By Naomi Martin
June 24, 2013
[LONDON] The entrepreneurial and technological potential of African women remains largely unexploited, according to a leading space scientist.
Maggie Aderin-Pocock, a research fellow at University College London, was addressing delegates at Africa Gathering, a global platform that brings together leading African figures in business and innovation to share ideas for positive change on the continent. The platform celebrated its fifth anniversary with a conference held at the BBC last week (21-22 June) to showcase the rise of African women in the continent’s technology sector.
Aderin-Pocock said that, while “we have come a long way”, African women and girls continually need to be inspired to have dreams and aspirations. She added that the problem is not just one of gender, pointing out that most people don’t think of Africa when they think of science.
When asked what can be done to encourage African women to follow a scientific career path, the scientist pointed to the “pale, male and stale” scientific figures currently lauded in schools and called for ordinary, everyday role models as an alternative for girls to aspire to.
Speaking on a panel with Aderin-Pocock entitled ‘Meeting the Challenge: Women in Entrepreneurship and Technology — Reaching for the Stars’, journalist and writer Hannah Pool said that many African women are “invisible” in business and technology.
There were, however, a couple of strong exceptions to this rule.
Rebecca Enonchong, founder and CEO of Appstech — a company providing business application solutions — and a business mentor based in Cameroon said that the goal is not just to get African women into technology but to also get them to start their own businesses.
Enonchong spoke of the prejudice she faced when attempting to start her own company.
“I wasn’t even allowed inside the bank,” she said. “When I went to the Citibank office in Duala, Cameroon, to open an account — just to open an account, I was not asking for a loan … they wouldn’t let me through the door.
“I pushed and shoved and I was able to get in … but they told me that this wasn’t the branch for me. They never asked about my company. They never asked what we did.”
Enonchong said this is just one example of the challenges facing budding female entrepreneurs in Africa. “They don’t see us as a business opportunity [even though] we bring revenue to these banks.”
“We need to find alternative ways of getting in the door, like literally beating down the door. We need to get more young women interested in not just building software or involved in tech but actually building companies.
“In Silicon Valley, only three per cent of start-ups [have been established by] women. And I tried to get the stats on how many of those were black women — nobody knew. There are no stats. We need to change that dynamic and let’s start [with Africa]. We are capable, we can do it.”
One woman who has managed to overcome such challenges is Kenyan Jamila Abass. In 2010, Abass co-created the agribusiness company MFarm Ltd — “the eBay and Amazon for commodities”, she told the conference. Its main product is a mobile application that enables access to markets for disadvantaged Kenyan farmers via text messages. Such farmers are normally disconnected from the rest of the world when seeking to find out how they can take their products to market.
The application provides up-to-date information on the prices of different crops in specific markets throughout Kenya, giving farmers the tools to bargain for fair prices for their crops with middlemen and purchasers.
While agreeing with her fellow panellists’ comments, Abass, who is CEO of the company, said that she is confident that Africa is starting to see the light with regards to ensuring that women have the same access to business and technology opportunities as men.
“Right now, Africa is seeing that without women things are not going to progress as quickly as we’d like because women are part of the whole ecosystem … I am glad that we are starting to realise that.”