The first time that Tech4Her Africa, the award-winning Nigerian company founded by Elizabeth Olorunleke Edwards, visited a girls’ secondary school, the students were surprised. “Most of them were looking at us strange,” Elizabeth tells me on the phone. “Tech expert is not what they were used to seeing women as.” To the girls, her team represented a new, interesting possibility. “Seventy percent of them wanted to be doctors, as usual, and only a few eventually said engineers. We exposed them to space engineering, to open their minds to see the big picture. We wanted to help them grow up with different ideas.”
Tech4Her Africa is part of a thriving ecosystem of female-led organisations, most of which were founded in the 2010s, all on a succeeding mission to bridge the gender divide in tech in Nigeria. In 2018, leading site Techcabal unveiled a portrait profile series on 50 Lagos-based tech women. The same year, software developer Andela’s Women in Technology Summit in Lagos brought together over 100 industry leaders. From GirlsHype in South Africa to Intelipro in Kenya to Ghana Code Club to the annual Women in Tech Africa Summit, the surge is also continental. In a world in which, due to cultural restrictions, women account for under 20% of ICT specialists in developing economies, these companies are creating education and mentoring opportunities for millions, empowering them to make livelihoods through software problem-solving.
Elizabeth had grown up with a love for solving problems, fixing broken gadgets at home with her brother, reading textbooks on math and physics, but it was at Obafemi Awolowo University (OAU), Ife, while studying Computer Engineering and being fascinated by a course called Very High Definition Language (VHDL), that she found her inspiration to learn coding. “They were doing the SUG election and for my project I was proposing an internet voting system.” For the proposal, she learned PHP, a scripting language for Web development. “That’s where the whole programming started from.”
After graduating in 2011, Elizabeth launched InspiriaSoft, an outfit that created applications, and enrolled for mobile app and WordPress tutorials. Then she moved to Ibadan, “but I realized there’s no market there,” and so she went to Lagos, where she worked briefly for Computer Warehouse Group. “I did a project for them, they wanted to retain me but I just wanted to run my own stuff,” she says.
Elizabeth’s decision to go solo was inspired by a gender discrepancy she noticed. “In school, out of 150 students in computer engineering, there were just like seven ladies,” she explains. “All the academies I attended, it was the same.” Why work for someone else when she could create her own company and increase the number of women in tech?
She took up more training; she attended Google Academy and a synchronized program by Microsoft Academy and business entrepreneurship group FATE Foundation. “That combination of tech and business opened my eyes,” Elizabeth tells me. Halfway through the Microsoft training in 2015, she launched Tech4Her Africa.
Three years later, in 2018, Tech4Her Africa entered for Silicon Valley’s AngelHack Hackathon contest, hosted at Impact Hub, Ikoyi. “IBM was one of their key partners. Within two weeks, we had to learn AI semantics to be able to build. My girls were thinking, ‘This is too much to absorb.’ I myself was like, ‘Wow, it’s just a lot.’” They were the only female group to reach the finals, and they won. “One of the girls carried me up. They didn’t believe it.” The AI-based app they developed, Tatafo, enables university students to reach campus resources instantly. “The AI system is able to answer all questions,” Elizabeth explains. “It’s a ‘campus in your pocket’ app.”
Tech4Her Africa was subsequently shortlisted to represent Africa at the Global Demo Day in Silicon Valley, where, together with winners from 50 other cities around the world, they were to partake in the 12-week Angel Hackcelerator program. The years before the hackathon win had been full of similar invitations to represent Nigeria at events in South Africa, the US, the UK, and Germany. The company has since partnered with entrepreneur-training program MEST Africa, to seek out unknown talents in Nigeria.
When Tech4Her Africa went to the secondary school, it was as part of their “catch them young” initiative, STEEM Diva, through which promising students are invited to their workspace. “We introduce them to HTML and take them to a familiar site like Facebook,” Elizabeth says. “We explain to them how what they see on the frontend is the user interface, but in the backend, they see codes: numbers, letters. They are very excited and very free. They want to be involved in the whole process.”
The organization is taking a multi-sectoral approach with timeline-based goals. Its Girls Slay Code Academy, started in 2017, aims to launch 10,000 female developers by 2025. Another initiative, Project 2030, is building “the largest technology institute for women in Africa,” called IOTWomen, whose graduates would be provided with internships, jobs, and exchange programs across the globe. “We have plans,” Elizabeth reiterates, “if not for COVID.”
Elizabeth hopes to help reset gender expectations in tech. “The idea that as a woman you’re supposed to stay in the kitchen, I didn’t accept it, but I tried to balance,” she says. “Most girls that we teach today, we are helping them change that dynamic. This is the new norm. It’s fascinating to know that these codes can solve real human problems.”
Otosirieze Obi-Young is Editor of Folio Nigeria, where he profiles innovators and facilitators in culture: art, business, entertainment, activism, health, food. He is a writer, journalist, curator, media consultant, former academic, and Founder & Editor-in-Chief of Open Country Mag, a new online platform covering African literature. In 2019, he received the inaugural The Future Awards Africa Prize for Literature. In 2020, he was named among "The 100 Most Influential Young Nigerians" by Avance Media. Find him on otosirieze.com or on Twitter & Insta: @otosirieze.