Kieron Kirkland is co-founder and director of CAST, an organisation accelerating the use of technology for social impact, part-funded by Nominet Trust.
A friend of mine recently tweeted from a Google developer conference that of the 600 people that were there, only three were women.
Sadly, that’s not uncommon.
Anyone who’s worked in tech for any length of time and has actually looked up from their laptop will have noticed that there’s a serious shortage of women in tech. You’re aware of that. The only useful question is, what do you do about it?
That’s why projects like AkiraChix are so important. For six years,. they have been putting women firmly into the heart of the digital scene in Nairobi, Kenya.
Even their choice of office location speaks volumes. They’re based in the same building that houses iHub, Mlab, Ushahidi, BRCK and all the other local tech giants.
They’ve literally put themselves at the centre of the Kenyan tech scene, geographically and culturally.
I met Angela, one of the four organisation’s co-founders, and she’s a swirling mass of energy. Talking as fast as she thinks as she relays Akirachix’s story.
When you hear it, you understand why their model is so relevant and why it’s making such an impact.
To start with, three of the four founding team are developers themselves, meaning they have personal experience of the problems women face trying to break into the tech scene.
As developers, it also means they’ve got an eye for detail, are keen problem solvers and have the gritty determination that’s in the heart of every good engineer.
This determination and skill has grown Akirachix from a series of informal meetups for women in tech into a carefully structured organisation that supports girls and young women from age seven to 25-years-old into one of the fastest growing industries in Kenya.
Knowing both the challenges of traditional training programmes, where there’s too much theory and not enough practice, but also the importance of resilience and a strong work ethic in software development, their one-year programme is no easy path.
Half of young Kenyans are out of work
As I walked into their training space I saw 30 heads buried deep in code and concentration. And it’s easy to understand why. The intense curriculum delivered over three semesters sees the apprentices move from a basic introduction to computers, through to web design and app development, before finishing with an industry placement.
This placement means the trainees graduate with professional, hands-on experience, all too often missed from formal computer science programmes.
In the four years Akirachix have run the course, 89 young women have gone on to work in tech or to start their own businesses. When you consider that youth unemployment in Kenya is over 50 per cent, the direct and knock-on effects of this success are significant.
But still, it’s a drop in the water. Such an environment is further challenged by conservative careers education in schools that only sees ‘good’ jobs in the traditional areas of law, medicine and so on.
Akirachix is opening the doors to technology careers and entrepreneurship through outreach programmes designed to inform young women of the potential options available to them.
She builds, she serves, she leads
In true Akirachix style, and true to their motto of ‘she builds, she serves, she leads’, they don’t just stop with training or information events.
Instead they run a whole series of hacks and intensive, one-week bootcamps that cover everything from app development to building robots. It’s this hands on experience that emphasises the vast distance between Akirachix’s approach and more traditional, dry, training programmes.
Their outreach work reaches a crescendo with their Geek Girl Festival – a careers day where more than 400 high school girls are given the chance to connect with industry and understand the options open to them.
One-off events like this are vital to help grow the tech scene and raise awareness. If no one in your life has worked in tech, you’re unlikely to know you can be programmer, much less a user researcher or startup founder.
While their training programmes deal with pure skill-building, Akirachix also finds space to address the issues that local women face, through a series of community hacks.
While early hacks looked at simple localised problems, like where to find a good hairdresser, over time they’ve organically begun to focus on pressing and dangerous problems for women in Kenyan society.
Secure physical and digital spaces
This work has led, in turn, to greater skills development, exposure to new projects and new entrepreneurial opportunities being fed back into the Akirachix programme.
One area of focus has been enabling security for women, both online and in the community. Some hacks have focused on creating secure digital spaces for women, where the community developed specialised skills in web security – offering a further layer of useful experience to the mentors and trainees.
Elsewhere, one hack produced Ujirani, an app that started off enabling women’s safety in their local community by linking them with their neighbours, but has grown to be a venture in it’s own right, run by two of the Akirachix community.
As with any programme as diverse and vibrant as this, Akirachix has it’s challenges. Not least, ensuring its own sustainability.
While they’ve benefited from funding for the last few years, they’re already looking at monetising some of their training to support their wider work. However, as others operating in the space of young people and tech have found, it will take time to grow this model.
More than sentiment
Margaret Mead famously said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world”. That’s a nice sentiment, but sentiment doesn’t solve the world’s problems (indeed, it can arguably make them worse).
What actually makes a difference is the careful thinking, passion, energy and determination that goes into building sustainable models for change.
When it comes to creating a more inclusive tech ecosystem and achieving economic empowerment for young women, Akirachix is showing the rest of the world how that’s possible.
Akirachix featured in the Nominet Trust’s 2015 NT100. The global search is now on for this year’s shining examples of inspirational tech for good. You can nominate the best social tech ventures that you know here.