The best is enemy of the good.
The profoundest truths are paradoxical.
Monday, December 24, 2012
NPR: Kenyan Women Create Their Own 'Geek Culture'
Kenyan Susan Oguya created an app to help farmers in her homeland. Shown here in the office of her company, M-Farm, she also belongs to the group Akirachix, which seeks to bring more Kenyan women into the tech world.
Kenya has laid hundreds of miles of fiber optic cable. Google and IBM set up shop here. The city even has plans for a $7 billion technology hub just outside the capital, Nairobi.
But you need more than tech giants and broadband and even money to launch a local tech industry. You also need a culture of computer geeks. That's where Owigar and her collective Akirachix come in. They want to make sure that the girl geeks are encouraged as much as the guys.
Bridging The Gender Gap
"You know you're the oddball just because of your gender," Owigar says.
It turns out that in Kenya, exactly as in Silicon Valley, the problem with getting more women in tech is that there aren't more women in tech.
"There are probably other women in tech who are alone, and they think they're the weird ones, but if enough of us meet together, you know, it won't be so weird anymore," Owigar says.
High school girls in Nairobi at a computer workshop organized by Akirachix.
Susan Oguya is also an Akirachick. She grew up on a farm in western Kenya without a computer. But she was lucky enough to have an uncle who worked in Nairobi.
When he came home for the holidays, he would haul his entire workstation in the car back with him — the monitor, the CPU, the keyboard, the mouse — and set it up in Oguya's living room. Oguya was 15.
"So he'd bring it over, we'd use it, and then he would go back with it," Oguya says. "So in the times when I didn't have a computer, there were books that he left. Books about what is a computer, parts of a computer, what is a ROM, what is a RAM. It's really basic."
When she got to a university, she majored in IT. She had an idea for a mobile phone app that would help farmers like her parents.
One of the striking things about Kenya is that even impoverished farmers have cellphones. For decades, Kenya was too poor to lay copper telephone wire in the ground, so the vast majority of Kenyans use cellphones as their primary phone.
Now, all those Kenyan cellphone users are set to take advantage of an increasingly mobile world. Oguya's app would allow farmers to check the crop prices with text messaging, skipping the middleman.
"Yeah, corrupt middleman," Oguya says. "Let's say skipping the corrupt middleman."
But Oguya was one of only 10 women in her department of 80 — about the same ratio you'd find in a computer science class at Stanford. Her teachers doubted her ability to actually program this app she'd thought up.
"In my culture, it's like men can only communicate with men. And I was like, 'OK.' Then if I could share this passion, like try and explain to the person, this is what I want to do? It's only a woman who could understand me better," Oguya says.
It wasn't until her third year that she met a computer researcher at the same university, Jessica Colaco, who says she bumped into Oguya in the hallway. "I remember when I met her in the corridor, Susan was really shy. She was like, 'Excuse me, are you Jessica Colaco?' " she says.
There's an app that lets Kenyans who don't have computers do their online shopping by cellphone.
There's a micro-insurance product that measures the rainfall at cellphone towers and automatically distributes money to farmers in drought.
These are all applications started by women. Akirachix's Owigar says they're sending a message to the next wave of girl geeks. "We need them to see that we are doing it and we enjoy it. You know, you don't find many African women looking for the spotlight. Most of them tend to hide their awesomeness," Owigar says.
The best time to carve a spot for women in geek culture, she says, is when there isn't much geek culture yet.