Prior to embarking on my journey to Uganda in December, it had been 3 long years since I last visited the Pearl of Africa. I can still remember the feeling of landing, getting off the plane and walking onto the tarmac and breathing in the slightly humid air. As I walked to the airport towards the arrival’s hub, I was greeted by the majestic Lake Victoria to my left… and then it finally hit me… You have arrived! Like a little child in a candy store, my heart skipped a beat and I was consumed by so much joy. My mission on this trip was two-fold, visiting family (some of which I had never met before) and engaging with women entrepreneurs to find out what their needs were.
Originally, I had thought that it would be difficult to engage women entrepreneurs, however my encounter with one the very next day would render that thought invalid. It was an accidental meeting, I had gone to run a few errands with my uncle, and one of the stop-overs happened to be a tech company for a new product that my uncle was interested in. It so happened that the founder and CEO of the company was a young female entrepreneur. So naturally I jumped at the chance to invite her for an interview after I had given her a brief description of HerRiseUp.
Following the meeting with her I found that she was not the only entrepreneur in her family. Her mother, also an entrepreneur, inspired her to pursue her goals. She said that she faced challenges whilst pursuing her business, but got support from her friends and colleagues who also had start-ups. She did admit that even with the support she received there was still a lot to be done. One of her immediate requirements was support from the government, she said starting a business was so expensive and most of the time this deters people from starting one. She also mentioned that there was a need to build a knowledge base especially within the tech space and by working collaboratively they would be able to develop best practices.
Following our discussion, I decided to visit tech hubs in Uganda. The research had shown that there had been an increase of tech hubs in Africa over the last decade or so; and in Uganda alone it is estimated that there were 15 active Tech hubs. I wanted to determine the purpose of tech hubs, how they engaged with entrepreneurs, their challenges and their promotion of women start-ups or entrepreneurs in tech. I reached out to a handful of tech hubs in Kampala, however only 2 out of a possible 6 responded to my request.
When I visited the tech hub, I was impressed with the building’s aesthetics and artifacts, everything in there made you feel inspired to join, create and develop. Even more surprising was that the founder was a woman. I was told that membership was open for anyone who had a product or start-up they were trying to build and grow. The tech hub would act as an incubator for such projects and members would have access to resources to assist them in building their product. These resources included access to the space, internet, mentors, programs and allowed members to work collaboratively on a project, drawing on each other’s strengths. It was also good to see that the tech hub was equally distributed in its attendance of male and female members. I was also informed that they held programs to empower women entrepreneurs within the tech space.
Whilst I was very excited about the number of tech hubs in Uganda fostering young minds to think about technology, I also felt a little disappointment at the realisation that there was still a lot that had to be done to make women aware of the existence of these tech hubs and to get them engaged. Upon completing my meeting with the tech hub, I was referred to another organization whose mission was to offer programs to teach young women to program. They focused on girls in high school or at university level and offered short programming/coding courses to girls who were interested in ICT. They said that they had seen growth in the number of young women who wanted to pursue studies in ICT.
Throughout my trip I came across several women who were doing things in their own right, from a dedicated nurse managing a large district hospital with inadequate medical equipment. To young students who had started a business selling mandazi’s (east African donuts) to a supermarket in order to supplement their pocket money for school and a mother who had saved the lives of 5 orphans by taking them in shortly after their mother had passed away. All these stories left me amazed and validated that old saying: “When you help a woman you help a village”. However, my trip was not without its vices; I witnessed first-hand (commonly in the towns and villages) how women were treated as second class citizens. This line of thinking had become so engrained in certain social groups further extending the distended gender equality gap.
I decided to get a discussion going amongst a group of young girls in the village and found that a large number of them, though uneducated, wanted to go to school. Some of them had been going to school but were unable to attend due to varying factors ranging from lack of fees, resources, support or teenage pregnancies. Admittedly, this was the saddest part of my trip and it was evident that regardless of what level of education our male counterparts received they still did not understand the value of educating and empowering women.
All in all, my trip was eye-opener; and the one thing I took away was that women generally want to play a part in seizing opportunities presented to them. Furthermore, it is imperative that African women need to start changing the narrative from grass root levels. If women believe that they are subservient, they will always be subservient, and this belief is likely be propagated to their daughters and their grand-daughters. Uganda is bustling with opportunities and unlike western countries establishing a start-up involves less red-tape, if you have support. Despite political, economic and social pressures, I believe that start-ups are the way forward. In order for us to succeed we have to change the narrative, but in order for that to change, we need to change our mindset.