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Digital Inclusion

Female policy experts enabling Africa's tech landscape

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The role of progressive legislation, guidelines and policies in enabling the African tech ecosystem is vital considering Africa's growing adoption and use of information and communication technologies (ICTs), to support the continent's social and economic development.

To gain some insights into the region's technology journey and progress towards bridging the digital gender divide thus far, Chiti Mbizule spoke with two women working at the nexus of regulation, policy and technology.

Women making their mark

Kalonde Mung'Omba is a seasoned strategy professional with a passion for driving transformative change in the African technology space.

As the head of the strategy and risk unit at the Zambia Information and Communications Technology Authority (ZICTA) she formulates corporate strategies to ensure the sustainability and performance of the regulator, in line with its objectives, and to navigate the challenges and opportunities in the country's technology sector.

Over the last few years, she has led noteworthy initiatives, including spearheading the development of the ZICTA strategic plan - focused on driving innovation, fostering competitiveness, and guaranteeing equitable access to technological advancement for the Zambian population.

She also played a pivotal role in the development of the country's Universal Access and Service Fund Master Plan, defining strategies for the access and availability of ICT services and equipment for the Zambia's marginalized groups.

"My enthusiasm for the dynamic tech space is driven by its transformative power in achieving key local and international technology goals. The rapid evolution of the tech industry not only presents challenges but also brings an unparalleled excitement", Mung'Omba stated.

Kalonde Mung'Omba, head of the strategy and risk unit at the Zambia Information and Communications Technology Authority (ZICTA)   (Source: Supplied by Kalonde Mung'Omba).
Kalonde Mung'Omba, head of the strategy and risk unit at the Zambia Information and Communications Technology Authority (ZICTA)
(Source: Supplied by Kalonde Mung'Omba).

Nanjira Sambuli describes herself as a researcher, policy analyst and strategist. Her interest in tech was piqued in the early 2000s as social media, blogs, mobile phones and the Internet became more accessible in her home country of Kenya.

"As early adopters formed communities and as new, local innovations emerged, I was intrigued by what this all meant for communities and societies going forward," she recalled.

Her involvement in the sector evolved from simply sharing her views in her own blog, to a newspaper op-ed column and then into research policy and advocacy work.

She has contributed significantly to the discourse on the gendered impacts of digitalization on governance, diplomacy, media, entrepreneurship and culture in Africa.

This work has garnered her acclaim such as being named amongst the BBC's "100 Inspiring and Influential Women" in 2019, and the Apolitical Foundation's "50 Influential Researchers Whose Work Could Shape 21st Century Politicians" in 2022.

In her role as a fellow at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, her work is focused on situating the African continent's place in technology and international affairs.

Unequal gender representation continues

Both women recognize the progress already made toward gender representation in the technology space.

Sambuli hails initiatives promoting the increased representation of gender discourses, such as through conversations on online platforms, as well as advocacy for more gender-responsive policymaking in both 'analog' and digital spaces.

However, both women argue that the progress made is not yet sufficient.

In the first instance, Sambuli notes that it is important to view the tech space from beyond the lens of those working within the start-up domain or in fields requiring Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics-related backgrounds.

She argues that the space also encompasses anyone contending with the role of digital or emerging technologies in their sphere of work, research or lived experience.

"In that regard, we can claim some diversity of gender representation such as in the not-for-profit space, where advocacy organizations are doing important work showcasing how tech is impacting communities, individuals, sectors and more," she explained.

Kenyan researcher, policy analyst and strategist Nanjira Sambuli.   (Source: Supplied by Nanjira Sambuli, photo by Orbisswiss Photos & Press).
Kenyan researcher, policy analyst and strategist Nanjira Sambuli.
(Source: Supplied by Nanjira Sambuli, photo by Orbisswiss Photos & Press).

Mung'Omba, meanwhile, highlights that the sector is still facing significant challenges which are specific to women including: gender biases and stereotypes regarding women's abilities in technical roles, work-life balance pressures, gender inequality in access to ICTs, and limited networking opportunities and support structures for women in the technology community.

"Unfortunately, as again technologies mirror societal impulses, we have also seen ICTs used to inflict gender-based harms, and technology-assisted gender-based violence is a real hindrance to closing the gender digital divide online, even before we close the broader gender gap on the continent," Sambuli added.

The impact of emerging technologies also cannot be ignored. Mung'Omba and Sambuli both raise concerns regarding the weaker presence of women in spaces where decisions regarding emerging technology innovation, resources, and the deployment of these technologies, are made.

They argue this will only compound the gender divide, with Sambuli noting the recent example of gender biases in generative artificial intelligence (GenAI) outputs - such as assuming leadership as a masculine trait.

"The risk isn't limited to the tech sector alone; the way society is still ordered, and how gender inequities are addressed is a spot-on indicator of what new or emerging technologies will do," Sambuli explained.

High hopes remain

Nonetheless, Mung'Omba believes in the transformative impact that technology can have to enable African economies to leapfrog, bypassing traditional barriers and accelerating growth.

She said that fostering digital literacy is essential, calling for increased investment in education that equips individuals with tech skills and empowers them to participate in the digital economy.

Increased collaboration between governments, private sector and innovators will also facilitate the development and implementation of solutions tailored to Africa's unique challenges.

"Through these concerted efforts, we can harness technology to unlock new opportunities and propel African economies into a prosperous future," she adds.

Sambuli hopes not only for more women in the sector, but for the space to evolve to accommodate even more diversity and interdisciplinarity, which she believes is a unique feature of the African continent.

"What we have to offer ourselves and the world is still emerging, and through tech, we can bring forth the 'analog' and emerging digital expertise and learning to serve our homeland, and the world," she added.

Proud moments as African Women in Tech

Mung'Omba recalls witnessing the completion of the Universal Health Connect Project which stemmed from the Strategic Initiatives in Universal Access and Service Fund Master Plan which she played a key role in developing.

The project was specifically designed to improve access to healthcare facilities in unserved and underserved areas. She acknowledges the transformative impact it has had on communities that lacked proper health infrastructure and believes that the role of women in such projects cannot be overstated.

"Women bring diverse perspectives, empathy, and a unique understanding of the healthcare needs of communities. In championing initiatives like the Universal Health Connect Project, women play a crucial role in ensuring that technology-driven solutions are not only innovative but also address the specific challenges faced by individuals in marginalized areas," Mung'Omba said.

For Sambuli, it is simply about being unapologetic and what she calls "ungovernable".

"By that I mean the courage to have stepped up into global and local spaces that haven't been readily accessible to African women, and more so in an ever-evolving field [like] tech policy," she explained.

Follow Connecting Africa on our new X account @connect__africa to get the latest telecoms and tech news across Africa.

"Furthermore, hearing and seeing how much it has mattered for various constituencies that have felt represented through that, is not only an achievement, but a source of courage and commitment to keep charting new courses and leaving the door ajar for others to walk through and take over," she concluded.

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*Top image source: Image by on Freepik.

— Chiti Mbizule, correspondent, special to Connecting Africa

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