If not for a view of the ornate Uganda National Mosque or the sprawling, congested taxi park in the distance, it would be hard to tell that Outbox, a technology incubator and accelerator, is in a high-rise in Kampala (Uganda’s capital city) and not some non-descript office building in Silicon Valley.

The vibe is intense and laid-back all at once. Modern, cushy chairs and long conference tables are used by casually-dressed young people typing furiously on MacBooks in a quest to create the next big thing. Formidable, expansive blinds in cascading green, blue, red and yellow cover its floor-to-ceiling windows (evoking Google, an organization that partially funds the space through its Google for Entrepreneurs initiative).

At one of the long tables, a group watched quietly as Joldeen Mirembe, a tack-sharp 23-year old woman, presented her latest creation: a website. While everyone was notably relaxed, each had something to say, asking questions or merely pointing something out. A few offered constructive criticism, which Joldeen accepted with the zeal of someone hungry to learn.

A year ago, Joldeen didn’t know how to design a website or program an app. She had always wanted to learn how, but felt uncomfortable in the male-dominated computer science courses offered at her university. “Sometimes [when] you’re doing programs with boys, you find that girls are a little shy to come up if they don’t understand,” she explained to me after her presentation.

Fortunately, she heard of GirlGeekKampala, an organization teaching young Ugandan women the computer programming languages and content management frameworks that they may have missed out on in school. She immediately joined, and today is one of the most dedicated GirlGeeks, attending classes nearly every weekend.

GirlGeekKampala was founded in 2012 by Christine Ampaire, Richard Zulu, and Victor Miclovich, a trio of tech leaders in Uganda frustrated by the structural and cultural barriers holding women back from careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).

Ampaire, an enthusiastic, ever-optimistic entrepreneur and award-winning app developer, faced many of these barriers in her education. “There’s this vibe, this thing that happens where girls are pushed towards the arts and boys are pushed towards the sciences,” she told me before Joldeen’s presentation.

As she was quick to point out, the discouragement is often subtle and inadvertent; it can be as simple as feeling intimidated and out of place in a computer science lab dominated in quantity and personality by confident male peers.

“This isn’t a problem confined to Uganda. Across the world, women are held back from science careers by unsupportive teachers and restrictive biases.”

Sometimes, though, she faced explicit gender discrimination; a teacher once told her that she shouldn’t apply to a certain technical school because, as she remembered it, “you’re a girl—you’ll never get in.” Thankfully, her father actively encouraged her interest in computers, and she kept learning, eventually majoring in software engineering at Makerere University in Kampala.

Unfortunately, Ampaire’s experiences aren’t unique; a 2011 study published in the International Journal of Gender, Science, and Technology echoed many of her concerns about the technological gender gap in Uganda. Though the study had a relatively small sample size, roughly two-thirds of women surveyed by the authors stated that “society discouraged them by claiming that computer science is a ‘hard’ and ‘difficult’ subject”—while only 10% of men said the same. It also highlighted the lack of scholarships and female mentors in STEM subjects as likely contributors to the technological gender gap.

This isn’t a problem confined to Uganda. Across the world, women are held back from science careers by unsupportive teachers and restrictive biases. GirlGeekKampala is just one of the many organizations supporting women in their pursuit of STEM careers; other well known groups from America include Girls Who Code, based in New York City, and Black Girls Code, in San Francisco.

Ampaire, an entrepreneur always on the lookout for a new problem to solve, saw a gap between what women wanted—a more welcoming environment where they could learn computer science—and what was available to them in the classroom. “I thought maybe if there were more girls around, I would get this courage to learn,” she said. “It could be a group thing in a group setting for girls, and it could just start from the basics—from the ground up, at our own pace, no need to rush us.”

GirlGeekKampala capably fills that gap. Every Saturday, women—and some men—meet at Outbox, which kindly lets the group use the space for free. For a few hours each session, members of Kampala’s tech community (often men) give up to their Saturday afternoons to facilitate wide-ranging conversations and hold mini-workshops with the group of women.

The sessions are hands-on, open, and collaborative by design. “Everyone is free to express themselves and learn new things,” Joldeen said, contrasting the average GirlGeekKampala session with girls’ experiences in computer labs at school. “The fact that you keep having girls that push you to believe that this is possible—and we have other mentors and supporters that want to see this be very successful—I think that makes it an amazing experience.”

“It’s amazing learning these things,” she added for emphasis.

Other events have proven popular with the GirlGeeks, too. In January of last year, Ampaire helped organize Rails Girls Kampala, a two-day workshop where attendees learned Ruby on Rails, a popular web framework. Seventy girls attended the event (many of them GirlGeeks), and almost two dozen carried over their enthusiasm to a weekly learning session on Friday afternoons, which finished this past summer.

GirlGeekKampala, Rails Girls Kampala, and other organizations are part of Kampala’s growing tech scene. Though less well-known than Nairobi’s bustling tech ecosystem, it’s quietly becoming a vibrant space for entrepreneurs to learn, collaborate, and create.

Ugandan developers are choosing to focus on products and services that help solve the types of problems their families and friends have daily, Ampaire thinks, often in more rural areas.

“The tech scene is growing, and the thing I love is that developers are passionate about building products that are locally relevant—built by Africans, for Africans, which is really cool,” Ampaire told me. “It’s more about ‘Think Local’—what problems do we have in our local scene, and how can we solve them?”

“To me, the coolest stuff is not the stuff that looks amazing; it’s the stuff that’s solving the smallest needs,” Ampaire said. As an example of this socially-conscious focus, Ampaire mentioned one of her first products, an award-winning app called MafutaGo. It crowd-sources petrol prices and was widely used during a recent petrol shortage in Kampala.

“Software is going to play a huge role in the development of Uganda and our continent as a whole, right?” she added, ticking off M-FARM (“I thought it was so cool because it was so relevant, you know?”) and M-PREP (now Eneza Education), both being deployed in Kenya, as examples of how simple applications can have an outsized effect.

It’s clear that GirlGeekKampala is having an effect on individual women, too. “It all started when I joined,” Joldeen told me. “For me, GirlGeekKampala was like the door—an opportunity for me to start on my own. And [now] I’m learning other languages, too.”

Currently, she’s working on an app related to Ugandan fashion, and hopes to own an IT firm in the future.