Q&A: Barbara Birungi Paves New Roads for Uganda’s Women in Tech
Uganda is experiencing a technological revival with the capitol, Kampala, at the forefront of development.
Minister for Information, Communications and Technology, Eng. John Nasasira, opened the Government BPO Incubation Center at the Uganda Bureau of Statistics House last month, creating employment and identifying the need for incubators.
The nation also received the 2013 African Development Bank’s eHealth award for its mTrac health management system, an SMS-based mobile connection that has sped up response time and health provider accountability in the country.
With all of these recent developments, Barbara Birungi still sees a problem in Uganda — a lack of girls learning and utilizing technology.
Birungi, founder and director of Women in Technology Uganda (WITU), is a part of a rise in organizations and incubators dedicated to education and technological growth amongst women and young girls.
In an interview with AFKInsider, she speaks on her reasons for launching WITU and how she plans on lessening the gender gap in her field while increase access and support.
AFKInsider: Why did you start Women in Technology Uganda?
Birungi: Having been through the Ugandan education system where there was lack of emphasis on girls to take up science and math courses, I noticed a trend. Working in the tech professional field in Uganda and seeing few women in Tech both as Users and creators of technologies, I saw there was a lack of a support group for women in tech in Uganda or training specifically created to increase the number of girls in tech.
I decided to create WITU as a place for encouraging more girls in tech through training, showcasing role models, mentoring and networking in the belief that the demographics would change one woman/girl at a time.
AFKInsider: WITU hosts tech summits, classes and recently a hackathon where young girls and women created apps. What types of technology have they produced so far and how has it impacted their district?
Birungi: One notable application is a maternal and infant health application called
Nakazade. Nakazade offers information for mothers and Traditional Birth Attendants (TBAs) on SIM cards that are embedded with information on basic pregnancy health care, infant care health, contraceptive use and immunization schedules.
Due to poverty, lack of information and limited access to health centers, mothers resort to TBAs or homeopathic ways during pregnancy and infant care. With Nakazade, the women always have access to the best care advice, even if they don’t have access to a mobile network.
Nakazade is built on the Abayima platform that turns basic features phones into e-readers and also works with SMS and smart phones. It’s still in its early stages, we will get back to you on impact after the pilot!
AFKInsider: Hive Colab is another organization you lead. It’s a free space for young techies to work and develop ideas. What achievements can the Hive point to so far? Any high points?
Birungi: Being the first tech hub in the country has helped us create a developers community and encourage innovation in our youth. From when we started, there are more youths creating and thinking of creating their own technology business or start-up than three years ago. Most tech start-ups in the country give credit to Hive Colab for having been a stepping-stone in their early days. We have created a belief in tech solutions built by Ugandan youth.
AFKInsider: What does the future hold for Hive Colab?
Birungi: Integrating more than just developers/start-ups in the space [by adding] governance and health hubs to Hive Colab. We are looking forward to creating a three-fold hub that houses an incubation space to encourage co-creation and innovation in our youth.
Second, we want to develop a health hub to bring together all players and stakeholders in the health scene of Uganda. We want to work with NGOs, CBOs, government, innovators in health, academia, and internationals. Lastly, we need to encourage more women in tech!
AFKInsider: What are some of the challenges facing Uganda’s tech industry and how do you feel these issues can be resolved?
Birungi: The country has unreliable Internet and weak patent and copyright laws. There is a western mentality in most Ugandan corporate organizations, believing that nothing of good quality can be built by a Ugandan and hence import tech solutions. Strengthening the laws, government taxing local creations and improving infrastructure so that we get faster and reliable Internet can solve these issues.
AFKInsider: What are your hopes for the organizations and incubators you have started?
Birungi: My hopes for Hive Colab and WITU are highly impact Uganda’s youth to think differently and create their own solutions to many of Uganda’s challenges like unemployment, poor governance, health and infrastructure among others. I want WITU to bring the digital gender divide down to 50/50 by 2023, 10 years from now, by helping to raise a new generation of girls that think differently about technology than the current generation.