By: Sarah LaBrecque
The world is facing a technology skills gap. From Brazil to China to Kenya, a shortage of 85 million tech workers by 2030 is predicted, representing a staggering $8.5tn in lost annual revenue, according to US management consulting firm Korn Ferry.
As we move towards an ever-more digital economy, it’s crucial that emerging markets don’t get left behind. According to a report (pdf) by the US-based Council on Foreign Relations, the shortage of qualified people to fill information and communications technology jobs (ICT) in emerging economies is exacerbated by the low level of women in these sectors. The ICT sector in lower-income nations – much like the west – is perceived as a male-dominated industry, with upper management roles often held by men. Women in these markets often face barriers to starting ICT-related businesses and are underrepresented in decision-making in this field, the report finds.
But some feel that, despite this seemingly gloomy scenario, there is great opportunity: that of motivated and bright young women to ready themselves for a future job marketplace that will demand tech skills and leadership, and a journey that is well on the way in Kenya and the East Africa corridor.
Juliana Rotich is a Kenyan entrepreneur and IT adviser, and is a strong advocate for the role of women in the tech space. “Opportunity is only possible if space is made for women to get the skills they need,” she says. “According to a recent report from Aga Khan University in Kenya, there is a skills gap between what young people can do and what employers require. Bridging this gap in an accelerated manner can help young women to get the jobs of the future.”
She explains there are several ways to go about this. First, women entrepreneurs need improved tech tools to enable them to better participate in the economy. SMEs are the bedrock of thriving economies, she explains, but the tendering process can be tedious and time-consuming. She cites Scale Kenya – a platform that helps to reduce the manual work often required when bidding for contracts – as a great example. “I think it can help SMEs, particularly women-led ones, to win more tenders, and thus employ more people,” she says.
Another way to bridge the skills gap is through education. “The curricula in schools and universities need to evolve with industry needs in mind,” she says. Two organisations that are filling that training gap so that young women can more fully participate in the digital economy are AkiraChix in Nairobi and Learning Lions in Turkana.
Linda Kamau is co-founder of AkiraChix and is passionate about giving girls the “confidence and grit” to excel in the tech scene. She points out that they are not just a coding bootcamp, offering much-needed training, but a centre of excellence. “We realise the problem with women in technology is not just a skills problem, but actually it’s both a skills and a personal problem,” she says. “You go to a tech company and find seven men at a table and feel like, ‘oh I’m not supposed to be here, they didn’t say hi to me’. And I think: guess what, it’s the tech world, they won’t say hi to you. But if tomorrow you show up and you say ‘good morning’ to everyone, they will talk to you.” She says what they find is that girls who do that – have the confidence to keep showing up and sit with the men – “they thrive”.
In a low-income context, these 21st-century skills are more important than at any time before. Luciana Aguiar, head of Business Call to Action – the United Nations Development Programme’s global membership platform for companies with inclusive business models that support those at the base of the economic pyramid – points out that women from vulnerable and low-income backgrounds face even bigger hurdles, but that inclusive business has an important role to play. “The approach of BCtA member companies demonstrates an opportunity to capitalise on women’s natural strengths,” she says. “While training them in hard skills and, in doing so, empowering the company workforce and improving talent retention, companies ensure both employees and the company as a whole have the resources needed to thrive for years to come.”
So in effect, empowering young women and training them up is a win-win – for the women who go through programmes such as AkiraChix, and for the businesses that might employ them. Anie Akpe, founder of African Women in Tech, a networking and events platform, says: “Business recognises that they need skilled employees and that organisations such as AkiraChix are helping to offset training costs that the companies couldn’t offer. By aligning with these organisations, the companies will not only increase in overall revenue, they will be helping to shape the communities that these women are a part of.”
Regarding the possibility of job losses due to increasing automation, Rotich cautions not to underestimate the threat. “Automation of processes that require a human will affect both men and women,” she says, citing service jobs such as those at airport ticket counters that she sees becoming increasingly automated. But on the whole, she remains optimistic about women’s place in the tech scene in Kenya and the African continent, as does Kamau.
“The machines are not going to come and take over because we’re the ones who are training the machines,” says Kamau. “I’m excited to see what tech holds in the next 10 to 15 years,” adding that there are big plans for AkiraChix in future. They will be welcoming students from Uganda this year, and by 2022 aim to be working across Tanzania and Rwanda too. Longer term, she says, they hope to have coached 10,000 students across 10 African countries.