GIRL POWER

Women defying the odds to make it in technology

From uncertain beginnings, they have made a mark in the tech world

In Summary

• Maureen Mwaniki, Wambui Mbesa and Ruth Kaveke are among female trailblazers

Maureen Mwaniki Quality and EHS Manager at Huawei during the launch of Women in Technology Initiative with Stone He, CEO Huawei Kenya.
WOMEN IN TECH: Maureen Mwaniki Quality and EHS Manager at Huawei during the launch of Women in Technology Initiative with Stone He, CEO Huawei Kenya.
Image: COURTESY

Back in 2008, Maureen Mwaniki walked into her first site visit clad in a pantsuit and high heels.

Unknown to her, the job she had been assigned required climbing up poles and jumping over structures to get to her assigned site.

"I came in on day one and I wanted to look professional. My first assignment was at a hotel and I was sent with an engineer so he could show me what to do," she said.

 

"He kept receiving calls that the site was having issues."

They walked into the hotel and went to the topmost floor where Maureen thought they were having a 'nice' boardroom meeting.

 "The next thing I knew we were on the rooftop and were instructed to climb higher then jump so we could get to the site. I remember thinking this is not what I had anticipated and it reached a point where I decided to remove my heels," she said. 

By the time she was jumping over, her colleague had already walked on leaving her behind.

"I wanted to quit because I knew that was not a good picture for a first day," she said.

Roughly 11 years on, she is the Delivery, Quality Assurer/ Environment, Health and Safety manager at Huawei Kenya. 

"I handle all the Kenya office projects relating to quality assurance, health and safety, and customer service functions. We are also trying to digitize all the systems at Huawei, and that's one of the dockets I am currently holding," she said. 

 

She joined Huawei in 2013 as a wireless engineer after graduating from the University of Nairobi with a degree in Electrical and Electronics Engineering.

Maureen is currently spearheading the Women In Technology Huawei initiative. 

"We have made good strides but we have a lot more to do, with the launch of the initiative we have set clear goals and together with the partners and peers we will achieve them," she said. 

The initiative is meant to provide role models, skills, opportunities, and support to develop women's interests careers and leadership in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. 

The ICT academies meant to provide for female students, and lecturers are currently in 28 universities. 

"We hope to impact over 4,000 girls and women over the next twelve months," she said.

Intrasoft International East Africa CEO Wambui Mbesa.
WOMEN IN TECH: Intrasoft International East Africa CEO Wambui Mbesa.
Image: COURTESY

STUMBLED ON IT

With over 20 years of IT experience, Wambui Mbesa has worked with Microsoft Corporation and is the Chief Executive Officer for Intrasoft International.

Growing up, Mbesa knew she wanted to become a lawyer so she could fight injustices of the world. 

"I wanted to be a lawyer when I was younger and I still hope one day I will study law," she told the Star during an interview. 

Wambui graduated from Kenyatta University with a Bachelor of Education degree specializing in Business Studies and Economics.

"I went on to teach high school students accounting and economics at Likoni Secondary before leaving to start Word of Life Christian Academy in the early ‘90s in Ukunda, Diani, South Coast," she said.

Shortly after, she moved back to Nairobi and secured a job at the accounts department in the Danish Embassy in Nairobi. 

"This is when I first encountered automated or computerized accounting. My education in accounts was a great asset because I now understood manual accounts as well as computerized accounting," she said. 

In 1997, she got a job with the Danish Multinational that was selling Navision accounting software while living with her family in Uganda. 

Her job was to train customers on how to use computerized accounting software. 

"Soon, I was promoted to a managerial position and found myself having to supervise developers and IT professionals reporting to me," she said.

That is when Wambui enrolled at Makerere University for a Post Graduate Diploma in Computer Science.

She also has an MBA in strategic management from Maastricht School of Business.

She is a member of the Kenya Women on Boards Network as well as the Kenya Institute of Directors.

The CEO is passionate about what technology can make possible for our world and especially for Africa.

DIGI-GIRLS

Wambui Mbesa during the Digigirls Kenya training at Misyani Girls.
WOMEN IN TECH: Wambui Mbesa during the Digigirls Kenya training at Misyani Girls.
Image: COURTESY

In 2013, Huawei was doing tower works which meant Maureen was sent to remote areas. 

"It was as remote as getting lost in Maasai Mara looking for a site to ensure that the network is okay," she said.

After that, she was moved to one of the biggest projects that Safaricom had at the time, which ws rolling out their own fibre. 

"I joined Huawei as a wireless engineer but now I moved (to the project) as a quality controller to more or less ensure all standards agreed with the customer are met together with ensuring the health and safety of the people who were working on the project," she said. 

In 2015, Maureen was handed the task of handling all Kenya projects and she moved into management. 

"I review any project that comes from our clients in terms of the level of risk and do we understand the requirements of the customer?" she said.

