Exclusive Interview: Oreoluwa Somolu-Lesi, Executive Director, Women’s Technology Empowerment Centre (W.TEC)

Oreoluwa Somolu-Lesi is a phenomenal woman in many rights. Through her non-profit organization, Women’s Technology Empowerment Centre (W.TEC), she is leading a powerful drive for information technology literacy and empowerment for girls in Nigeria, and inspiring more women to pursue technology related careers.

At 2009 Girls Tech Camp

  1. You are the Executive Director of Women’s Technology Empowerment Centre (W.TEC), one of Nigeria’s foremost women in technology initiatives. Tell us about yourself and your journey so far?

I was someone, who for a long time, had no clue what I wanted to do with my life. I ended-up studying Economics at university, but while at university I set-up a business typing and printing essays for fellow students. I was surprised that I could make money from such a seemingly simple skill. It was then that I began to think about an ICT-related career. My curiousity to learn more about how computers and other information technology could benefit economies led me to pursue a Masters degree in Information Systems.

My Masters degree was in analysis, design and management of information systems and during this year I started learning about the impact of information technology on economic growth and development. Through my reading, I realized that women on the African continent were very under-represented in technology – whether it was in the spheres of development, policy, or as users. I was curious about this and made this the subject of my dissertation. The idea for the Women’s Technology Empowerment Centre (W.TEC) was borne from this research.

I had the idea of a place where women could learn basic technology skills – like how to use a computer for creating and editing documents – to more advanced skills like creating tools. Research showed that women were more comfortable learning in a women-only or predominantly female environment and so I wanted W.TEC to be a space where women could feel free in asking all the questions they wanted to and develop new skills and knowledge without a sense of intimidation.

In 2008, I set-up the Women’s Technology Empowerment Centre (W.TEC) as a non-profit organization that would provide technology training for women and girls, with the aim of inspiring more young women to pursue technology careers. To that end, W.TEC runs technology camps for teenage girls, which were initially aimed at introducing girls to computers and the Internet, but which have evolved over the years to equip girls with skills to become technology creators. They participate in technology workshops on programming, mobile application development, website design, digital video production, among others. We also run afterschool programming clubs in girls secondary schools, where we can work with the girls to deepen their technology skills over a longer period of time.

We also help equip other groups of women – such as entrepreneurs – with technology skills that they can use to move their business ventures forward.

We also realize that for many girls who don’t consider technology careers, it is because they do not see a place for themselves in there. And this is largely as a result of a lack of female role models. Therefore, a big part of our work, especially with girls, is the technology career talks where women working in the technology industry or for whom technology is a big part of their work, speak to the girls and share their career journeys. These are very encouraging and eye-opening for the girls, because they are able to get a realistic picture of a variety of jobs and then start to think about their own career path. They are also able to start to break through the stereotypes of technology being a sector for men only.

It’s been a journey not without it’s ups and downs, but seeing alumnae from our programmes go on to pursue technology-related careers or integrate technology into their businesses; and knowing that we played a part in their decision to do those things is immensely rewarding.

  1. According to the African Union (AU), 2016 in Africa is “The Year of Human Rights with a Special Focus on Women’s Human Rights”; how does this make you feel, especially as one who is leading a women-focused initiative?

I suppose it is gratifying to see women’s human rights coming to the fore. I hope this helps to draw more attention to the challenges and discrimination that women have faced and still continue to face. However, these issues have existed for a long time now and will persist beyond 2016. Therefore it is important to ensure that the work of eliminating inequality and establishing gender parity continues into the future for as long as it is needed.

  1. Gender was a priority in the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and continues to be so in the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), how can technology be leveraged to achieve this goal?

Technology is a crucial tool in today’s world. Technology has changed the way we live, work and play. It provides tools that help to solve social and economic problems, so how we use it, matters a great deal.

One of the projects W.TEC participates in is the annual Technovation challenge, in which teams of girls across the world develop mobile applications to solve problems in their society. Many of the girls that W.TEC works with have never written a line of code in their life. However, when they are motivated to address problems that they or members of their community are experiencing, they realise that technology is in many ways, a means to an end. It helps them create a solution to some issue that has plagued them. So, for example, they have created applications that address issues of moving safely in their neighbourhood and clarifying career choices.

In a similar way, there are tools that benefit women in all aspects of their lives – from providing pricing information for their products and services, providing a platform to publicise their businesses, tools that give them good-quality heath information to name a few.

