Meet the African girls who are coding to make a difference

Date: Thursday, October 4, 2018

Khayrath Mohamed Kombo, 15, is one of more than 80 participants in the first Coding Camp in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in August 2018. Photo: UN Women/Faith Bwibo
Khayrath Mohamed Kombo, 15, is one of more than 80 participants in the first Coding Camp in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in August 2018. Photo: UN Women/Faith Bwibo

Bright-eyed 15-year-old Khayrath Mohamed Kombo is heading off to camp in another city for the first time. But far from arriving to a sea of tents, sleeping bags and wilderness, this camp has a decidedly more high-tech environment.

“When I heard about this I was excited because my dream is to learn more things and expand my knowledge,” says Khayrath, who is the only girl in her computer science club at school, back in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania.

She was among more than 80 girls from 34 African countries who attended the first Coding Camp in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia for 10 days in August 2018. The camp served to launch the African Girls Can CODE Initiative, a joint programme of the African Union Commission (AUC), UN Women Ethiopia and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).

Participants in the first Coding Camp in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in August 2018. Photo: UN Women/Faith Bwibo
Participants in the first Coding Camp in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in August 2018. Photo: UN Women/Faith Bwibo

The four-year programme is designed to equip young girls with digital literacy, coding and personal development skills. They will be trained as programmers, creators and designers, placing them on-track to take up education and careers in ICT and coding.

“Girls face discrimination in the sector, because computer science has always been seen as a course for boys, not girls,” says 15-year-old camp participant Eno Ekanem, from Abuja, Nigeria, adding that what they hear often is: “Shouldn’t you learn to be a housewife or do girly stuff?”

Colleen Chibanda, from Harare, Zimbabwe speaks at Coding Camp in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Photo: UN Women/Faith Bwibo
Colleen Chibanda, from Harare, Zimbabwe speaks at Coding Camp in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Photo: UN Women/Faith Bwibo

According to ITU data from 2017, the African region has the lowest rates of Internet penetration, and the widest digital gender gap—with a mere 18.6 per cent of women using the Internet, versus 24.9 per cent of men.

Cultural and family expectations play a big role, explains 19-year-old participant Colleen Chibanda, from Harare, Zimbabwe: “Most of the time, young girls in ICT get married and their potential is swept under the carpet because they now have different responsibilities.”

Eno Ekanem, 15, is one of more than 80 participants in the first Coding Camp in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in August 2018. Photo: UN Women/Faith Bwibo
Eno Ekanem, 15, is one of more than 80 participants in the first Coding Camp in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in August 2018. Photo: UN Women/Faith Bwibo

During the camp, girls were divided into smaller groups tasked with developing a computer programme—and coding it. While Chibanda and Kombo’s group developed an animated video on gender equality, Eno Ekanem’s group worked on building a drone controlled by SMS messaging that will be able to dispense medicine in rural areas, which lack access to medicine.

“We were six in my group, from Namibia, Rwanda, Swaziland, Senegal and Nigeria,” explains Ekanem. “It was cool to work in a group like this. You learn about coding, but also other aspects of how we share ideas and develop them. You also learn about the different countries and cultures.”

The African Girls Can CODE initiative uses a “spark interest” approach to attract young girls towards coding at early stages, when they are contemplating about future careers. Upon completing the programme, participants have the knowledge, skills and competencies to forge careers in ICT. It also equips each girl with enterprise know-how, to ensure their financial security.

Participants in the first Coding Camp in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia were trained as programmers, creators and designers, placing them on-track to take up education and careers in ICT and coding. Photo: UN Women/Faith Bwibo
Participants in the first Coding Camp in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia were trained as programmers, creators and designers, placing them on-track to take up education and careers in ICT and coding. Photo: UN Women/Faith Bwibo

“Technology in its various forms, including ICTs, continues to redefine and revolutionize the way we all live and work,” said Letty Chiwara, UN Women representative in Ethiopia, the AU and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa. “Harnessing this technology to advance gender equality and women’s empowerment is not only vital for women and girls, but critical throughout the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. If we do not have enough women in the so-called fourth industrial revolution, we will not get the variety of the solutions that are needed by women and girls. By teaching coding and other digital skills to young women, we can reduce youth unemployment and also achieve gender equality, women's empowerment and accelerate the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.”

The African Girls Can Code Initiative will run from 2018-2022 and is expected to reach more than 2,000 girls through 18 Coding Camps (2 international, 12 regional and 4 in Ethiopia).

In its first year of implementation, the programme has received generous financial support from the Government of Denmark.