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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