It took only one survey round her fresh undergraduates' class to jolt Ms Sandra Ajaja to the dim reality that the odds were stacking against women. She had been admitted to study electrical and electronics engineering at the Federal University of Agriculture, Makurdi, in North-Central Nigeria. Curiously, in a class that had a hundred males, she was one of the only four females. Sandra was as intrigued by the cause as she was disturbed by the inescapable consequence of this anomaly: Women are disadvantaged, and in a world that is increasingly shaped by technology, it is not difficult to predict what the future holds for them.
It was a significant eye-opener to a pattern that became increasingly noticeable everywhere she turned while in the university and even after. Females were, in a certain sense, programmed to sweat twice as much as their male counterparts to reach the same goals. For instance, there was no hostel or living facility for female engineering students closer to their lecture venue. It meant she had to walk 'a very long' distance from home to attend classes, use the library, the laboratory and other essential learning facilities, unlike her male course mates. "The entire system did not favour me or other female learners. It made it extra difficult to learn or compete. I was already at a disadvantage," she says, believing her final grades were affected.
If there were more women in Science, Technology and Engineering (STE), she had reasoned, "maybe the school would have seen the need to provide more opportunities for us." Sandra felt addressing the glaring gender inequality in STE in Nigeria was worth a fight, and decided to be a voice for a change. Her conviction was reinforced while she worked for one and half years in an organization studying and investing in start-ups/entrepreneurs for local and global firms seeking expansion in Africa.
"I have seen first-hand that about half of the people of Sub-Saharan Africa live below poverty line and 80 per cent of them are women. Their access to justice is guaranteed by inconsequential laws that mean little or nothing without government support and adequate funding," she says.
At age 21, she founded the FemPower Initiative Africa, a social enterprise with the sole aim of expanding economic opportunities for women. FemPower Initiative Africa seeks to teach women in Nigeria and Africa about technology, leadership and entrepreneurship (financial literacy, business plans, and soft skills). With over 2,000 members, and 30 volunteers, it has accelerated scores of women-owned businesses, helping some of them to achieve financing that would not have been possible. Over 2,000 individuals have been trained in three countries, while 200 others have been empowered with Google Digital skills.
On June 18-19, 2019, Sandra took her crusade for financial inclusion to the European Development Days (EDDs) in Brussels, with 66,850 participants in attendance. Organised by the EU, the EDDs is Europe's leading forum on development, bringing the global development community together each year to share ideas and experiences in ways that inspire new partnerships and innovative solutions to the world’s most pressing challenges. Sandra was one of the youth leaders who sat on the high level panel on Investment and Financial Inclusion. And it was all down to the work she has been doing in empowering women in Nigeria and in Africa on innovative tech-based entrepreneurship.
Sandra is excited by the boom in small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) leveraging technology, and the prospect it holds for the continent. But the key issue for her is "how do we include women in this bubble?"
For one, she observes, most of the investment that have come into the continent through entrepreneurship has been in enterprises that are leveraging technology. And unsurprisingly, these enterprises are mostly driven and created by men. "It is easier for a man to thrive in technology than a woman. So building a tech-enabled business is rare and would be challenging for her to thrive because she lacks access to technical skills, knowledge or talent," she says.
So how can this inadequacy be tackled? In Sandra's thinking, this is no rocket science: Through skill development, financial inclusion, technological intervention and private sector intervention targeting women, the gap can be bridged. FemPower has been working with female entrepreneurs to help them adopt technology in their enterprises. This knowledge enhances their access to financial services such as micro-loans, while helping to build the stock of their investment.
And Sandra thinks the future is looking bright: "Female Entrepreneurs are the future because Africa is the only region in the world where more women than men choose to become entrepreneurs. Expanding the investment opportunities for female entrepreneurs would have a tremendous impact on Africa’s growth."
Sandra sees FemPower Initiative Africa playing a key role in all this. "We want to gain in-depth knowledge on entrepreneurship and innovation as we look to scale up our impact by starting a female-focused venture capital fund," she says. The organisation is also in the process of setting up an Innovation Lab where it would incubate and create businesses with a bias for women-owned startups, using emerging technologies like artificial intelligence to build solutions.
"We want to train female entrepreneurs on core entrepreneurship and technology skills, help them create highly successful and innovative business model, and give them initial capital, she says. A challenging task, yes, but it is worth the fight, and the 23-year old Sandra is not fazed.