African Tech Mavens Take on Gender Digital Divide

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Rebecca Enonchong

(WOMENSENEWS)–They crossed the Atlantic Ocean, the gender gap and the digital divide on the way to success. Now a group of African women tech-entrepreneurs take on their next challenge: bringing it home.

From her small headquarters in New Haven, Conn., Awo Quaison-Sackey lines up capital and clients for her company, AQSolutions, which provides offshore software-development services for U.S. companies. She launched the companylast year and now employs 32 software developers in her homeland, Ghana. Four of them are women.

Their high-tech savvy is an aberration in Africa, which is on the periphery of the information revolution. Africa’s 54 countries and 700 million people make up 13 percent of the world’s population, but less than 1 percent of the global total of Internet users, according to the United Nations Development Fund for Women, known as UNIFEM. Africa’s women are on the margin of that margin.

From the fields to the formal business sector, information technology has the potential to improve women’s lives by helping them reap more return for their work. Women farmers could increase their yield by accessing information on new growing techniques, weather forecasts and food preservation. A coffee grower in Kenya could check market data on the Internet and get the best price for her crop. With this basic information, women could avoid selling at cut-rate prices.

So Quaison-Sackey recently teamed up with other leaders and experts in information technology to ensure that it serves–not sidelines–Africa’s women. The United Nations Development Fund for Women convened the high-powered advisory council last March to help African women use information technology to improve their livelihoods and their lives. The 12-member committee includes African tech-entrepreneurs from the U.S. and Africa who have made it their business to extend technology’s reach on their home continent.

“This is the first time powerful women leaders have pooled resources to affect the countries we come from,” says Quaison-Sackey.

High Hopes for High Tech

UNIFEM plans to confront both big-picture policies and local needs in Africa. The agency will call on the been-there business acumen of the committee members to push for national policies that support technical business expansion on the continent. UNIFEM has also organized a gender caucus to present African women’s needs at the United Nations World Summit on the Information Society, which will take place in Geneva next year.

At the grassroots, UNIFEM has teamed up with other U.N. agencies to launch the Digital Diaspora Network to recruit tech-savvy African ex-patriots to mentor women’s organizations and woman-owned micro-enterprise in Africa. The agency has also partnered with Cisco Systems to offer gender-specific training for women in Jordan.

Tech Entrepreneurs Take Their Work Home

“The whole purpose is really to address feminized poverty in Africa,” says Laketch Dirasse, chief of Africa section at UNIFEM.

Whether running a one-woman crafts enterprise or small business in the formal sector, Africa’s women entrepreneurs could use information technology to access credit, identify markets, learn management skills, advertise their businesses, sell products and services, reduce administrative costs and speed transactions, according to a study released by the Academy for Educational Development, an independent, U.S.-based nonprofit organization.

The evidence of technology’s power can be seen in Senegal, where the Grand Coast Fishing Operators Union, an organization of women who market fish, uses communication technology to exchange information on supply and demand between its different locations along Atlantic coast.

Amolo Ng'weno

“Frequently I encounter young entrepreneurs whose horizons are blocked by their inability to imagine the world outside their country,” says committee member Amolo Ng’weno. “They therefore can’t even conceive of markets or partnerships or suppliers or bankers who might be useful to them.”

“The main ongoing general obstacle to entrepreneurship in the IT field remains the cost and inefficiency of telecommunications,” says Ng’weno.

Ng’weno knows from experience. In 1994, Ng’weno left her job as a World Bank economist in Washington and returned to her native Kenya to co-found Africa Online, Africa’s answer to AOL.

At the outset, she and her business partners had to confront the high costs imposed by state-run telecommunication system operators. They had to win over governments wary of Internet-enabled sedition, libel and pornography. Since relatively few Africans have access to computers, Africa Online also faced the challenge of expanding within a small market of potential customers.

In spite of these impediments, Ng’weno and her partners saw their company grow to be the continent’s largest Internet service provider outside of South Africa. Ng’weno recently moved on to start a new venture, Biashara.biz, a retail site for Kenyan-made goods.

Like Ng’weno, committee member Rebecca Enonchong has used her technical know-how to germinate technical enterprise in Africa. In 1999, she founded Application Technologies, Inc., an international e-business solutions provider with headquarters in Bethesda, Md. Since then, she has included Africa in her company’s growth, opening offices in Ghana and her native Cameroon. She also founded the Africa Technology Forum, a nonprofit organization designed to promote technology entrepreneurship in Africa.

Somali-born Yussur Abrar, chief executive officer and founder of Virginia-based Warsun International Communications, joins Enonchong on the committee. Her company has launched a program to expand the reach of basic telephone service and other Internet-enabling infrastructure on the continent.

Though they have formidable experience, the committee members know they face tough challenges in reaching their goal of putting information technology to work for Africa’s women.

Cross All Cultures, Women Must Be Caretakers

“Business life in Africa is very tough for everyone, but it is that much tougher for women,” says Ng’weno.

Beyond the harsh information technology climate, African women face their own set of hurdles on the path to the information superhighway.

“The main problem for women, which cuts across the different African cultures, is that they are the homemaker first and foremost,” says Ng’weno.

Young women are often pulled out of school to care for babies or for sick family members–a fact of life more common because of the AIDS pandemic. In sub-Saharan Africa, only 57 percent of girls are enrolled in primary school. Without basic education and literacy, women are deprived of the prerequisites to information access.

For women who complete their education and go on to work in the formal business sector, access to information technology is restricted by time and money. Since computers and Internet access are still rare in most offices in developing countries, women professionals are most likely to turn to public access at Internet cafes, where usages fees average $1 to $3 per hour.

Though they might be able to afford the expense of access, their limited free time keeps it out of reach. Like women in the informal sector, women professionals do not expect or receive help with housework or cooking, says Ng’weno.

Quaison-Sackey says the unequal division of domestic labor makes it hard for her to recruit and hire more female software developers at her office in Ghana. She offers flextime arrangements. Nevertheless, she says, “It’s hard to find women who can put in the hours a start-up company requires.”

Information technology has the power to melt African women’s isolation so they can find allies among women’s movements in other African nations or other regions of the world. Without it, say advocates, Africa’s women will be left out by a world that has already embraced a tech-focused future.

When Awo Quaison-Sackey pitches her company’s services to prospective clients, she shows them Ghana’s place on a map of Africa. A daughter of Ghana, a U.S. chief executive providing offshore software development from her homeland, she knows what is possible, what is achievable, on the continent. She and her colleagues on the committee want to help other African women put Africa’s potential on the map.

Shauna Curphey is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.


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