After years of women in evening gowns vying for the title of national beauty queen, glamor is giving way to geekery in Rwanda.
A group of female tech entrepreneurs decided it was time to ditch Miss Rwanda for a different kind of competition, one that judged women on brilliance rather than beauty. It was time for Ms Geek.
The first Ms Geek Rwanda was crowned in 2014 and the competition has since expanded to include other African countries under the unifying banner of Ms Geek Africa.
Illustration: Mountain People
The event, open to girls and women aged 13 to 25, encourages contestants to use technology to solve everyday problems in their communities. The finalists receive business training and the winner is awarded financial backing to help realize her idea.
This year’s Ms Geek Africa is Salissou Hassane Latifa, 21, from Niger. Her winning design is an app that helps communication between people caring for accident victims and the emergency services, and allows medical staff to advise on basic first aid before they arrive at the scene.
“Ms Geek has already changed the perception of what girls can do,” said Esther Kunda of the Next Einstein Forum, a founding member of competition organizer Rwanda.
The contest was set up as part of a nationwide effort to transform Rwanda from a small agricultural economy into an engine of technological innovation, with women and girls at the forefront of the revolution.
The government has set a target of achieving gender parity in the information communications technology (ICT) sector by 2020, an ambitious goal in a worldwide industry notorious for its lack of diversity.
However, through educational campaigns, scholarships and mentorship programs, Rwanda is determined to become a global leader for women in information and communications technology.
“It’s a good place to be a woman in tech right now,” Kunda said of Rwanda.
Before the genocide of 1994, it was uncommon for women in Rwanda to own land, receive a formal education or hold jobs outside of the home.
After the atrocity, the country’s surviving population was 60 to 70 percent female, according to contemporary accounts.
Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who has led the nation with an iron fist since 2000, realized that advancing women was the only way forward and has championed their rights ever since.
Rwanda now leads the world in female representation in parliament, due in part to a quota system that reserves seats for women. Gender rights are enshrined in the national constitution and laws were changed to give women the right to inherit land and obtain credit.
As a child, Rosine Mwiseneza, who was orphaned during the genocide, recalls watching the women around her stepping into leadership roles in government and civil society. They became police officers, accountants, butchers, shop owners. Girls went to school and competed alongside boys for internships and scholarships.
Mwiseneza was studying business management at Kepler University in Kigali when she entered the Ms Geek contest in 2016. Her idea was for an automated irrigation system that would help farmers cultivate their fields year-round as opposed to just during the rainy season.
Mwiseneza said she was astounded when she won the competition. In that moment, she remembered her parents and all the hardships she had endured.
“It was very difficult to believe,” she said. “I started thinking of everything that had passed before that day and I began to cry.”
As well as rapid economic growth and rising standards of living, Rwanda is fast becoming a highly digitized society.
In 2013, the Akilah Institute, Rwanda’s first college exclusively for women, launched a diploma in information systems. The program, which started off enrolling just 10 students each year, has expanded sixfold in the five years since it opened.
Though there are no national statistics on the number of women in Rwanda’s technology sector, anecdotal evidence suggests the push for equality is having an impact.
Fileille Naberwe, 21, in her first year at the African Leadership University in Kigali, said her interest in tech set her apart as a student. Now she has found her niche, working as a fellow at DMM.HeHe, a female-run start-up that develops mobile technologies.
Her boss, Clarisse Iribagiza, is something of a celebrity entrepreneur in Kigali. Naberwe said she has drawn confidence from watching Iribagiza lead major projects and hold court during meetings.
It is one of the influences that got to me — seeing her in the biggest position and her handling it like a boss,” Naberwe says.
However, despite a commitment to equality, women say they still face social pressure to marry young and start families.
And, while there are signs of positive change, a perception endures that tech is the preserve of men.
Parfaite Wirira, 22, an ICT student at the Akilah Institute, said her parents still ask her brother to fix their telephone when it goes wrong, even though she has the technical skills and he does not.
“We need to see more ladies who are successful [in ICT], to inspire us and show us what is possible,” she said. “Then maybe one day we will be the role models for a new generation.”
Research shows that role models are hugely important to encouraging women to pursue careers in tech and other industries — and that was the central motivation behind Ms Geek.
Mwiseneza is hopeful that, as the contest gains prominence and more girls study ICT, Rwanda’s tech culture will evolve to be more inclusive and progressive, echoing the modern history of the country.
“In this country it is still not easy for a woman to stand on her own but the change exists,” she said. “The future is not for men only. It is also for women.”
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