Story and photos by Abby Higgins
When Abby Wacera finished high school, she knew there was no money for college. So she planned to start working right away, because her family needed the help. But her mother knew that once she started working, probably at a menial job, her education would be over. So Abby waited.
It was two years before opportunity came knocking, but it was worth the wait.
Abby was accepted into Akirachix, a competitive program in Kenya’s capital city that teaches young, low-income women coding, web design, and app development.
“Akirachix has made me believe I can do anything,” she said just outside of the classroom where she was learning logo design with about 24 other young women. “It’s changed what I thought was possible.”
For Abby, that new possibility is a future as a graphic designer.
The information and communication sector in Kenya is growing accounted for about 8.4% of Kenya’s GDP in 2014. But as the scene has developed, many women noticed something was missing.
“We realized that there was a very huge gap. We were very few women in the room,” said Angela Oduor Lungati, one of the co-founders of Akirachix, about the early days of iHub.“We decided that we wanted to come together and create a place where we could all gather and encourage each other to take up careers in technology.”
“Technology is one of the fastest growing sectors in Kenya, yet women are greatly under-represented,” said Judith Owigar, another co-founder. Barriers like education, poverty, and social stigma mean that these girls from Kibera are even less likely to have access to the sector.
Every morning, six days a week, Abby wakes up at 4:30 a.m. to trek across the city to Bishop Magua House, the modern office building that birthed Nairobi’s technology revolution and earned the city the nickname, “Silicon Savannah.”
It’s a world away from where Abby grew up in the sprawling and lower income neighborhoods of eastern Nairobi. She had barely ever used a computer before she got to Akirachix. Her high school’s computer lab was robbed before she got there and the equipment was never replaced. Her sister had an old computer from a friend but Abby had only used it a couple of times.
None of Abby’s friends from home work in tech, or are even considering it.
“I think they just think it’s something for guys or that there’s no way that we could do it better than them,” she said of her female friends. “We have this inferiority complex that makes us think we can’t do it.”
Even Abby had her doubts at first, when coding seemed so difficult. “But I got here and so many ladies are doing it,” she says. “It made me feel like I can do something different with my life.”
Abby hopes that something different will be working in advertising in the music industry. She’d love to design logos and posters that would help elevate Kenyan music internationally.
Today, more than 150 girls have been trained at Akirachix with almost as many going on to work in technology.
“We have to remove that mentality that only boys can do it,” said Abby. “Most of the things we do we use technology and if only men do it, things get imbalanced and men might see us as inferior.”
Thirty young women are selected each year to participate in the competitive program, during which they’ll be mentored by female leaders in the technology industry. After that, they’ll receive job or internship placements. In addition to this training program, Akirachix has a high-school outreach program, as well as a kids’ program.
Akirachix also hosts Nairobi’s annual Geek Girl festival and the African Women in Technology conference, where hundreds of high school girls get the chance to connect with industry leaders and with each other.
“It’s been really an honor to see the Akirachix community grow over the years not only in numbers but also in impact,” said Juliana Rotich, a leading technologist in Kenya.
“When I was growing up it was a very lonely business being interested in science and technology. Now at a lot of these companies there’s several women, and not just as employees, they’re the founders or co-founders of those companies.”