There are several efforts being made towards improving gender equality in East Africa, but most quickly lose momentum and fail to yield concrete results. Today, basic ICT knowledge is one of the most desired skills on the labor market, yet access to digital tools and the ability to operate them remains unequally available across genders. Research by the Web Foundation shows that an estimated $408 million dedicated to closing the digital gap in Africa is left unused, while 43 percent fewer women have access to the internet in Sub-Saharan Africa when compared to men.
Back in 2010, Swedish engineering student, Malin Cronqvist, encountered these barriers first-hand while volunteering in Tanzania. Cronqvist decided to turn her graduate international project, Help to Help, into a full-time job dedicated to empowering women in Tanzania. The goal of Help to Help is to reduce poverty by increasing access to education and employment opportunities, all while striving to improve gender equality.
In 2015, Help to Help launched the Technology for Gender Empowerment & Employability initiative (TGEE) with selected partners in direct response to the structural gender inequality that marginalizes women in Tanzania. The aim of TGEE is to provide female university students and recent graduates with the practical IT skills required to be employed—or be successfully self-employed—as well as encourage more interest in tech skills amongst young women.
To pass on these sought-after skills, Cronqvist runs a six day immersive IT boot camp annually for non-computer literate women, providing practical training in computer labs as well as inspirational lectures. In September 2018, the third consecutive boot camp took place in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, with 135 participants (100 participants and 35 mentors). Six months after each boot camp, Help to Help offers a follow-up workshop for participants to review and deepen their digital skills.
“You can really feel the pride these women experience upon realizing that these important IT skills aren’t that hard to grasp,” says Katarina Rangnitt, Swedish Ambassador in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. She also voiced her support at the inaugural IT boot camp, recognizing that “there’s a need for initiatives to bridge the gap between what is taught at universities and the skills needed by companies.”
Following the success of the IT-training in Tanzania, the program is now expanding into cities across Uganda and Kenya. In addition to training women in basic computer skills, the boot camps also raise awareness of gender inequalities amongst the women participating, many of whom are either afraid to share their experiences or are unaware that their experiences are actually a result of gender discrimination.
“We need to highlight the consequences of the existing gender divide and demonstrate the importance of gender equality in order to empower these women to make a change,” explains Cronqvist. That’s why cultivating an inclusive and supportive community, as well as a safe space for discussion during training, is vital to the project.
To facilitate an open dialogue of what are often sensitive stories, Cronqvist uses Mentimeter, an interactive presentation platform which can be used for any type of lectures, workshops or meetings. The web-based tool lets participants interact anonymously, ask questions and engage with the group and presenter in real time.
“Conducting group sessions this way allows participants to feel comfortable sharing thoughts and experiences that would probably never have been shared without the use of an anonymous platform,” adds Cronqvist.
Flat hierarchies and open dialogue across genders and positions in the workplace are common practice in Sweden, which might explain why Cronqvist was so quick to recreate this democratic-style discussion in her IT boot camps.
“Transparency and equality are a big part of Swedish corporate culture,” says Johnny Warström, CEO and Co-founder of the interactive presentation platform Mentimeter, which notably is used by companies like Microsoft and Mckinsey, comments, who is passionate about encouraging inclusivity alongside engagement and efficiency in the workplace.
“Its use in this context is a testament to the positive impact technology can have on group dynamics and communication and echoes the aim behind the EQmeter, another tool available on the platform that was created in collaboration with Add Gender, the leading gender equality and diversity consulting firm, to keep change initiatives alive and measure progress of gender equality and diversity work,” adds Warström.
To amplify impact, Help to Help’s boot camps also train IT mentors, encouraging them to educate and spread digital knowledge within their communities as “Technology Ambassadors” to ensure this paradigm shift remains inclusive and accessible. So far, Help to Help reports that, for every woman trained, the knowledge acquired is spread to up to five others within six months after the bootcamp.
Several participants have also gone on to start their own educational initiatives to further extend access to ICT skills, such as Nice Magesa from Tanzania, who opened her own club, Je sisi, following completion of the 2015 bootcamp, teaching 30 street children basic computer skills every week and was awarded Woman of the Year in 2018 by Help to Help for her work.
One boot camp graduate, Consolata Chikoti, has become an important voice of female students at University of Dar es Salaam after founding the first female student association in the country, as well as a key figure in the gender equality movement in Tanzania, speaking on behalf of her organization at a global conference in Washington. Due to this university program’s success, requests are now coming in to establish similar networks for young women in Zambia and Zimbabwe.
“My program continues to inspire female students to engage in addressing gender issues and instills confidence in them to step out and dare to do better in their fields,” says Chikoti, who is now working on a platform designed to advocate for girls’ education and mobilize community resources to increase young women participating in the local labor force while completing her Post Graduate Degree at the Law School of Tanzania.
To date, Help to Help has trained 370 women in basic IT skills and engaged 90 mentors, helping them secure jobs and providing scholarships for ambitious young Tanzanians, but according to Cronqvist, the “target is to reach 10,000 women within the next five years, empowering them to advance in their careers with an employable ICT skill set and inspire peers with their enthusiasm and knowledge, all the while challenging the structural gender divide in East Africa to make a long term impact on equality across society there as a whole.”
Carolyne Ekyarisiima, the creator of Apps and Girls, a code-training program for girls in Tanzania, echoes this sentiment. “In order to end gender-based violence, stereotypes and strengthen our economies, we must promote equality in our communities,” says Ekyarisiima. “Equality creates a generation of global citizens with rich diversity that sparks innovations, growth, and peace.”
Cronqvist’s work in East Africa has already lead to several nominations and she has been named ‘Sweden’s Most Responsible Leader’, ‘Future Promise of the Year’ and ‘IT Woman of the Year’. Paired with Help to Help’s other initiatives—from raising money for university scholarships to running employability workshops for students in their talent network—Cronqvist and her team are well on their way to meet the organization’s mission to create positive change by contributing to education and job creation in East Africa.