Sarah Marshall: Okay, next up, Nanjira Sambuli. And the title of her talk is "REACT to Close the Digital Gender Divide."


Nanjira Sambuli: Or in oth­er words, how to make tech­nol­o­gy less shit, pick­ing up from where we just start­ed. Yeah, I think I can see the room so I can ask this ques­tion. How many here work on con­nect­ing the uncon­nect­ed, in some shape or form, to the Internet, to the Web, to dig­i­tal tech­nol­o­gy? Be proud about it. Raise your hand up high. I love it. About half the room.

Another ques­tion: How many here work on that issue from say, the pri­vate sec­tor, or iden­ti­fy as pri­vate sec­tor? Hands up high? Don’t be shy, don’t be shy. No lynch­ing. Alright. We have maybe one per­cent.

Civil soci­ety, when my civ­il soci­ety peo­ple at? Come on. I expect­ed more. Yeah. Alright, anoth­er half or so.

Question: Anybody here from gov­ern­ment? Safe space. We have one, yay! Welcome to the par­ty. It’s good to know who I’m speak­ing to about this issue.

A bit about myself. I come from Nairobi, Kenya. Place in Africa, great place. And five or so years ago, I got real­ly inter­est­ed in how tech­nol­o­gy was being adopt­ed. If you know a bit about Kenyan tech­nol­o­gy you’ve prob­a­bly heard of M-Pesa mobile mon­ey plat­form. Ushahidi actu­al­ly start­ed off in Kenya as well. And there’s a great ener­gy about what tech­nol­o­gy could and couldn’t do.

Now, at this time I was dead bored study­ing math. Which in hind­sight is very use­ful in the world of AI, but hey. I’ll cross that bridge when I get there. But I start­ed spend­ing time with inno­va­tors to bet­ter under­stand so, what were they cre­at­ing and for whom. How was that going to scale up? How could be also con­tribute to the world?

But two things became very clear for me ear­ly on. One, it’ll take more than inno­va­tion. Two, women were a minor­i­ty in those spaces. They were not being seen, they were not being heard, they were not basi­cal­ly the first peo­ple speak­ing up on that.

And so, fast for­ward to what I do now, which is pre­oc­cu­py by myself with how do we make sure the Web is for all. And I found that research glob­al­ly is point­ing out that women are 50% less like­ly to be con­nect­ed to the Internet. And not just that. Even when they’re con­nect­ed they’re 30 to 50% less like­ly to use it for per­son­al empow­er­ment. So much for Web For All, right?

And some of the rea­sons being cit­ed for this: lack of know-how, scarci­ty of time, and rel­e­vant con­tent. Prohibitively high cost of devices and data. And also the chill­ing effect once you’re online—social, polit­i­cal, legal—because there’s no place, no coun­try, no space for women to just be to speak their minds.

And so I found it was not just unique to Kenya or Africa. It is some­thing that is being seen across the world. And so the ques­tion is obvi­ous­ly what should we do about it? We are all try­ing to con­nect the uncon­nect­ed, so what does that mean? We do need to react to the fact that this is a prob­lem. But I mean some­thing dif­fer­ent by REACT. I mean that we need a focus on five things: rights, edu­ca­tion, afford­able access, rel­e­vant con­tent, and tar­gets that help us mea­sure progress.

Now, great that we have at least one gov­ern­ment per­son in the room because the ques­tion is, if I ask many of you here to name great ini­tia­tives you know that are try­ing to con­nect the uncon­nect­ed, they’re prob­a­bly civ­il society-led, or pri­vate sector-led. But what are gov­ern­ments doing? Where are they? At least we have some rep­re­sen­ta­tion in the room. But how are they react­ing to the dig­i­tal gen­der gap?

Some may ask why should they be react­ing? And I know some­times when you bring up the word gov­ern­men­tal pol­i­cy” eyes go half mast. But stick with me here. Because gov­ern­ments have to be involved from the get-go. Because this issue is pri­mar­i­ly a result of pol­i­cy fail­ure. And so it stands to rea­son if we’re build­ing sol­id foun­da­tions for a healthy Internet, those same peo­ple have to be involved. Governments have to be involved. Policy has to be involved. But we also have to be involved.

Now, why gov­ern­ments also have to be involved is research is actu­al­ly show­ing that coun­tries that have very clear strate­gies and tar­gets in their ICT poli­cies to increase Internet pen­e­tra­tion have high­er adop­tion rates and low­er costs for con­nect­ing peo­ple. It’s just what it is. And what poli­cies do in that sense is they help us ensure suc­cess of any long-term plans to con­nect peo­ple, to address the dig­i­tal gen­der gap, and every­thing under this REACT framework’s sun, if you will.

And that way, we’re able to iden­ti­fy invest­ment mech­a­nisms for actu­al­ly achiev­ing those goals, but with very clear tar­gets iden­ti­fied. So who’s not con­nect­ed, and how is it that whether it’s gov­ern­ment, whether it’s pri­vate sec­tor, whether it’s civ­il soci­ety, we will be work­ing col­lec­tive­ly to con­nect them.

