ICT can go a long way in promoting gender equality and women empowerment. Winner of an Africa-wide programming contest tells us how she’s tapping into her digital skills to get ahead in the field.

Salissou Hassane Latifa wanted to become a doctor, but the length of the studies felt discouraging. Urged by her uncle, she turned to programming. “That’s a promising field,” he told her.

The young Nigerien wasn’t totally sold on the idea, but when she entered L’École Supérieure de Télécommunications in Niamey, the country’s capital, and saw that she would be one of only five women in a classroom full of men, she took it upon as a challenge.

“When I am told this is not a place for women, I know that this is where I have to be,” she told Capacity4dev at the European Development Days in Brussels. “I like challenges.”

And the challenges, she’s since overcome many.

Since graduating, the 21-year-old has designed a mobile app, Saro, that allows users to send emergency services the exact location of an accident. The app won a national competition in Niger, where Latifa had to compete against men and women. As a winner, she got to work with a business incubator for 12 months.

There, she launched her own start-up, Innov’Elle, which aims to develop software and applications, while providing training and guidance on emerging ITC challenges.

Combating stereotypes

Why such a competition, the first of its kind on the continent?

“For a country like ours, technology is key; it’s a fertiliser,” said Ibrahima Guimba Saidou, chief executive officer of the National Information Society Agency (ANSI), tasked with developing digital solutions for the Niger's development goals. “The question for us was, how can we find the most efficient way of levering technology to address our challenges?”

Salissou Hassane Latifa and Ibrahima Guimba Saidou on digitalisation’s role in the empowerment of women:

The answer: human capital. “This is how we came to the idea of having a competition serve as a stimulus,” Saidou said. “We have an extremely young population, so it’s a way to engage all this youth in finding the best solutions to the problems faced by our country.”

As the winner, Latifa will receive help in launching Saro. “We want her application to become a reality by the end of the year,” Saidou said. “We go beyond, to find a market. We’re currently in talks with the civil protection services to have them buy the rights to the app.”

The competition in Niger isn’t the only one Latifa has taken by the storm. Earlier this year, she also won Miss Geek Africa, a continent-wide contest organised in the frame of the UN-led Girls in ICT Day that encourages young women and girls to study science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

“This annual competition aims at discovering and promoting young women through ICT-related projects,” said Latifa. “It helps them become part of the digital market.”

This year’s Miss Geek Africa took place at the Women Summit, the closing part of the Transform Africa Summit in Kigali, Rwanda. Latifa was one of five finalists selected from more than 200 applicants.

According to Latifa, the prize, which includes a grant and mentoring from entrepreneurs, goes a long way in helping counter stereotypes. “It’s a positive image that contradicts the notion that women are not interested in ICT, even if there are more and more of them entering the field,” she said.

“Technology is the right equaliser”

While ICT’s potential in promoting gender equality and women empowerment has long been recognised, there remains a gender divide, reflected in the lower number of women accessing and using the tools, compared to men.

“There is a risk that ICT may exacerbate existing inequalities”

In a 2005 report, the UN warned that “unless this gender divide is specifically addressed, there is a risk that ICT may exacerbate existing inequalities between women and men and create new forms of inequality”.

The same report added that if “the gender dimensions of ICT – in terms of access and use, capacity-building opportunities, employment and potential for empowerment—are explicitly identified and addressed, ICT can be a powerful catalyst for political and social empowerment of women, and the promotion of gender equality”.

According to Latifa, mistrust in women’s abilities remains one of the key obstacles. “People… donors don’t believe in women and think of ICT as a men’s field,” she said. “Socially, it’s a challenge as well, because app development takes time and women are generally expected to be in charge of housekeeping.”

Although the digital sector is growing rapidly, creating hundreds of thousands of jobs every year, the share of women remains dramatically low. Shortage of digital skills remains part of the problem, compounded by the low number of female technical students.

For Saidou, this is an issue that goes beyond gender. “As long as we’re able to make technology available to everyone, the best talent will come and it’s very likely that we will start having more women winning these competitions,” he said. “Technology is really the right equaliser.”

This article was written by Virginie Ramey and Bartosz Brzezinski. Photo courtesy Miss Geek Africa

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DISCLAIMER: This information is provided in the interests of knowledge sharing and capacity development and should not be interpreted as the official view of the European Commission, or any other organisation.

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