TECH QUEENS CHANGING THE MINDSET IN GAMBIA

Forbes Africa
Published 5 months ago
Black Student Girl Holding Laptop Computer Standing On Pink Background

The Gambia is Africa’s smallest mainland nation, both in size and population. It’s also home to a growing technology sector, focused on building and deploying tailored solutions for the changing African digital landscape. Among its rising stars are women, many who have had to overcome myriad cultural barriers to join the sector. In turn, they are opening the way for other female leaders in the field. FORBES AFRICA takes a closer look at Gambia’s women in tech.

BY MARIE SHABAYA

AWAMARY LOWE-KHAN WAS JUST 23 YEARS old when she became a Chief Financial Officer. It was a determination to succeed and give her son “the world”, as she now puts it, that drove her career to early heights. Years later, she leveled that energy at another challenge; technology entrepreneurship.

For over a decade now, she has been working in the industry via PointClick Technologies which she co-founded with her husband in 2007 in Raleigh, North Carolina.

“Relieving girls of the chores [at home]
and challenging the [pervasive] gender norms in Gambian culture by encouraging parents to let their girls take a day off may be a solution.”- Awamary Lowe-Khan

This among a number of innovation projects led her back home to The Gambia, where she not only established the African off-shoot of PointClick Technologies but also The Woman Boss, a female-focused organization tailored to women and girls in the country looking to make their way in entrepreneurship and technology.

“Reduced access to capital is one of the biggest challenges women in tech face. Because of the reduced number of women in tech in the ecosystem, there is a lack of access to women mentors, especially back when we founded our company in 2007.

This also means that there is a lack of access to diverse and inclusive spaces for minority women,” she says.

The Woman Boss is part of a growing movement on the continent and unique in The Gambia as it works to improve the tides for women in the technology sector.

Particularly, in the tiny West African nation, cultural norms and related obstacles have meant that young women have little exposure to technology as a career option even if they make it into tertiary education.

“They tend to pick traditional subjects but never tech. This could be because there are no recognizable leaders in the industry for them. We want to change the norm so when it is time for graduation, they view tech as an option. They are curious about technology as they become familiar with it,” explains Lowe-Khan.

Gender disparities in The Gambia are far-reaching but can be seen clearly when analysing the country’s technology sector. According to a recent World Bank study, in the country’s budding digital economy, gender gaps in the industry begin as early as primary school. It is believed that only 10% of adolescent boys and 6% of adolescent girls (between 15–18 years old) in The Gambia have even basic ICT skills.

“Returning to work after maternity leave can be quite challenging for some, and as a result we now have a crèche facility for staff. This is a first in The Gambia and we hope that other institutions can follow suit.” – Dr Jorjoh Ndure-Tambedou

This is due to a number of prevailing factors including, but not limited to, low digital literacy rates among teachers and teacher trainers, limited access to computers both at school and at home as well as the gender expectations at home which means girls have limited time to practice these skills even if they do have access to a computer.

“Relieving girls of the chores [at home] and challenging the [pervasive] gender norms in Gambian culture by encouraging parents to let their girls take a day off may be a solution,” posits Lowe-Khan. Part of The Woman Boss mandate is to sensitize young women across the country’s high schools with the awareness of the technology sector as well as preparing them for leadership within the field. To date, they have worked with over 1,300 girls in secondary school and, at the same time, empower them with new information about the choices they can make for their future.

“Slowly but surely, we are changing mindsets… this is all part of innovation. There’s definitely been a change in the last three years since we started in The Gambia. We want to empower young girls to solve their own problems,” Lowe-Khan says. A model of one of these young women in the Gambian technology scene can be found in Jankeh Sanyang. The 25-year-old is a Product Manager at Forté Innovations, a leading software developer in the country’s capital, Banjul. Even she admits that the tech track was an unusual one for a Gambian woman but she entered the industry boldly thanks to the support of her family.

“When I completed high school, my peers naturally went to university or college. I didn’t follow that path straighway. I went to do courses such as Networking, Server Management, and Database Management for a year and a half. I luckily got a job at a hospital which worked mostly on digital systems,” recalls Sanyang.

Since then, she has gone on to climb the corporate ladder to the role she is currently in, which required additional study, from her initial certificate courses.

Her work has allowed unique exposure to not just the highest levels of the technology industry in The Gambia but the difficulties of being a career woman in her society, particularly at her age.

“Professional women in this part of the world must be at their best both within the household, and the work environment, whilst our male colleagues do not. This obviously gives them an advantage because, as women are struggling to hit their 10,000 hours because of other commitments and constraints, men are advancing up the career ladder. My job, for example, gives me access to men operating at the highest levels of both the public and private sector.

“As I am frequently the only female (also the youngest person) in the room, they are often shocked to see a 25-year-old woman taking the lead. So during interactions, one may get comments like ‘you are pretty good for a girl’ or ‘what is a girl like you doing in tech?’ Luckily for me, I have a strong supportive team that ensures I remain safe,” she says.

For Sanyang, young women in The Gambia’s technology industry have a myriad of barriers to overcome, many of them set in the way of thinking within the country’s cultural context.

“A lot of women never make it to the top of the tech field in The Gambia. This is not always due to the lack of talent or commitment, but mostly down to the patriarchal society we are in. Often when we get married or have children, as women, we are expected to stay home and care for the family. It is often a huge challenge to get back as there is no support from government, family etc to return to the field,” she explains.

This doesn’t mean that these obstacles can’t be overcome. Dr Jorjoh Ndure-Tambedou, a feted leader in the Gambian technology ecosystem, is the CEO of InSIST Global and one of the founders of Afrijula, a digital financial tool for small and medium enterprises (SMEs).

“As I am frequently the only female (also
the youngest person) in the room, they are
often shocked to see a 25-year-old woman
taking the lead. So during interactions, one may get comments like ‘you are pretty good for a girl’ or ‘what is a girl like you doing in tech?’ ” – Jankeh Sanyang

For her, the challenge of being a mother in the industry was met by supportive leadership which she is now extending to her own staff.

“A common challenge most women face is having a work/life balance, especially mothers. I was fortunate enough as my predecessor was very supportive and I had some flexibility allowing me to be able to work from home when necessary. Returning to work after maternity leave can be quite challenging for some, and as a result we now have a crèche facility for staff. This is a first in The Gambia and we hope that other institutions can follow suit. Having experienced these challenges in previous roles, I am now in a position to support women by providing the environment to make the transition easier.”

Echoing Lowe-Khan’s view of the country’s technology, Ndure- Tambedou is hopeful that more women will follow suit as they see more leaders like herself in top positions in the industry.

She believes that conformity to Gambian cultural norms may be the enemy of progress for the sector.

Instead, she advocates a bolder approach, encouraging women to be who they were born to be.

“As women we do not have anything to prove to anyone, just be yourself, do what you know how to do and be prepared to ask for guidance should you need any. I would strongly encourage more women to work in the industry. I find it quite fulfilling as I can see the tangible value of what I am doing for the very people they are intended for, Africans!”