Now, since of two bil­lion peo­ple world­wide who aren’t con­nect­ed, 50% are women, those poli­cies have to go anoth­er step. They have to be gender-responsive. It’s a buzz­word but I’ll give you the mean­ing of it in just a sec­ond. It essen­tial­ly means one thing: that when you’re design­ing plans, when you’re lay­ing out roadmaps for con­nect­ing peo­ple, you take into con­sid­er­a­tion the dif­fer­ent chal­lenges of all groups in soci­ety. But also the spe­cif­ic chal­lenges that are keep­ing women from being con­nect­ed. And in so doing we’re just cre­at­ing equal oppor­tu­ni­ties for men and women alike to be con­nect­ed.

I mean guys, I don’t know about you but wouldn’t it be nice for once if there’s some­thing in this world that we dis­cov­er as human­i­ty that actu­al­ly gets off on the right foot? So that we’re not always deal­ing with inequal­i­ties or geo­gra­phies, inequal­i­ties of women? It is the space of pol­i­cy to do that, and I pas­sion­ate­ly believe that we can get this right with ICT poli­cies.

So let me give you an exam­ple, because that sounds nice— I’ll give you two exam­ples, actu­al­ly. Nigeria. Country in West Africa. Most pop­u­lous coun­try in Africa. By all intents and pur­pos­es has an ICT pol­i­cy that is gender-responsive. But this is what I mean by that: on what they’ve list­ed as their plan for the next four years, they talk about mon­i­tor­ing the num­ber of women and girls who are not con­nect­ed and even pro­vid­ing incen­tives for pri­vate sec­tor actors and civ­il soci­ety to train women on how to use the Internet—women and girls, for that mat­ter.

Great, right? Only prob­lem is (and there’s always a but” with gov­ern­ments) they are doing this in an ad hoc man­ner. So the lan­guage on it—on paper, per­fect. But when it comes to the actu­al roll-out it’s all ad hoc. And then unfor­tu­nate­ly what that has done is any ini­tia­tives are reach­ing those who are already con­nect­ed. So a waste of great resources hap­pen­ing right there. That policy’s com­ing up for review next year and my ques­tion has been so what will they say has been the progress made? People remain uncon­nect­ed, 50% of women are still offline. How will they know how over the last four years they’ve fared? If there’s any­one here in the room who works in Nigeria, how will you know how your con­tri­bu­tion fed on to a big­ger thing of actu­al­ly achiev­ing uni­ver­sal access?

Another inter­est­ing exam­ple is Costa Rica. The gov­ern­ment there is using a tool called the Universal Service Access Fund, which is essen­tial­ly mon­ey the gov­ern­ment has to con­nect the uncon­nect­ed; sim­plest def­i­n­i­tion. And they’re doing some­thing inter­est­ing with theirs, which is they are pro­vid­ing sub­si­dies for low-income house­holds to get fixed Internet band­width and com­put­ers. Now, approx­i­mate­ly 95% of the peo­ple who ben­e­fit from that are actu­al­ly women. Why? Because they under­stood some­thing: research was show­ing that in their coun­try, the rel­a­tive cost to con­nect was high­er for women, espe­cial­ly female-headed house­holds in low-income neigh­bor­hoods.

So, see? It can be done. And they can expand on that and go beyond fixed Internet band­width to mobile broad­band and oth­er ways to con­nect peo­ple, and then maybe achieve uni­ver­sal access in our life­time.

So, that’s exam­ples of where we are, a sort of state of play with gov­ern­ments. Well I’m sure you’ll ask me, Well y’all are not gov­ern­ment peo­ple so what does that have to do with any­thing?” But at the end of the day, every­thing that we are doing needs a sol­id foun­da­tion. This healthy Internet we need needs a sol­id foun­da­tion. That sol­id foun­da­tion is called pol­i­cy. Hate it or love it, guys. It is what it is.

So, gov­ern­ment absolute­ly have to start being pushed to do bet­ter. And it’s also our job to make sure that we advo­cate for them to have those poli­cies, as I men­tioned, those basic prin­ci­ples that they adhere to, that help us also fig­ure out how our col­lec­tive efforts are mak­ing sure we achieve uni­ver­sal afford­able access. It’s about our­selves con­tin­u­ing to do what we do. We are inno­va­tors in this room, the peo­ple who are build­ing stuff. But, sor­ry to break it to you, we will not entre­pre­neur our way out of bad pub­lic policy—not for­ev­er, any­way.

So if you’ve been able to moonshot—I love that word. If you’ve been able to moon­shot with your inno­va­tion to con­nect peo­ple, good for you. But not all of us are going to be able to moon­shot out of it. And if we keep ignor­ing the pol­i­cy lay­er, what’s going to hap­pen is gov­ern­ments effec­tive­ly become block­ers for what we are try­ing to achieve here. I don’t know about you, I’d like to min­i­mize the resis­tance that we have to deal with. So how quick­er can we make sure that we put gov­ern­ments to task?

