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Training and Development

'We're energetic and intelligent chix'

If you’re a young, aspiring African female politician searching for continental role models you can look west at Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, or south, towards Malawian President Joyce Banda. Interested in entrepreneurship instead? How about Kenya’s Tabitha Karanja, founder and CEO, Keroche Breweries? Or Zimbabwe’s Divine Ndhlukuka, founder and CEO, Securico? The arts? Choose between 2007 Grammy award winner, Angelique Kidjo from Benin; or gifted writer and 2008 MacArthur Fellow, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; from Nigeria.

Fancy an IT career and your Google search serves you Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, but no continental trailblazers? Konza City, we have a problem. “In our company [Ibid Labs] there were five developers and four of us of were ladies so guys used to be like: ‘Who actually makes systems in this company? And we’d be like, it’s us,’” says Judith Owigar, Akirachix CEO. “Because of that kind of attitude, we decided that we’re going to do something for ladies in tech.” But as usual, when it comes to most charitable intentions, there’s usually a lag between intention and action. It took their volunteerism at Ushahidi, a company that develops open-source software for crowdsourcing information, among other products; and the launch of the Ihub in April 2010 for Judith and her fellow 11 crusaders to act. “There were very few ladies in the event and we knew all the ladies,’’ Judith says.

“After that we were like, ‘Now, this problem is clearly serious. Lets do something for women in tech.’ Two weeks after that, we formed Akirachix.” 

‘Akira’ is a Japanese term for ‘energy and intelligence.’ Originally, Akirachix’s main objective was to reach out to the small number of women in IT and encourage them to form a network which would reduce the number of women IT dropouts. “IT isn’t the most comfortable career for women,” Judith says.“Like in every area of life, women have to work really hard to prove themselves especially in technology.” Judith adds that it takes guts for a woman to stay put in an organisation where she’s either the only female IT professional or among a few.

But after a few meetings, Akirachix changed tack.  “After doing a couple of meet-ups, we had gotten quite a number of women into tech,” Judith says. “We decided to donate our skills and started a training programme.” This move would tax Akirachix energies and intelligence because they hadn’t recognised that they had now transformed the club into a start-up, albeit a non-profit one. First, most of their target students, young women living in some of Nairobi’s low-income neighbourhoods of Dandora, Huruma and Mathare couldn’t afford the daily bus fare needed to reach their classes at the swanky Lavington suburb; where the Social Development Network (SODNET) had granted Akirachix a training room. Second, Akirachix founders worked 9-5 and relied on volunteer trainers who missed classes whenever they landed a paying gig. Third, the refurbished computers donated by Computer Aid International, a UK-based NGO that collects and distributes second-hand IT equipment and accessories to developing countries, crashed a year later since they could no longer handle the heavy programming, graphic design and networking software. “It was quite a dramatic year,” Judith says. “I really think that we were naïve, but I’m so grateful that we were naïve because we didn’t think about a lot of things.”

However, the learning tsunami pounding Akirachix reduced its speed and impact in the second year. Thanks to financial support from organisations such as Google Rise, the World Bank’s InfoDev and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA); Akirachix hired tutors, bought laptops and landed their own office space on the ground floor of Bishop Magua Centre into which they plan to move in October, 2013 (currently, Akirachix shares office space with the rest of the tech companies/individuals at ihub on the 4th floor at the Bishop Magua Centre because the tutors are also based there). The fruits? 36 young women have graduated so far from Akirachix training programme and who have either got employed or began their own businesses, achievements which have made  women from other African countries such as Zambia, Senegal and Chad request Akirachix to open ‘subsidiaries.’ “We don’t want to have Akirachix in Uganda and so forth,” Judith says. “We encourage the women to build their own organisations and own them.”

Even though Judith is proud of the 36 alumnae so far, she’s not blind to the trying economic and social realities that her students experience daily. That’s why Akirachix classes begin at 9am and end at 1pm, so that the girls can go earn a living for their families in the afternoon. Akirachix also plans to invite reproductive health experts from both sexes to counsel future students because a number of past students got pregnant and left their studies.

Judith’s father, John Owigar, is an engineer, which partly explains why Judith wanted to become a chemical engineer. She credits Nairobi’s Pangani Girls’ School, where she studied between 1999 and 2002, for encouraging its students to study the ‘hard’ sciences. Judith loved chemistry and mathematics and even though she didn’t qualify to study chemical engineering, her elder brother, Michael Owigar; suggested computer science as an alternative. She joined the University of Nairobi in 2003 and even though her male classmates and lecturers accepted her presence, Judith was shocked that they were only five women out of 45 students. “I didn’t get the memo that chicks aren’t supposed to do computer science,” she says. “It made me question myself, ‘Did I pick the wrong career?’’’ But thanks to the projects which excited Judith, she gradually got her oomph back and she graduated four years later with a BSc computer science degree.

To complement their training programme, Akirachix hold talks in girls’ schools to inform them about IT opportunities and encourage universities to form tech communities which college women can join and grow the future supply pipeline. “Our mission is still to increase the number of women in technology,’’ Judith says.

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