It’s a beautiful Saturday morning in Ukonga, a dusty neighborhood in Tanzania’s largest city of Dar es Salaam, and Neema Lucas is glued to her dark computer screen, frequently striking a keyboard as she types a command.
“Coding is about problem-solving and creativity. These are necessary skills any kid should master to succeed in life,” she said.
The 15-year-old student at Zanaki Girls Secondary School in Dar es Salaam has become adept at programming.
While the prospects for an adult to learn those skills seem daunting, for a computer whiz like Lucas, they’re not.
She’s not alone. She is among many students taking optional classes at Apps & Girls, a privately-owned tech hub striving to equip girls with essential coding skills and greater digital literacy to be future computer geeks.
Although Tanzania has been trying to increase women’s participation in male-dominated sectors, the number of them working in the tech industry is low.
Women hold a mere 25% of tech jobs in Tanzania. Even more shocking is the fact that women and girls comprise just 10% of students earning degrees in computer science, according to government statistics.
While policymakers are working to narrow the gender gap in the fast-growing tech industry, observers say there are still cultural barriers preventing women and girls from taking advantage of the opportunities in the digital sector.
Lucas, whose dream is to land a career in software engineering, only knew about the coding classes when officials from Apps & Girls visited her school to persuade girls to learn computer skills so they can work in the tech industry.
“I believe the future is bright for me. These are transferable skills I can use for the rest of my life,” she told Anadolu Agency.
To realise her dream, Lucas visits the Apps & Girls center every day to learn new skills, including creating project ideas, data review, and web designing.
Since its inception in 2013, the center has attracted many girls eager to learn various types of computer programming such as for designing smartphone apps.
At the center, which acts as an incubator where girls learn how to create business plans and present creative ideas, Lucas and her classmates have learned to design websites, games, and customised certificate templates using HTML and Scratch— a free online programming language.
With fast-growing technology and digital tools, observers say aspirations for the younger generation, notable girls, seem boundless.
“I want to be an expert in computers. I will use the opportunity to teach others,” Lucas said.
While Tanzania has attained robust economic growth in the past decade, high population growth and rapid urban sprawl have left millions of young people trapped in poverty, government data show.
The East African country’s tech ecosystem is still growing. The country has several tech hubs, including Buni, and internet penetration among its roughly 59 million people stood at 24.14 million or 46% as of 2019, according to the Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority (TCRA).
Carolyne Ekyarisiima, the founder of Apps & Girls, said teaching young innovators has the potential to formulate solutions to many problems in society including energy supply, healthcare, and even how to manage solid wastes.
According to her, when girls learn coding skills at a young age, they develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills.
“With such skills, they can work independently and make informed decisions about their lives,” she said.
Jasmin Karim, 17, takes a bus every day through the busy streets of Dar es Salaam to the Apps & Girls center. The coding classes, she said, gave her “a chance to grow” and “question every aspect of my life.” Many girls her age, she said, “haven’t discovered the potential new technology brings.”
The Tanzania Commission for Science and Technology (COSTECH), a government agency responsible for scientific and technological innovations, has been researching how to create incentives for innovators like Ekyarisiima.
Magreth Mushi, a researcher with COSTECH, said girls stand a better chance of becoming software engineers and future leaders in the growing tech industry.
“Unfortunately, women are hugely underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields,” she said.
According to her, the best coders have various skills and abilities like problem solving, logic, imagination, and multi-tasking.
“When the world relies on technology, people with tech-related skills have more options to succeed and shape their future,” she said.
Honest Kimaro, a computer expert and head of the department of computer science at the University of Dar es Salaam, said while people recognise the shortage of women in the tech sector, they don’t encourage their girls to take science subjects and learn the necessary skills to secure competitive jobs in the tech industry.
“Parents do not support girls who have brilliant ideas and potential for transforming society,” he said.
According to him, closing the gender gap in technology requires efforts to remove cultural hurdles that perpetuate stereotypes about who belongs in tech and who doesn’t as well as encouraging girls to persevere rather than strive for perfection.
“Unfortunately, we raise our children to avoid failure. Consequently, they ignore fields such as programming, which are fundamentally about failing and learning,” he said.
“We should teach our children, not just girls, to try new things even in the face of repeated failure.”