That is one aspect. But, when it comes to specif­i­cal­ly to women, all of us have a respon­si­bil­i­ty to make sure our pro­grams, our efforts, our ini­tia­tives, take gen­der con­sid­er­a­tions from every step of the way. That means from plan­ning, to pro­gram­ming, to mon­i­tor­ing. And it means that you have to involve gen­der experts, every step of the way.

Now, I come from Kenya, yes. I may be able to speak about some per­spec­tive about this in Kenya. But I will not be able to always speak about it for Africa. So that means you have to find dif­fer­ent peo­ple from dif­fer­ent areas. I may be able to talk about my sub­ur­ban back­ground and what­ev­er that might be as a dis­par­i­ty to con­nect. But I’m not nec­es­sar­i­ly the best per­son to speak about an urban poor woman and the chal­lenges they face. I may be able to speak to them, but I also know my lim­i­ta­tions. So by exten­sion, and espe­cial­ly for those who work on a more glob­al out­look, I will not ful­fill that diver­si­ty quo­ta alone. You have to find the peo­ple who under­stand the com­mu­ni­ties you’re try­ing to work for. [applause]

I hope if noth­ing else, the com­mu­ni­ty that has gath­ered today here under­stands that point. Because we are diverse peo­ple, even if we come from very com­plex back­grounds. And that means we have to invest time to appre­ci­ate that diver­si­ty so that these efforts we’re all putting in actu­al­ly achieve what we’re here to do. We need this Web to be for every­one. It can be done but there’s some fun­da­men­tal prin­ci­ples we have to adopt.

But I also tie that back to the role of gov­ern­ments. Because at the end of the day, when your great resources (cur­rent­ly) run out, if you’re run­ning a pro­gram in Country X to con­nect the uncon­nect­ed, when that fund­ing runs out or your inter­ests have to go else­where, how will that pro­gram remain? What hap­pens to those people—they’re real peo­ple. You start­ed intro­duc­ing some­thing but there’s no exit plan, sus­tain­abil­i­ty plan…whatever buzz­word works for you in that con­text. That is the role of gov­ern­ments. And fun­da­men­tal­ly, if we want a Web for all, it has to be a pub­lic good. And a human right. And so we can­not exon­er­ate gov­ern­ments from their job. Thank you.


Sarah Marshall: Questions, or comments?

Audience 1: You spoke a lot about accessibility. [inaudible] touch on your research or knowledge about the empowerment portion where you know, you had said 50% do not have access but 30 to 50% do not feel empowered.

Nanjira Sambuli: Yes.

Audience 1: I was wondering your experience there with improvement.

Sambuli: It's not unique to the Web per se. It's also to do with communities and how they allow women to just be. So the Internet or the online space is not fundamentally different. Because once I get there, if the moment I just say, "Hello world," and they're like, "Woman, shut up." [shrugs] You're like— We learn the same things and just transfer them to technology. That's just one aspect. And there's also cultural barriers that over time have made it feel like— Many women feel like it's not my space to comment on politics or issues that are affecting us. Let me just exist in my little woman's corner and do my little women's stuff.

So there's a lot of the offline also replicating online, and we have to make sure that in everything that we're doing we factor that in. So empowerment sometimes is like a [?] word, but it's also like women just not knowing that they can use the Web to make money, in some cases. Sell their wares, that kind of thing. But it's also because of other issues that have existed that have predated the Internet, but also being ported to that space.

Audience 2: Speaking as a person who comes from a country with a government with problems, and speaking to a person who might have a government with problems—

Sambuli: Mine, too.

Audience 2: Right? How do you work with the government to do the right thing when you see them doing a lot of wrong things?

Sambuli: Whoo, yeah.

Audience: I'm struggling with this right now.

Sambuli: Yeah. That's a whole other talk, by the way.

Audience 2: Yeah.

Sambuli: But. It's stuff like… One of the things I've found especially for those of us who come from countries that rely on aid or some other development corporation, there's a need to also speak to spaces like these where somebody might go and advise a country, a government, that wants to give money to another country to embed those principles. That way we're able to Trojan horse some principles that on our other end we can find.

The other thing I've found, and it's really really difficult and it's very subjective, is engaging, conversing with those people. I don't know about you but most governments have fossils of people who don't understand what technology is. I am not the first person during this MozFest to stand here and say that. So we have to find the grace to engage with them. And it's a lot of work. It is a lot of energy. It is not for all of us to do. But we have to start doing it.

So there are many strategies, and I'd be happy to talk more about strategizing. It's not a one-size-fits-all approach, but we all have to try. Because if nothing else, we pay taxes. We do.

Marshall: Okay. I think we're set. So let's thanks Nanjira again, that was fantastic.


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