3 December 2012

Rwanda: Clarisse Iribagiza, a Role Model for Women in ICT

All around the world, science and technology departments in schools and related jobs have mainly been populated by men. Many governments are therefore trying hard to get girls and women in those sectors, and Rwanda is no exception. Yet despite those efforts, women in technology are still rare, and upon hearing the word "geek" most people will automatically think of a man.

Yet when talking about technology and women in Rwanda, one name will invariably pop up: Clarisse Iribagiza. At just 24, she is the CEO of a mobile computing technology company called HeHe, and she rubbishes the idea that technology is not for women.

"I think it's basically stereotypes in our culture, which present anything to do with technology as a man's world, that prevent girls from embracing ICT. This also affects the way that it is taught in schools, which results into a vicious cycle and few girls in ICT."

She herself felt attracted to the field at an early age. "We had a lot of science fairs at my primary school and this exposed me to technology early," she explains. "My parents used to help my siblings and me to build science projects like quiz boards and toy air crafts. I was even obsessed with becoming an astronaut - from the time I was 10 years old, I had an entire scrapbook on stars, planets and our galaxy."

So she feels very much at home with all kinds of technological gadgets - if you don't find her in front of her laptop, she will be busy either on the iPad or BlackBerry PlayBook, or maybe playing games on Nintendo Wii.

While still studying computer engineering and information technology at KIST, she founded HeHe (Kinyarwanda for 'where') in 2010. Today it has four employees and is building mobile software for clients such as the Nike Foundation, the ministry of youth and ICT, the ministry of East African affairs and Rwanda Revenue Authority. They have also recently launched a directory and mobile marketing platform for local businesses (http://onhehe.com).

It didn't take long for Iribagiza to get noticed. She is the winner of the People's Choice award which she received from the President, for the company's innovative mobile applications. And in April this year, she became the laureate of the Inspire Africa Entrepreneurship competition, which netted her US$ 50,000.

She is also among the founders of the iHills Network, a group of Rwandan start-up tech companies that want to inspire tech entrepreneurship among youth and build a vibrant ICT business community. Last but not least, she is the founder of Girls in ICT, an initiative by female ICT entrepreneurs to promote ICT and entrepreneurship among girls.

"ICT is a great tool to make up for lost time and make us competitive internationally. It's a brilliant strategy to accelerate development."

While in that community Iribagiza is still very much an exception as a woman, she is hopeful that this will change in the future. "The numbers will grow as entrepreneurship and technology-related subjects are incorporated into the education system," she says. "We just need to remove that cloud that makes tech seem complex and boring and view it as a tool for whatever one wants to achieve."

She is also very much encouraged by the continued endeavors by the government to turn Rwanda into a regional ICT hub. "ICT is a great tool to make up for lost time and make us competitive internationally. It's a brilliant strategy to accelerate development," she points out.

It is small wonder then that President Kagame is among her role models. "I'm inspired by a lot of people, from my super hardworking mom who never gives up on her dreams, to Martin Luther King Jr and our President for their wisdom."

When it comes to science and technology, her idol is Albert Einstein.

As a role model herself for young girls, Iribagiza has some simple advice for them. "They need to embrace technology as a tool they can use to achieve any goal they may have," she says. "If it's writing, they can blog; if it's fashion, they can create sites to display their designs; if it's art, they can upload their music to YouTube and so on."

Clarisse Iribagiza is living proof that even such a modest technological start can lead to a bright future.

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