Technology also provides a plethora of tools for efficient work and collaboration, even across geographic boundaries. In this way, organisations working on women’s human rights and gender parity can locate each other, work together even though they are located in different places and create louder noise about the problems and the progress made so far.

Girls building robots-W.TEC

  1. With a 63.8% figure, Rwanda currently ranks number one (1) in the world in female participation in legislature and leadership, how do you imagine this result can be replicated in other African countries?

The foundation is a crucial place to start making change and one thing Rwanda did was ensure that completion of primary and secondary school is compulsory for both girls and boys. This ensures that girls also get the educational start they need in life.

Laws enacted by the parliament, mandate that women are able to own and inherit property. One of the common reasons that girls fail to complete school – even in a system where education is free – is poverty in the family. The family decides that the girl might as well stop school so that she can work and earn money for the family. However, if more women have the ability to be financially independent (and being able to own and inherit property) is a big part of this, then there is less of a reason to stop girls’ education.

The introduction of quotas requiring that 30% of political and government candidates be women, have been a very important part of Rwanda’s success story. As a result, there are more women participating in national and local politics and across public positions.

The women in these positions have excelled in their performance and also pushed reform that would benefit other women.

  1. You are an Ashoka Fellow and a Vital Voices Lead Fellow, you have also won several awards in your field; how have these achievements enhanced the work you do?

The screening and interviewing process for the Ashoka fellowship was gruelling. It involved 3 sets of interviews, with each being an average of 3 hours. The questions required deep thought and the process of preparing for the interview itself helped me clarify some of my plans regarding the future of W.TEC.

Then, actually being awarded the fellowship after all that hard work was of course incredibly gratifying. But more importantly, it signalled to the world that I was serious about my work with W.TEC and committed to supporting girls and women in their technology use and careers.

The Vital Voices Lead Fellowship is awarded to emerging and established women leaders across the world and through it, I have benefited from 2 years of participating in weekly online seminars on subjects like Developing a Strategic Plan, Fundraising, Financial Management, Branding, which have all been valuable in helping W.TEC run more efficiently.

In addition, as a Vital Voices Lead Fellow, I have expanded my network to include women from the highest echelons of the development and business worlds.

The Vital Voices Global Partnership organisation grew out of the U.S. government’s Vital Voices Democracy Initiative, which was established by then First Lady Hillary Clinton, and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. To be part of an organisation established by two such accomplished women is in itself a huge honour.

  1. What are some of the peculiar challenges that you encounter in your work, and how are you able to overcome them?

It has been hard work setting-up and taking W.TEC from the concept stage to an organisation with several years of programmes under our belt. We started with an ambitious plan for providing high-level technology workshops, but we quickly realised that our programmes had to meet the needs of the beneficiaries and not the other way around. So, we then started many of our programmes with basics like introduction to computers. Then, we moved on to the use of Microsoft applications and the use of the Internet and e-mail. Now, our girls are learning to write programmes and the women are gaining experience in using technology for their enterprises.

Running technology-focused programmes is not inexpensive as you need to have access to the hardware and software for training. This meant identifying equipped labs where we could hold our trainings, as we could not afford our own training facilities at the start.

However, all these challenges have led us to identify partners with whom we share similar visions and with whom we can implement programmes together.

W.TEC started during a recession when access to funds was difficult. We were also a little-known organisation, competing against bigger and better-known nonprofits. We needed to look inwards and be creative in how we raised funds. We had to generate income through some training programmes and consultancy. For a few years, we also ran a cyber café and business center, which has been closed for the last year because the lack of electricity and cost of diesel made that business no longer viable.

W-TEC Panel at Social Media Week 2014

  1. Across the continent of Africa and beyond, there are passionate young people who are frustrated by the existing systems in their different nations, just like you have in Nigeria. What would you say is the best way to galvanize youth effort across the continent to drive positive outcomes across Africa?

Social media has helped to bring pertinent issues to light much faster than in years past. It has also provided an effective platform for young people to amplify their voices. In a part of the world where age is respected and youth is generally dismissed, today’s generation has found that making a lot of noise on social media draws attention from around the world.

However, what happens after that makes all the difference. I know many people are critical of ‘online activists’, however creating awareness about the existing problems and facilitating discourse is always an important first step.

