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Young African women turn to coding

Software developers at Andela’s Nigeria headquarters in Lagos. Photo: Andela/Rotimi Okungbaye
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At Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Angela Koranteng was an accomplished student with a special dream. At a time when few women were breaking the gender barrier in male-dominated studies, Ms. Koranteng had her heart set on health sciences—but instead of treating patients, she wanted to be an engineer and build hospitals.

By Fatima Sene

After a round of courses in computer programming, civil engineering and coding, Ms. Koranteng today has earned a degree and a title: professional African coder.

Coding is what makes it possible to create computer software, apps and websites. Your browser, your operating system, the apps on your phone, Facebook, and websites—they’re all made with code. Coding can be learned at a university or boot camp.

Because boys are exposed to technical matters in childhood and girls are not, few young African women imagine themselves on a career track in engineering.

Not just a man’s field

In college, “I learned everything from scratch, whereas the boys already knew the basics,” Ms. Koranteng told Africa Renewal in an interview. That disadvantage ensured that “my contributions [in class] were deemed less intelligent than those of my male counterparts.”

Even Ms. Koranteng’s father was not sure that a path in coding was good for her. “He didn’t know that coding would become one of the most in-demand skills across industries,” she explained.

Today Ms. Koranteng works with a group called STEMbees, a Ghana-based nonprofit organization she helped to found, which mentors young women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). Ms. Koranteng hopes that more girls in STEM will help bridge the gender gap in computing.

Unfortunately, training in STEM still attracts fewer women students than training in teaching, law, medicine or business.

Karen Spärck Jones, a professor of computers and information at the University of Cambridge Computer Laboratory in the UK, once said that “computing is too important to be left to men.”

But even in the most developed countries, the computer field is disproportionately dominated by men. In 2013 in the US, only 26% of computing professionals were female—down considerably from 35% in 1990 and virtually the same as in 1960. While the percentage of women in engineering has risen since 1990, the progress has been modest—from 9% in 1990 to 12% in 2013.

A 2012 US Department of Labor survey reported that women in the US comprised 30% of web developers, 25% of programmers, 37% of database administrators, 20% of software developers, and a little over 10% of information security analysts. Women also held less than 20% of chief information officer positions at Fortune 250 companies, and among the Fortune 100 tech companies, only four women held chief executive officer positions. At tech giants like Google, over 70% of technical employees were men.

Lacking reliable data, Ms. Koranteng presumes Africa’s situation to be far worse than that of the US. In the bustling Computer Village in Lagos, Nigeria, for example, it is mostly young men developing apps or engaging in other computing work, Caleb Ibhasabemon, who monitors technology trends and plans to start a computer hardware sales company, told Africa Renewal in an interview.

Despite the growth of Internet usage in Africa over the last decade, about 10% of the continent has access to the Internet, according to a 2017 report by Internet World Stats, an organization that monitors global Internet usage. Low Internet diffusion on the continent is certain to impede efforts by Africans, especially girls, to become coding professionals.

Marian Tesfamichael, a young Ghanaian who has been coding in Toronto, Canada, is one of the few success stories. Her undergraduate studies were in computer science and mathematics, and her graduate studies in computer science. She is a web developer and data manager at the University of Toronto.

Ms. Tesfamichael says her gender and ethnicity might have slowed her progress within the industry; many at companies she’s worked for didn’t believe she could be good at the job. However, at the moment things are looking up for her.

A Lagos-based tech company Andela is training engineering teams, including coders, to fill the gap in tech talent in Africa. “We have nearly 30% of women out of more than 600 developers based in Lagos, Nairobi and Kampala,” says Christine Magee, Andela’s director of communications.

Another success story is Ghana’s Ethel Cofie, whom Forbes business magazine calls one of the top five women affecting IT on the continent. She is the founder and CEO of EDEL Technology Consulting, a company that provides IT and software services for businesses.

Technology and GDP growth

Ms. Cofie studied computer science during the dot-com period (1995 to 2001) and took advantage of Africa’s emerging market to invest in technology, according to reports by the BBC and CNN. To promote diversity in the computer programming industry, particularly to “encourage African girls to get involved,” she founded Women in Tech Africa.

Many budding female techies from around the continent consider Ms. Cofie a role model.

“Computer programming is one of the world’s most in-demand skills,” and African girls must seize the opportunity, says Ms. Cofie.

Similar sentiments have been voiced at the World Economic Forum (WEF), a Geneva-based nonprofit that meets annually and bills itself as committed to public-private cooperation.

Information technology helps create new businesses in digital marketing, data sciences, and mobile money ecosystems, among others. In 2017, revenues for information technology products and services are forecast to reach $2.4 trillion, a 3.5% increase over 2016, reports International Data Corporation (IDC), which provides market intelligence for information technology, telecommunications and consumer technology markets. IDC adds that the figure could be $2.6 trillion by 2020.

Statistics by WEF also show that a 10% increase in broadband penetration can lead to a 1.4% increase in GDP growth in emerging markets. The GDP growth numbers can be seen in countries adopting mobile money or other technologies that facilitate financial transactions, for example.

Already top tech companies such as Facebook and Google are providing technical and financial support to institutions creating opportunities for African girls learning how to code.

AWELE Academy, a leadership and technology institution based in Lagos, is one of the schools receiving external support for its attempts to close the coding gap in Africa. But it can accept only 20 students at a time—a feeble effort at best.

Technology institutions are working to increase awareness about computer programming through local conferences where girls meet role models to discuss career prospects.

Gender equality enthusiasts are optimistic that the increase in women coders will help close the gender wage inequality gap in Africa. The next few years could witness more African women falling in love with coding, earning decent wages and transforming their countries’ economies, predicts Ms. Tesfamichael.