By Violet Ikong
Despite the importance of digital skills and technology in modern life, many people in Africa remain digitally illiterate. The populations of Mozambique and Côte d’Ivoire are cases in point – their digital skill rates are 10% and 23%, respectively. In addition, only 22% of the continent’s people have access to the internet at all, according to the World Bank. Globally, boys and men are more likely than girls and women to be equipped with digital skills, and women make up only 28% of the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) workforce.
Twenty-one year old Limbani Mwale is a second-year business and information technology student at the Malawi University of Science and Technology, where only 16 of 55 students in her class are female. She shared her thoughts on why so few girls work in STEM fields.
“Sometimes we get excited at a young age and say we are going to pursue STEM careers, but when we come of age we want to give up because we feel like it is too hard, and we can’t do it. We begin to believe it is meant for boys,” she said.
Some girls worry that choosing a profession in STEM would prevent them from having enough time to care for their future families, said Mwale. But she especially spoke of a lack of confidence. “From experience, I can say that most girls approach STEM with a negative attitude due to the misconception they have…and that negative attitude is usually responsible for the negative results they get in the end.”
Sarah Khudze, a 28-year-old STEM enthusiast and associate lecturer at the Malawi University of Business and Applied Sciences, decided to do something about the lack of girls in STEM fields in Malawi. She founded Reach Out to Girls (ROG) in 2015, a nonprofit with a mission to inspire girls to embrace STEM, through mentoring programs and training. While located in Malawi’s capital city of Lilongwe, ROG works mostly with girls in the countryside.
“We deal with a lot of rural girls because they are the less privileged. They face a lot of problems in relation to STEM education,” said Khudze. Through ROG, professional women in a variety of STEM fields serve as mentors for girls in secondary school who want to pursue STEM careers, as well as those who are already enrolled in STEM courses at the university
“It begins from the foundation, with women who are already there and doing well in STEM careers, who introduce girls…early enough to the field by sharing their own experiences and making them understand the benefits they stand to get from STEM,” Mwale said.
But it is not easy getting girls in Africa to embrace STEM at a young age. This is especially true in rural areas, where most girls attend poorly funded primary and secondary schools that are run by the government. Such schools lack the resources and tools needed to teach STEM content to girls. Most girls who attend rural government schools graduate without ever having used a computer.
One Reach Out to Girls’ program, Essentials for Women in STEM, educates young women in skills like coding, for free. Faith, one of the secondary school students from Mulanje, in southern Malawi, who learned how to code during a training in 2021, shows the potential of the program model.
“I have always been inquisitive to learn what an action is called when a button is clicked on a system. Today, I am happy to be the one adding that code for action behind a button. Now I am eager to learn more and more,” she said enthusiastically. Faith and others also learned basic digital skills such as Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel, and Microsoft PowerPoint.
Khudze and her group of volunteer mentors help the girls overcome their fear and approach STEM from a positive perspective. They also make students aware of the many opportunities in STEM sectors that are available to them. And the personal touch works.
“I was taught computer programming during the mentoring program, but the best part of the program was my mentor teaching me to be confident in myself and sharing with me how she was able to do it as a female. I told myself in the end that if she could do it, I can also,” Mwale said. She also attended ROG’s mentoring program in 2021.
So far, ROG’s programs have directly benefited over 200 girls, according to Khudze, who learned through her own family’s experience the importance of digital skills. When she was a child, her mother used to go to Mzuzu, the capital of Malawi’s northern region, to buy clothes and pots, which she then sold for profit. But because Khudze’s mother depended on traditional methods only, her business soon failed. Like many other rural women in Africa, Khudze’s mother didn’t know how to operate a cell phone or a computer, at the time. To advertise, she had to visit people’s homes. And most rural women do not know how to use social media.
Now Khudze is teaching rural women like her mother to run their businesses using digital skills. Between 2020 and 2021, ROG trained over 60 female farmers in Malawi in skills like financial management, messaging, and social media for advertising.
“We implemented this project to help them make more profits from their farming activities. It is our way of empowering them,” Khudze said.
Unfortunately, funding issues have put the project on hold for the moment. But Khudze is working on raising funds. “Sometimes stakeholders fall in love with what we do and decide to partner with us,” she said.
Afro-tech Girls and Women’s Technology Empowerment Centre are Nigerian nonprofits also working to increase girls’ and women’s participation in STEM fields, with the goal of fostering the next generation of female technology creators, entrepreneurs, and leaders. The founders of all these nonprofits believe that digital education is key to improving the standard of living for all girls and women in Africa.