#IWD2023: African Women In Tech Make A Mark In The Face Of Inequality

By  |  March 8, 2023

It largely stays under the radar that the very first e-hailing company in Egypt was started by a fresh-faced 20-something-year-old who, in her own words, was thought to be crazy.

“I had an idea that no one had thought possible, and almost everyone thought I was crazy! But I believed in myself, I believed I could, my family and my close support system decided to back me up,” Hadeer Shalaby, MD of Talabat Egypt, tells WeeTracker.

“Fast forward years later: This idea worked and was profitable, I sold it to a bigger company, and I started leading their business in my country and bringing new ideas to them, and today I am now leading another big company helping them with what I have learned and still adding new ideas,” she shared.

In a country that is not the most open to women (Egypt ranked 134th out of 153 countries in the 2020 Global Gender Gap Index and 140th out of 153 countries in women’s economic participation and opportunity), Shalaby managed quite some feat.

She founded Taxi El Sa7el; a startup that was the first to offer on-demand transportation in the North Coast in Egypt in summer 2014, which was acquired in 2015 by the Middle-East e-hailing giant, Careem.

Then, she went on to lead Careem’s business in Egypt, eventually making Cairo the biggest city for Careem in the whole region, which remains the case to this day. These days, Shalaby is steering the Egyptian branch of Talabat; a Kuwait-founded startup devoted to simply helping people get food, which was acquired by Rocket Internet in 2015 and is now under the umbrella of Europe-based Delivery Hero.

Feats like Shalaby’s, though often muffled by gender disparities, are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to chronicling the excellence of African women in tech both on the continent’s burgeoning tech scene and beyond. At every turn, African tech is being shaped by women in spite of the regressive cultural stereotypes that blunt their effort.

African women of ‘tech-cellence’

Catherine Mudachi bade farewell to nearly a decade of work in the consumer goods space and got her start in tech when she joined Safaricom in 2016 and worked in digital products and services for the largest telco organization in East and Central Africa. Mudachi then joined Copia – a Kenyan e-commerce company that simplifies e-commerce for 750 million Middle to Low-Income Africans – and she’s making a mark as Vice President of Marketing, East Africa.

“For me, the pinnacle achievement so far is launching an agent ordering platform. Not only was this truly transformative for the 30,000 agents who now had a simple and intuitive way of placing orders, but it also played a significant role in digitising agents and empowering them to be global citizens,” Mudachi shared.

For Mayokun Fadeyibi, the journey started with studying and obtaining degrees in Mathematics and Business before moving back to Nigeria to join the global classifieds platform, OLX, as the Senior Manager, Business Development. She later went on to serve as the Nigeria Acting Country Manager. After further stints at Sankore Global Investments and Cars45, Fadeyibi is now playing a key role as Senior Vice President of West Africa at Autochek Africa, one of the most exciting auto-tech startups around.

“I am thankful for the career I’ve had but my biggest achievement has to be the work we are currently doing at Autochek. We are building the infrastructure to make car ownership more accessible and affordable across the continent and I believe this will transform lives and livelihoods on the continent in a profound way,” Fadebiyi emphasised.

Like Fadeyibi, Aderonke Ajose-Adeyemi was educated abroad. Before founding the e-commerce marketplace, Losode, she spent over a decade working in senior roles at some multinational technology firms in the tech space across EMEA, LATAM and the United Kingdom.

“The vision for Losode is to build infrastructure that enables trade and commerce and this really excites me. We are starting with fashion but we intend to expand into more sectors to empower entrepreneurs, smash existing trade borders and do big business. Having the opportunity and platform to do this is the finest moment of my career so far,” Ajose-Adeyemi told WeeTracker.

Others have had to take a grittier path to tech. Lucy Mbuthia started out in tech in 2019 following a much-needed sabbatical after some gruesome years working in private equity that led to some extreme burnout. She started a fashion e-commerce business in Kenya with a focus on fashion accessories.

“The e-commerce brand grew amid the pandemic and we started to become a sought-after brand shipping to other countries in Africa and globally. The business however started to experience the pains that come with growing and scaling and I couldn’t raise money to sustain its growth. Bootstrapping had started to take a toll on me mentally, emotionally and financially and I decided to close the business,” Mbuthia explained.

Staying undeterred, Mbuthia enjoyed a brief spell at the fast-growing African startup fund manager, Future Africa, working as Chief of Staff, and her work there would help her to land two consultancy roles; one with a fledgling fintech company aiming to reimagine lending, and the other being Marketforce which is one of the leading Kenyan startups building unified digital commerce marketplace aimed at facilitating trade among Africa’s informal merchants and consumer brands.

Impeded by inequalities

Whether it’s the remarkable Seun Runsewe who is now making stuff happen at the fintech unicorn, Chipper, after leaving a mark over the years in Paystack, OPay, Switch by Sterling Bank and Softcom – or the legendary Omobola Johnson and Rebecca Enonchong and change-makers like Odun Eweniyi and Eloho Omame Gihan-Mbelu – the overwhelming influence of African women in tech cannot be overemphasised.

However, as portrayed by the perennial societal imbalance that inspired the theme of this year’s International Women’s Day aptly titled: “DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality”, women are still largely impeded and suppressed – both internally and externally as well as consciously and unconsciously – in various facets of life across various pursuits for no reason other than the simple fact that they are women.