"Some of the projects are the Konza project, CCTV project, KURA project for the cameras along the road, National Optic fibre backbone infrastructure and the LT roll out."

Wambui currently runs an IT solutions and services company and looks after the East Africa division which compromises of Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Zambia, and some Southern African countries. 

"As the CEO my primary is to ensure that we secure business and customers who can benefit from our wide range of solutions that we offer. We provide services to the financial services sector (Banks, Saccos, MFIs)," she said. 

They also offer services to the public sector in the areas of social security, health insurance, Risk and Compliance, and revenue management.

"My mandate, in general, is to direct and manage the company’s business operations, market penetration and commercial activities in East Africa," she said. 

Wambui often speaks to young Kenyan women at universities and girls clubs about women’s and girls’empowerment and the importance of science, engineering, technology, and math education for girls.

As a 20-year veteran of the majority-male IT industry, Wambui is frank about the uncomfortable encounters with male colleagues she has experienced along the way.

“Through the years, I’ve had to deal with several overtly sexual propositions,” she says.

At first, she would try to change the subject. Later, as she became more confident, she would respond directly to improper proposals.

"I would stare the person down and say, ‘This is completely inappropriate.’ Then I would turn around walk very fast in the other direction," she said. 

She was recently awarded an International Finance Corporation, World Bank Group award.

She was among 20 global women recognized as trailblazers in the IT industry. 

GIRLS WHO CODE

When Ruth Kaveke joined high school she was fascinated to find out computer studies was offered as a subject. 

"I have loved computers since I was a small child and sometimes I would just go to our village cyber," she said. 

"When I joined high school at Asumbi girls, I loved that it was offered and I went for the subject and it was always my best subject."

By the time she was done with high school, everyone knew automatically she would pursue Computer Studies. 

However, when she joined the Technical University of Mombasa, she was shocked to find out there were very few girls in the field. 

"In our class, we were six out of sixty students," she said. 

Due to a gap in what is in the field and what is taught in school, Ruth stopped attending university lectures and started training herself how to code. 

"I'm a web developer. You find most of the coding is not trained at school. So I took it upon myself to learn," she said.

When they got to their third year of study, Ruth and her classmates were asked to specialize between software and hardware engineering. 

"When it came to taking up software, most of the girls disappeared and we were left only two girls."

They said it was too complex, hard and complicated. 

However, her interest has always been coding and she loved mentoring other girls on it. 

Despite having graduated in software engineering, her ability was questioned time and over and she had to work harder to prove herself. 

For instance, her boss, who was male, asked her if she was sure the work done was hers. 

"I knew what they wanted. I had done my homework on them. I then did a project based on the programming languages they were using," she said.

"But on the first day when I showed him, he was shocked and said he didn't know girls were capable of coding."

When she receives work, her clients are also hesitant to work with her and she has to always provide sample products so they give her a chance.

"The community does not yet have confidence in women in technology. That's why it still surprises them."

However, from the time that she started, seven years back there are more initiatives to support girls in technology. 

"Previously when I attended tech events, I was the only girl sometimes. However, now there are more girls participating because like corporates are funding initiatives to encourage girls," she said. 

An increase in the number of women in technology also encourages more women to take up the challenge. 

After campus, Ruth and her friend founded Pwani Tecknowgalz, a community-based organization that mentors and trains girls in technology. 

"We noticed a gap and we founded the organization. For instance, we have a technovation program where high school girls are trained to develop mobile applications," she said. 

"They are trained by mentors and after they complete the application they compete and both local and international levels."

Another program referred to as Mombasa girls in STEM, trains high school girls practical aspects of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.

They also train girls who have completed high school on website development, digital marketing, mobile data collection at American spaces in Kenya. 

Ruth is an ambassador of Africa code week, a program that trains teachers who then teach those skills to their students every October. 

"The students get excited to venture into technology when they learn how to code."

However, due to financial and marketing challenges, the girls under the Technovation program are unable to advance their applications. 

"We have been doing the project since 2015 and the girls go to competitions and pitch their applications," she said. 

Some of the applications they have made include; Itutor app that enables students to find a tutor online. Zinduka app that reports cases of early pregnancy in Kilifi county and Karanga app that helps a customer buy cashew nuts. 

Another application run by four high school girls is a profit-making business known as The Pacemakers. 

They have an application called The Pacemakers Skills Mtaani app that improves employable skills to the local young people of Kilifi. 

The girls' competitions are uploaded to their youtube channel. 

Ruth added the future is bright for girls in technology. 

"We need to have more coming up, acting as mentors and role models for the girls," she said. 

Ruth Kaveke, co founder of Pwani Tecknowgalz that mentors, trains and empowers women and girls to take up technology.
WOMEN IN TECH: Ruth Kaveke, co founder of Pwani Tecknowgalz that mentors, trains and empowers women and girls to take up technology.
Image: COURTESY