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Human Resources

Tech Women in Sub-Saharan Africa

TechWomen, a US initiative which fosters female leaders in entrepreneurship and innovation within Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) in North Africa and the Middle East, has finally opened its doors to women from Sub-Saharan Africa. Kathryn Cave catches up with Zimkhita Buwa who will be joining the program from Cape Town.

“My love for technology started soon after high school. I spent quite a long time with my brother who was at university at the time and he always used to come back and show me some of the programs that they created. Until eventually I thought, if he can do it, why can’t I?” This is SAP consultant Zimkkhita Buwa speaking on the phone from South Africa.

Buwa is one of seven South Africans to be chosen for TechWomen, a program which takes emerging women leaders in STEM from Africa and the Middle East and places them with professionals in the United States for a mentorship and exchange program. The five-week program offers the women selected professional development in the San Francisco Area and Silicon Valley along with a trip to Washington DC to undertake targeted meetings with Congressional representatives and Department of State representatives.

The initiative launched in 2011 and the website contains profiles of a diverse pool of previous delegates. These include Noha Abousonna from Egypt, Evelyn Zoubi from the Middle East and Rayane Hazimeh from Dubai. But 2013 is the first year this program has been open to those in Sub-Saharan Africa.

According to the VP and director of the Institute of Information Technology Professionals, Moira de Roche, stats on women in ICT in South Africa (alone) are “pretty scant.” She estimates that “to the best of her knowledge, women comprise 55% of the total South African workforce, but only 20% of the ICT workforce and it's a stark reality that fewer and fewer girls' schools teach IT.”

“The program is what you make of it,” stresses Buwa. What counts is “how you use the connections you make out there. How you prioritise your goals and how you determine core deliverables for when you return.”  Buwa explains that she and fellow South African participants (who range from physicists to robot engineers) are currently in the process of speaking to stakeholders and solidifying contacts and will hit them with concrete a plan when they come back. The overreaching aim is to raise awareness for STEM and technology careers across Africa. And she would love “to create a program to change perceptions around STEM within our high schools.”

Buwa herself has an interesting background. Having won a scholarship to study Information Systems in Malaysia through Petronas and the South African government she learned some invaluable lessons about other cultures, but was especially impressed by the “incredible [Asian] work ethic.” Yet she explains even during her studies she began to understand what it meant to be a woman in the science and technology field, as the course was about 70 -80% male.

Buwa has spent the last eight years’ working in Business Intelligence with a focus on SAP. She also works as a mentor and enjoys sharing knowledge. However, the biggest problem she has faced is “[the] cultural mind-set that men are the leaders, or should be regarded as the leaders, as the head of the family.” She believes this is a big part of African culture and “it gets drummed into you from a young age. You do get told that a lot.”

“In some ways when you enter a corporate environment there is that tendency to allow your male counterpart to lead; if there are volunteers needed for a task for a male to do it because you don’t want to appear too forward. [However] when I do reach that cultural barrier I do have a conversation with myself and say ‘You know what, you actually can do it’ – it is really about being aware of what is going on in your head and having the confidence to say that I can lead.”

TechWomen may not be able to counteract the underlying issues facing women in technology in Sub-Saharan Africa. However it does give those selected the opportunity to gain external experience and bring that knowledge home.  Buwa and the six other South Africans selected will be flying out to San Francisco in October.

 

Kathryn Cave is Editor at IDG Connect

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