“I am grateful to have had the opportunity to work in gender-balanced environments. But I would argue that some of the biases women face have undertones of gender bias, particularly in the senior leadership team, and that they are not given an equal voice at the table,” reckoned Mudachi.

“Furthermore, being treated and addressed differently as a woman. Surprisingly, men can also ignore women in the room during their icebreaker banter about politics or sports. Because I am a sports fan, I sometimes get surprise looks when I join in football or rugby discussions (laughs),” she revealed lightheartedly.

In some cases, this blatantly unfair treatment of women appears to have been normalised. Whether it’s a landlord in Lagos refusing to rent out a property to a woman or a bank in Nairobi choosing not to issue a business loan to a trader who is a single mother of three, the gender bias against women is multi-faceted and far-reaching, and it’s pretty much ubiquitous regardless of gender or location.

In fact, a United Nations (UN) report found almost 90 percent of men and women hold some sort of bias against females. This UN “Gender Social Norms” index analysed biases in areas such as politics and education in 75 countries. In other areas like business, religion, entertainment and sport. It’s a familiar story of one group being forced to do twice as much for half the reward just because they are of a certain gender.

“Despite having the credentials and experience to show that we have every right to be here, many people still don’t take us seriously. This means you often have to invest more effort into getting noticed, compared to your male counterparts,” Ajose-Adeyemi mentioned.

While some indices like The Economist’s glass-ceiling index suggest that women in business might be getting a bit of a leg-up of late with respect to the increasing number of women at the helm of top firms, massive gaps remain. And this is seen in various shades in tech – from gender pay gaps and funding apathy which saw female-led startups receive just 1.9 percent of venture capital funding last year, to lopsided organisational and boardroom dynamics and sexual harassment.

On the latter topic, the African tech scene has seen some of these issues come to light in recent times. In June 2020, the music site, Okayplayer, announced that CEO Abiola Oke had resigned following an open letter from women at the firm that outlined below-market salaries, inappropriate behaviour and verbal abuse.

In another publicised matter from two years ago, Kendall Ananyi was reinstated as CEO of Tizeti to much furore after a panel concluded that the much-publicised sexual harassment allegations against him did not have enough merit, even as the alleged victim, Kelechi Odoagwu lamented that she had been shut out of the investigations the panel said it had carried out.

In November 2021, Chisom Echehieuka – the founder of Code Hub Africa; a training and mentorship program for complete beginners in tech which had raised money from donations – was implicated in a matter that reflected he was soliciting sexual favours from females who wanted in on the programme. Echehieuka would later apologise and carry on as though nothing happened.

This particular incident epitomises how getting into tech and progressing in it is, for women, needlessly an uphill battle designed by the de-facto gatekeepers.

For a group that is already at a fundamental disadvantage from the jump given they are routinely denied adequate opportunity, access and support; discouraged from chasing certain careers due to cultural biases; and deceptively conditioned to believe they can’t cut it despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, additional obstacles tied to the lasciviousness of superiors is probably the worst.

Engendering gender equality in tech

The gender bias in African tech is also reflected in how female entrepreneurs often struggle to raise funding (from an investor ecosystem that is overwhelmingly male-dominated) compared to their male counterparts.

“Some of the challenges I have faced is being underestimated or my accomplishments being overlooked or understated because I am a Woman,” said Mbuthia.

“My least memorable points were when I was trying to raise money for my e-commerce brand and I was always met with biases and unfounded assumptions, also fashion still isn’t ‘sexy’ to male investors despite having a revenue-driven business that was on the path to scale and it became clearer that is difficult for male investors to connect to industries that women typically serve,” she added.

The observed apathy of investors towards female entrepreneurs is not founded to be grounded on any factual data that point to any sort of underperformance or incompetence among female-led businesses, especially as African women are known to be quite enterprising. In fact, Africa currently carries the highest female entrepreneurship rate globally at 27 percent, and 58 percent of the continent’s self-employed population are women.

“African women are a strong pillar of commerce across the continent and you are more likely to find a female entrepreneur in Africa than anywhere else in the world,” Ajose-Adeyemi reiterated.

However, the funding gap in African tech is perhaps most reflected in the alarming stat that suggests that despite the funding splash in African tech over the last few years, only 3 percent of all the investments made into African startups between 2013 and 2021 went to female-led startups. More recently, the share of funding to female-led startups in Africa was just 4 percent last year, per The Big Deal.

These issues ultimately trigger a domino effect of a shortage of thriving female-led ventures resulting in a dearth of women in positions of influence and leadership. Hence, there is a limitation in the area of effecting change that will increase female participation in tech and influence the male-dominated top-end to intentionally work towards equal opportunity for women instead of adopting a stance that borders on tokenism.

Generally, estimates point out that while the overall female labour-force participation rate in Sub-Saharan Africa has reached 61 percent, women constitute only 30 percent of professionals in the tech industry. There’s a lot of work to be done in getting that number up to an optimal level.

“Numerous factors can help reverse this trend and make the tech ecosystem more welcoming to women. Mentoring, diversity and inclusion training and awareness, apprenticeship, and entry schemes are just a few examples,” Mudachi volunteered. 

While the interviewed African women in tech recognise that some progress has been made such that they are past the days when they would typically be the only woman in the room at a tech firm, they reckon there’s still plenty to do. And most of them seem to have already taken matters into their own hands; helping to guide, mentor, support, and even fund the next generation of African women in tech through their respective capacities.

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