The women and girls in Senegal pushing through the tech industry’s gender barriers

The women and girls in Senegal pushing through the tech industry's gender barriers

In May 2017, this group of students from Dakar’s prestigious Mariama Bâ all-girls school won the ’Made in Africa’ category at the Pan-African Robotics Competition. From left to right: Kadiatou Diallo (18), Anta Adama Niang (17), Rokhaya Lisse (18) and Ndéye Antou Kebe (16).

(Lucia He)

The first time Binta Coudy Dé left Senegal was in 2011, when the then 22-year-old computer engineer was invited to participate in a tech competition organised by Microsoft in New York. Amongst the groups from all around the world participating in the competition, Dé’s group from Senegal was the only all-female team.

“We knew that in Senegal we were the only women’s tech team, but being the only all-women’s team in that competition was surprising. American people were very happy to see that there were black girls competing, so everybody wanted to talk to us,” recalls Dé. “It was very interesting to us, but also very insulting, because we knew there were other women in the tech field, but nobody knew about them.”

That’s when Dé and her colleagues decided to create Jiggen Tech Hub, West Africa’s first tech hub run for and by women. Since its launch in 2012, Jiggen – which is also known as Jjiguène, meaning “woman” in Wolof – has trained hundreds of women and girls across Senegal in technology and leadership skills. It is completely run by volunteers.

“People were very critical of the idea at first, asking why we needed to create our own women-only hub. But we knew that it was the best way to reach women, to teach them how to be confident and to think about how to really achieve their professional goals,” says Dé.

In recent years, Senegal has grown to become one of Africa’s most important tech clusters. A 2013 study by the McKinsey Global Institute shows that internet-based businesses contributed to 3.3 percent of the country’s GDP, the highest of any African nation. According to experts, a combination of political stability, private investment and government-led initiatives have contributed to this rapid growth.

“The tech industry in Senegal has been booming for the past five years,” says Murielle Diaco, CEO and founder of Djouman, a platform dedicated to innovation and entrepreneurship in Africa. “Senegal is one of the most politically stable countries in West Africa. That has helped attract a lot of investments from companies such as [the French telecommunications company] Orange, Microsoft and Google.”

These investments have led to an important rise in the number of incubators, accelerators and co-working spaces in the country. According to a 2017 report by GSMA Intelligence, Senegal is one of the sub-Saharan countries with the largest number of tech hubs, currently hosting 10 such organisations.

Women-only initiatives

Following Jiggen Tech Hub’s example, several other women-led tech initiatives have emerged in Senegal in recent years becoming key players in the country’s technological revolution. Coding camps for girls, start-up weekends for women in the telecommunications sector and training to help young women develop mobile apps – these are just some of the initiatives being pushed forward by different public, private and civil society organisations.

For the past year, Senegal’s Ministry of Post and Telecommunications has organised several Open Door Days with the goal of encouraging young girls to work in information and communications technology (ICT), either in the private sector or with different government agencies. These initiatives have been combined with others such as UNESCO’s YouthMobile programme, which aims to provide young girls with basic technical skills to develop their own mobile applications, and Orange Senegal’s Female Digital Entrepreneurship initiative, which aims to reduce the digital gap among female entrepreneurs in the country.

“Women in Africa are generally very entrepreneurial, and they always combine business with social impact. Tech is just another sector where women can show that they can build a successful business,” says Diaco.

The growth of Senegal’s tech sector follows a regional trend which is mainly driven by the rapid expansion of mobile networks and the adoption of smartphones. According to a regional report from GSMA Intelligence, west Africa is one of the fastest growing mobile markets globally, with an average annual growth rate between 2016 and 2020 of 6 per cent compared to the global average of 4.2 per cent. According to the report, “mobile has emerged as the platform of choice for creating, distributing and consuming innovative digital solutions and services across west Africa.”

Despite the general advances in Senegal and west Africa’s tech sectors, important challenges remain. According to Diaco, one of the main obstacles for tech entrepreneurs is finding funding for projects.

“When you are starting off as an entrepreneur, you can always find loans from relatives or friends. But at some point when you want to grow, it’s very difficult to find funds. Banks are not lending money to young entrepreneurs in west Africa. Even to find private funding is very difficult,” says Diaco.

For women entrepreneurs, the challenges are also societal.

“When I was in school, there were a lot of girls my age that said they weren’t interested in mathematics, engineering or coding because those subjects were for boys. There’s that mindset about technology, that it’s ‘only for boys,’” says Aminata Baldé, a 23-year-old telecommunications engineer. But there are some signs indicating that this mindset is slowly changing.

On a recent morning, four high school students aged 16 to 18 gathered inside the science lab of Senegal’s prestigious Mariama Bâ all-girls school. Despite it being break time, this group of girlfriends were enthusiastically going through a physics assignment. Earlier this year, the group had won the ‘Made in Africa’ category at the Pan-African Robotics Competition held in Dakar.

When asked about what they wanted to study in university, they each replied confidently: mechanical engineering, industrial engineering and robotics. They were introduced to coding through training organised by Jiggen Tech Hub, and since then, these young women have been part of a coding pilot programme in their school. When asked about the gender imbalance in the tech industry, one of them smiled and said: “All the more reason we need to get involved.”

Lucia He reported from Senegal on International Reporting Project (IRP) fellowship.