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Rwanda’s women in tech: Leading the digital revolution
When she was a little girl, Jeanne Yamfashije wanted to be a doctor. Her goal was to make her parents proud and serve her people.
The 29-year-old IT specialist did not become a doctor but she has certainly fulfilled her other wishes. For the past five years, Yamfashije has been working with a project that promotes science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) among girls in Rwanda.
The group, called Girls in ICT Rwanda, offers mentorships, boot camps and a competition to encourage innovation among students. The organization reaches 500 girls each year.
“I am serving my people by making sure that women reach where they want to be, especially in the area of IT,” she said.
“My message to young women is: ‘Always believe in yourself, work hard and smart to achieve what you want, and seek help. Walk away from your comfort zone … Become women with vision and goals.’”
Yamfashije is a graduate of the Carnegie Mellon University in Rwanda, a local branch of the technology-focused American institution. The university, which is being co-funded by the African Development Bank and the Rwandan government, aims to create Africa’s next generation of technology leaders, and encourages them to apply their highly sought-after skills where they are most needed: at home. Since the university opened its doors in 2011, 90% of its students have remained in Africa.
Sylvia Makario found her way to Carnegie Mellon after hearing about the school while she was completing the prestigious Mandela Washington Fellowship in the United States in 2015.
“I got drawn to Carnegie Mellon University Africa, particularly due to the pan-African vibe to it, which enables you to interact with different perspectives from various corners across the region and learn to collaborate to deliver solutions to cross-cutting issues in the continent,” she said.
Makario, who is Kenyan, co-founded Kigali-based data company Hepta Analytics in 2017, together with other graduates from Carnegie Mellon and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Hepta Analytics is a gender-balanced outfit, with 50% male and 50% female ownership. It wants to be part of the digital revolution in Africa, using data to help organizations reach their full potential.
One of Hepta’s greatest accomplishments was a product it designed for the Samburu Girls Foundation to assist women affected by genital mutilation. The RecReporter system connects callers to social workers via a toll free number and records messages as well as mapping the location of the caller for easier tracking within a certain radius.
Such undertakings have found fertile ground in Rwanda, which has established a ministry of ICT and innovation in order to position itself as a knowledge hub in this part of the world. The East African nation has also become a global leader in promoting gender equality, which is enshrined in legislation.
In November 2019, Rwanda will host the Global Gender Summit, a biennial event organized by multilateral development banks, including the African Development Bank.
Makario is looking forward to the opportunities on offer in Rwanda and elsewhere on the continent, such as the African Continental Free Trade Area, which envisions a borderless continent that would increase trade among its 55 states.
“My ultimate goal is to see businesses in the African continent use various tools to make quality decisions, based on data and not guesswork. We are working day and night to help more organizations reach that objective,” Makario said.