This article was contributed to TechCabal by Charles Mathews

It is a Saturday morning in Cape Tloevenichmutze guardianialberto marellasaldi 24hbottle tatascarpe borsalamilanesa donkeyluckycat blundstoneprezzi blundstoneoutlet 24h-bottle diego-dalla-palma yeezy grigie 350 von-dutch lecopavillon borsalamilanesaown, and in a room, many girls and a few boys are baking code. The big challenge? To create an e-commerce store with a scannable barcode, front end, and the attendant API. The tension is palpable because there are cash prizes up for grabs, and these young people come from contexts marked by unemployment and poverty.

The event was organised by BabesGotBytes, a South African advocacy group that promotes equitable access to quality education and technology as inherent rights, rather than exclusive privileges. Since 2018, this initiative started by founders Amanda Gxagxa and Phindiwe Nqanqaru has been preparing girls and women to enter the workforce.

“Amanda Gxagxa and I started BabesGotBytes when we were students, and we noticed that there was a huge gender gap in the technology industry,” says Nqanqaru, in an interview after the Hackathon early in December 2023. “When we went out to technology businesses and industry meet-ups, we saw how few women there are in the industry. We wanted to do something about this. We wanted to get more girls to become a part of the industry.”

“In the communities that we come from most people think that technology is only for men, and we wanted to challenge and change this perception. Nowadays, everything is about technology and most jobs will be generated by the tech industry, so we didn’t want the girls to be left behind. This is how and why we started,” Nqanqaru says.

The Global Gender Gap Report 2023 authored by the World Economic Forum reveals that only three African countries rank in the study’s top 20 this year. They are Namibia, which pleasingly now has closed 80% of its national gender gap; Rwanda, which is also doing well in this regard; and South Africa, which has dropped in the rankings since 2010 when it was in 10th place

“Progress towards the achievement of gender equality in South Africa has been very slow,” writes gender activist, Nozi Mjoli. “Millions of women continue to be the most disadvantaged members of society in South Africa due to poverty and lack of skills.” 

Nqanqaru’s origin story reveals the agency that access to technology affords girls and women. “Coding has revealed my superpowers,” she says. “At first, I didn’t know anything about technology or computers. I wanted to build a career that was solid but didn’t know what to do.”

Born in a small Eastern Cape town called Elliot, the coder matriculated from high school without any options for tertiary education. But everything changed when a friend asked her to come along to a coding programme. This sparked an interest that changed the course of Nqanqaru’s life trajectory.

“I was a lost soul, but when I started coding, I flexed my muscles and realised my superpowers.  That’s when I realised I wanted to pass this experience on because I wanted to impact other people’s lives. I got so many mentors who believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself. This is why I wanted to do the same for other girls who don’t believe in themselves,” the coder-cum-mentor says. 

“What is exciting to see is that this first cohort is now in university or working in the technology sector,” Nqanqaru says. “2023 was our most productive year because we managed to get five girls into jobs in technology. We have gotten 14 of our BabesGotBytes girls into the Samsung and UWC Future Innovation Lab & App Factory Programme. So, we are not just teaching. What is important is that we get girls internships and help them to study further so we develop a good pipeline of engineers for this country and Africa.” 

Research proves this to be true. The South African SME Tech Index 2023 reveals that the female-owned companies in the study had higher business growth compared to male-owned companies, indicating a competitiveness and ability to navigate challenges.

Charles Lee Mathews is a former journalist and serial entrepreneur who now works at Thinkroom, Thinkubate and Grindstone Accelerator. Thinkroom, a female-led consulting firm that grows SMEs, founders and entrepreneurial ecosystems, sponsored the prizes for the BabesGotBytes hackathon.

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