NAIROBI, Kenya – While growing up in Kenya, Irving Amukasa noticed a stigma about discussing issues related to sex.
When two of his relatives died of AIDS-related illnesses, he realized many of his family members held mystical beliefs about how the illness was contracted and the level of contact they should have with the surviving spouses. “There were a lot of misconceptions about it because people don’t want to talk openly,” he says.
So after he finished university, he and two of his classmates, Beverly Mutindi and Derick Mureithi, decided to use artificial intelligence to destigmatize sex education.
They created Sophie Bot, a chatbot they describe as “the Siri for sexual and reproductive health.” As with Siri, users can ask Sophie questions and she uses artificial intelligence to respond, either by voice or text, based on information from Kenya’s National AIDS Control Council and the United Nations Population Fund’s (UNFPA) peer-mentor curriculum.
Anonymity is one of Sophie Bot’s main features and users can delete their chat history for added privacy – or to keep snooping friends away, as the app suggests.
“There’s a lot of abstinence talk pushed by schools and the church,” Amukasa says. “In school, the curriculum is really limited and the conversation is limited only to the biology … They don’t discuss social issues around health and sexuality.”
In its early days, the overwhelming majority of Sophie Bot’s users were men, but recently there’s been an increase in women downloading the app. Amukasa says the app was created to solve more of an information gap than a gender gap, but acknowledges that the experience of using it is different for women as they are often more stigmatized than men for being proactive about their sexual health.
Amukasa says one of his single friends keeps condoms with her at all times, even though it’s considered immoral by many people – a judgment usually reserved for women.
While Sophie Bot was created to target Africans, the app has a global reach. To Amukasa’s surprise, only 30 percent of Sophie Bot’s 4,500 users are in Kenya. The next largest user base is in the United States (18 percent). “We’ve had questions in languages we don’t even understand, like Thai and Korean,” he says.
After striking a deal with an investor on Lions’ Den (the Kenyan spinoff of Dragons’ Den), the app’s founders are working to improve bugs in the bot and extend its chat capabilities to other platforms including Facebook Messenger, Twitter and Telegram.
Tech Support for Victims’ Rights
Sophie Bot is just one of many tech-focused solutions to gender-related development issues that are springing up across East Africa.
In Uganda, a similar app, Ask Without Shame, provides answers from medical experts to questions on sexual issues through Whatsapp, SMS, a toll-free line and their own app. In the past three years, the app registered 50,000 users across East Africa.
While the app doesn’t specifically target women, its founder, Ruth Nabembezi, says the app is used to “promote gender equality and even fight sexual violence” as it answers questions from girls and women about reproductive health issues and advises them on healthy relationships.
The 160 Girls Project is an initiative by a Canadian nonprofit called the Equality Effect that works to prevent sexual violence against girls in Kenya. Their research told them community members lacked information about girls’ rights and police obligations relating to rape investigations. Without this information, girls and their guardians are unable to hold police accountable to investigate rape claims.
“We were doing traditional outreach through schools and billboards, but we wanted something that would be easily accessible and cost- and communications-efficient,” says Fiona Sampson, CEO of the Equality Effect.
In response, the organization developed online tools and a mobile app that can be accessed offline. “We know the beneficiaries of our work have limited resources but are tech-savvy,” Sampson says. “People in Kenya know their devices and they love social media and they’re very engaged, so [creating an app] seemed like an appropriate option.”
The app includes a police station locator and information on victims’ rights and what to expect from police. That includes a victim’s right to obtain a report from police free of charge and the police’s obligation not to discontinue a defilement case without seeking advice from the attorney general. It also has a reporting feature victims can use if police are not complying with the law. These reports are reviewed by local partners who can intervene and provide support in person.
Like the creators of Sophie Bot, the team behind 160 Girls have been surprised at the profile of their users: Most app downloads are by police officers, who use it as a reference tool when dealing with sexual violence cases.
Closing the Digital Gender Gap
While tech solutions like these apps are welcomed by service providers and beneficiaries alike, the overarching challenge lies in closing the gender gap in accessing technology.
In sub-Saharan Africa, 40 million women have access to and use the internet, compared to 70 million men. A 2017 report by the Alliance for Affordable Internet found that in poor areas of Nairobi, men are more than twice as likely as women to be online.
In an effort to close this gap,, a public-private partnership, is teaching digital literacy to women in rural Kenya. The alliance supports women in learning how to use the internet as a tool for social and economic empowerment and aims to eventually reach 100,000 women in Kenya and Nigeria.
For women trying to participate and succeed in Kenya’s economy, learning to be comfortable and confident online is an important step, “because it not only gives them access to better jobs, but also can foster their ability to grow their own businesses as entrepreneurs,” says Florence Korir, who works in Kenya with World Vision, a partner in the alliance.
“We know that there is a large technology gap between men and women, and that addressing the gender gap will allow women to benefit from the opportunities that technology and the web hold.”