“Tell me something about women in technology that I don’t already know.” This is the question I was asked by my Editor after attending the Connect Forum held on December 13, 2013 at the Government Complex in Lusaka.
It is almost impossible to describe a woman in one word, let alone women. In fact, anything to do with women is multifaceted; it is just never straight forward. This is why the group of first panelists at the Connect Forum observed that, women have the ability to multitask by nature. Since multitasking is a fundamental role in IT, it should therefore come naturally to women. However, it is not that easy to just say that because there are a lot of challenges, obstacles and barriers to women pursuing careers in IT.
Some of these challenges include, but are not limited to, fear of pursing pure sciences in school, lack of self-confidence, and lack of information. The first speaker talked quite expansively over her 45+ years in the IT industry. Mrs. Gertrude Mwangala Akapelwa-Ehueni, among many other impressive accolades, was the first Zambian Woman IBM Systems Engineer, and first woman Mathematician in Zambia. Something you will not read from her bio on the event website is that she left her village barefoot in pursuit of higher education. Now she can be credited for designing and assembling the first computer at the African Development Bank (ADB) in 1981. Speaking from experience, Mrs. Akapelwa-Ehueni noted that, for a long time women in ICT have been pursuing a lonely route. “There are just not enough women in the industry”, she said. This statement was supported by Ms. Mwangala Muyoyeta Palale, head of IT at Zanaco, who said that there are only seven women out of a group of fifty-five in the department. To conclude her speech, Mrs. Akapelwa-Ehueni advised that women should support each other, because from experience, women can be their own best enemies.
The second speaker of the day was Terry Karungi, Co-Founder and Product Lead at Kola Studios, a Game Development Company based in Kampala, Uganda. Terry talked in-depth about entrepreneurship and about her own experiences of being self-employed in the IT sector. She stated that commitment, teamwork, and independence were key factors of survival in running a business. Additionally, there were four panels which covered, women in tech, entrepreneurship, careers, and networking, respectively. The Connect Forum rhetoric took a motivational façade as more speakers took the panel and shared their remarkable experiences. Listening to the achievements of all the speakers was humbling to say the least. Their detailed accomplishments can be found here.
An interesting point to note is that, in as much as the Connect Forum was burning with entrepreneurial fires, it was acknowledged that entrepreneurship is not for everyone.
The ideation session involved people breaking up into groups and discussing problems facing women in tech, and coming up with potential solutions. The tenacity was lacking during this session as I did not hear any particularly new ideas, except the one proposed by Terry Karungi to create Girlgeeklusaka which would emulate Girlgeekkampala in Uganda. Girlgeekkampala is an initiative to create a community that promotes and celebrates Women in the Technology field. Their mission is to infuse programming skills and entrepreneurship skills into girls passionate about IT. Perhaps, it would have been helpful to have broken off into ideation groups right after lunch while people were full of energy and ready to exchange actionable ideas. Nonetheless, some great ideas were introduced. Some common themes that were iterated during the forum were the significance of skills, self-confidence, mentorship and guidance, and dissemination of information.
Alternatively, I would have loved to see some information booths with sponsor information detailing what they do in the tech industry, that is, BongoHive, InfoDev, Alchemy Women in Leadership,Corporate Heelz and C1rca1964. Additionally, some signage at the entrance of the venue advertising the women in tech event would have also been very effective in publicising what was happening to the by-standers and passers-by. It would have also been beneficial to see a demo of one of Kola Studio’s games or even a presentation on the process of game development to inspire future developers from among the participants. Nonetheless, I am sure that the next event will be bigger and better than the first.
For being the first of its kind, the Connect Forum was well organised and well-attended. The networking opportunities were fertile and allowed the participants enough time to get to know one another. To top it all up, there was free wireless internet provided by iConnect which allowed people to live-tweet during the event. In one adjective, the event was successful.
The event was hosted by Asikana Network with support from BongoHive, InfoDev, Alchemy Women in Leadership,Corporate Heelz and C1rca1964 . Other companies could have used the opportunity to advertise themselves at Connect Forum by having booths/stands as well. Nonetheless, as simple as the question seems, it is not as easy to answer because the word women alone conjures up many explanations. Actually, I am afraid that I may not have furnished my questioner with the answer he was looking for.
Take a look at the photos from the Event below.