Girls Code Their Way Out of Nigeria’s Slums and Into the Tech Sector

Nigeria’s tech industry may be booming, but the sector is still dominated by men. A coding program aimed at girls from a Lagos slum encourages them to pursue careers in computers and teaches that tech could help life them and their communities out of poverty.

Written by Linus Unah Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
As a student in the Girls Coding program, Miriam Matti, 12, is building a website that will serve as a hub for people to donate money, time and equipment to help struggling farmers in Lagos. Linus Unah

LAGOS, Nigeria – Twelve-year-old Miriam Matti beams with pride as she runs her index finger over the homepage of the website she has been building for a year now. The site, called Food Insecurity, allows visitors to give money, time or equipment to help struggling farmers. It targets people looking to make charitable donations, but also volunteers who can teach farmers how to use and maintain their tractors.

“I want to get donations such as money and tractors for our farmers, because a farmer using a tractor can farm a large amount of land in one week and produce more food,” Matti says. “A farmer using a hoe and cutlass can take one month to farm their land and will get only a small amount of crops.”

Matti is building herwebsite as part of a coding class she takes through the GirlsCoding program run by the Pearls Africa Foundation, a nonprofit located in Yaba, the tech district of Lagos, Nigeria.

The tech scene in Nigeria is booming. Investment in the country’s industry averaged $73,000 last year, up from $57,000 in 2015, according to VC4A, a platform that connects funders to startups in Africa. And the contribution of the information and communication technology (ICT) sector to Nigeria’s GDP rose from 5.46 percent in 2011 to over 9 percent in the second quarter of last year.

But the industry is still dominated by men. While there is no reliable data on how many women in Nigeria are studying or working in technology, figures do show that women are the minority in all the sciences: Women pursuing careers in science constitute only 17 percent of all science researchers in the country.

The lack of female role models combined with cultural biases that dictate women should be at home raising children are major factors in discouraging Nigerian girls from getting jobs in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), experts say. At the same time, Nigeria continues to wrestle with high early pregnancy rates, with 23 percent of teenagers having their first child before the age of 19.

Through the Pearls Africa Foundation’s outreach program, founder Abisoye Ajayi-Akinfolarin, 32, wants to use tech to help girls from the most vulnerable communities realize their potential – and possibly allow them to step off the road to early motherhood and onto a career path instead. Her GirlsCoding program reaches girls from slums, internally displaced camps, orphanages and correctional homes. The organization’s goal is to add 20,000 new female computer programmers to Nigeria’s tech industry by 2020.

“Girls are lacking in STEM industries, so I was angry with what was going on and I wanted to turn things around,” Ajayi-Akinfolarin says.

“Any free time girls from underserved communities get, they can get pregnant. But if their confidence level can come from the fact that they are programmers, then hopefully it can improve their entire life.”

Transcending the Conditions of Poverty

Launched in December 2015, GirlsCoding trains girls aged between 10 and 17 in user interface design, animation and programming. Ajayi-Akinfolarin, who once worked at an IT audit firm in Lagos, teams up with two friends and a volunteer to teach the girls for two hours after school on weekdays and up to five hours on Saturdays.

Girls Coding founder Abisoye Ajayi-Akinfolarin, who funds the program with her own money, wants to add 20,000 new female computer programmers to Nigeria’s tech industry by 2020. (Linus Unah)

“Empowering these young women with experience in the STEM fields automatically increases the probability that they can transcend the conditions of poverty they currently exist in,” says Mohini Ufeli, a communications associate at Lagos-based tech incubator Andela, which providesin-kind support for Pearls Africa.

“These young girls have begun to envision a world where they work at the best tech companies, and where they build solutions to problems their parents and others like their parents face. This broadening of their minds and what they believe they are capable of is perhaps the most powerful effect.”

Solving Society’s Problems with Tech

Miriam Matti’s idea to design a website to gather donations for farmers came to her in early December 2016, after Ajayi-Akinfolarin urged all the students to return to their communities and find problems they could try to solve using technology.

“Some girls looked at problems like lack of employment, lack of good environmental sanitation and how to help fishermen in Makoko,” Matti says.

The majority of the girls in the program come from Makoko, a large slum in Lagos where most of the residents work in the fishing industry. Sharon Okpoe, 17, lives in the slum with her parentsand 15 siblings. She is halfway into completing an online seafood market that will help fishers in Makoko sell more of their catch and avoid being scammed by middlemen.

“These fishermen have the zeal, but they lack basic skills and equipment they need for fishing. We depend on wooden canoes, nets, hooks and fishing lines,” Okpoe says. “So I thought if I can build a seafood website where people can buy from us directly, we would have more money coming in and we can buy [modern] fishing equipment to catch more fish and make more money.”

Visitors to her website, which she hopes will go live before the end of 2018, can find a gallery of different seafood available to buy, a support page for donations and a trade-by-barter bar for people who want to trade other valuable items for fish or shellfish. Customers can put in their orders and have the fish delivered to their preferred address. Okpoe is also working on creating a newsletter to inform customers about theproducts available.

“I really love the fact that all of us in this program are serious and doing a lot of practical [work] and thinking about solutions not just problems,” she says. “With more female developers, we can change the world.”

This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Abisoye Ajayi-Akinfolarin’s name.

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