Young people are taking great strides in providing solutions too. Many of W.TEC’s alumnae go on to teach other members of their communities how to use technology tools. Some are developing mobile applications to address particular problems in their communities and networks.

Youth-led organisations like LEAP Africa, The Future Project, Enough is Enough Nigeria are leading the way in challenging the status quo and proposing solutions for a better system. Technology helps to publicise the efforts being made by these organisations and their partners.

  1. A lot continues to be said about the rise of Africa, the ‘Africa Rising’ narrative it is called. Do you agree that Africa is indeed rising? If so, what are the changing realities, scenarios and events that inform your conviction that Africa is indeed a continent on the rise?

In many ways, yes, Africa is shedding its reputation as the ‘dark continent.’

Global news organisations like CNN, Aljazeera and BBC regularly feature Africans making valuable contributions to their communities. Many African countries are several decades into being governed by a democratically-elected government.

Nigeria – as in many other parts of Africa – is experiencing a new crop of entrepreneurs who are running their businesses guided by global best practices, which have been adapted to the local realities. Businesses that many said would never work in Africa, for example online shopping, are not only succeeding but also changing consumer behaviour and expectations.

Despite these positives, conflict and corruption persist. Doing business on the African continent is more expensive and challenging than in the more developed parts of the world. However, the payoff is much greater and the droves of non-Africans flocking to the continent would seem to support this belief.

Africans are also taking back control over the narrative of their realities. A vibrant literary scene where a new generation of authors are telling stories that we can relate to, is emerging. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warned of the danger of the single story and the new generation of writers are showing Africa in all its multi-layered, complex hues.

Technology is helping to facilitate much of this change: from businesses to story-telling to advocacy to healthcare to the provision of government services.

Patabah Book Reading II

  1. You are a Technology Enthusiast and ICT for Women Advocate, and you also care about Arts and Culture, especially literature as you successfully manage a thriving bookstore in Lagos. Your interests also cut across Economic Empowerment, Environment, Science and Technology, and Children. What drives you and helps you hold it all together?

My parents introduced me to reading at a young age when they signed me up to a library. So I grew up with a love for reading. I also used to write stories and create magazines and one of my childhood ambitions for many years was to be a writer.

Like most people, I have different layers to my personality and so even my seemingly disparate interests all come together very nicely.

For many years, I ran a blog, where I wrote about whatever was on my mind. That got me interested in social media before it became the everyday set of tools that it is now. And so, one way I got girls and women interested in technology, was to start off by teaching them to use a tool that was both useful to them and fun. So the lines between technology, the arts and all the other things I enjoyed were always interconnected.

I think that it’s hard to live a life that is exactly 50-50 balanced between work and leisure, but I recognise that some days or weeks or even years are going to be more focused on work (e.g. in my twenties and up to my mid-thirties) and some period would be more focused on family. So, in whatever season of my life I am, I try to enjoy it and make the most of it.

In the years, when I was setting-up W.TEC, I had to work so hard. Now, I have a young family and work very hard still, but I need to be more flexible with my time, I can’t necessarily be in the office 9 to 5 but I work from home when I need to and work through the night, after my daughter has gone to sleep when I need to.

I am driven to succeed at whatever I find myself doing, so I put in the work necessary. But I also recognise that what really adds flavour to life is what you do outside of work. I mean, when I am old and grey, I doubt that I would be recounting with joy all the times I worked through the night or the grants that W.TEC got. Rather, it’s the time spent with family and friends and doing those other things that give me pleasure that I will likely remember with joy.

So, I really try to find avenues to unwind. I read (I always have a book with me. I am currently reading Thrive by Arianna Huffington, which is about living a more mindful life). I watch films and TV programmes. I delegate work that I don’t need to do so that I can have some downtime.

Girls Tech camp 2014

  1. What should Africa look forward to from you soon? What is the next big thing you are working on right now?

Over the last few years, the issue of the gender technology gap has really gained traction and there is a lot more effort made to get girls and women using technology and into STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths)-related careers.

I feel that, through our work, W.TEC was able to play a role in bringing some attention to this issue. Over the next few years, we look forward to moving out of the shores of Nigeria to expand the scope of our work and partner with organisations across Africa to organise programmes for girls and women across the continent.

We do a lot of our work in schools, but plan on opening a world-class learning centre, where we can widen our programme offerings. This centre will also be a hub for girls and women in the community as well as our alumnae.

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