Bridging gender gaps in the innovation sector to accelerate sustainable development

By Caroline Kiarie-Kimondo, Head of Exploration & Lillian Njoro, Head of Experimentation

Students take part in computer lessons that have been included in the Kenyan education curriculum.

March 8th is annually commemorated as the global International Women’s Day. For us, the International Women’s Day (IWD) is an opportunity to take stock of the gains made towards achieving gender equality in all spheres of life and challenge ourselves to keep going. The theme for this year’s IWD is #ChooseToChallenge, which had us at the UNDP Accelerator Lab reflecting on gender gaps in the Kenyan innovation ecosystem as it relates to sustainable development goals.

Kenya is home to one of the most dynamic technology and innovation ecosystems, yet gender parity has not been achieved. The ecosystem is still quite male-dominated with prominent gender gaps in funding opportunities[1], internet access[2], and representation in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields. Recently UNDP, through the Accelerator Lab, partnered with UNICEF on the 2019/20 Generation Unlimited (GenU) Youth Challenge and with Konza Technopolis on the Great COVID-19 Innovation Challenge. In both innovation challenges, there were almost 5 times more male applicants than female applicants. Some factors attributing to this disparity are cultural biases and gender stereotypes, low enrollment of women and girls in STEM[3], and lack of exposure to opportunities.

Factors attributing to these disparities include cultural biases and gender stereotypes, low enrollment of women and girls in STEM and lack of exposure to opportunities.

As young women working at the intersection of technology, innovation, and sustainable development, we are passionate about advocating for gender inclusion within the Kenyan innovation ecosystem. We reached out to a few key movers and thought leaders in the ecosystem to get their views and unpack this issue.

Here are three takeaways we consolidated that are important for accelerating progress towards bridging the gender gap and breaking the glass ceiling.

Takeaway #1 STEM is a major part of the puzzle for inculcating innovation mindset from a young age

Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) has long been considered an important tool for driving innovation. According to a 2016 study by Kenyatta University, the enrollment and participation in STEM disciplines by female students at Kenyan public universities is only at 30% and only 20% in ‘hard’ sciences STEM[4].

“Enrollment of girls in STEM subjects is directly related to their engagement as innovators,” says Sandra Simbiri, Generation Unlimited Programme Specialist. She emphasizes the importance of encouraging girls and young women to pursue STEM careers as innovators and entrepreneurs, highlighting multi-stakeholder platforms like Generation Unlimited as levers for driving this change by facilitating access to quality education, training and employment opportunities.

The creation of women-centered STEM spaces for girls and young women is another key lever. Pwani Teknowgalz is a great example of this model. Founded in 2015, Pwani Teknowgalz is a community-based organization that empowers girls and young women from marginalized communities with employable practical skills in STEM through a variety of programmes in Mombasa, Lamu, Kisumu, Nakuru, and Nairobi such as CodeHack Training for Young Girls in Kenya, supported by UNESCO and UNDP in 2020. Ruth Kaveke, the executive director and co-founder, believes that it is important to groom girls and young women from a young age to unlearn biases against STEM and instead learn to take up space in this male-dominated field.

Takeaway #2 We need more inclusive policies to spur growth

Forward-thinking policies have been at the forefront of progress for all fast-growing innovation ecosystems. The Government of Kenya has developed several policies and frameworks to drive the country’s technological transformation and economic growth through the use of ICT, such as the Digital Economy Blueprint, the National Broadband Strategy, the National ICT Master Plan, and the ICT Strategic Plan. These policies outline strategies for advancing progress such as infrastructure (internet connectivity, transport, utilities), digital skills and innovation-driven entrepreneurship.

However, there is room for more to be done. Chief Administrative Secretary (CAS) Nadia Abdalla, speaking on behalf of the Ministry of ICT, Innovation and Youth Affairs, highlights the need for a gender-responsive approach to innovation to ensure that women have a key role in charting the way forward through inclusion at the decision-making table.

Creating an inclusive and sustainable innovation ecosystem is not the responsibility of a sole entity and requires collective effort. Collaborations and partnerships by all players in the ecosystem are necessary for harnessing the collective expertise, efforts, and resources towards transformation. UNDP in partnership with the Ministry of ICT, Innovation and Youth Affairs is leading the development of the SDG Accelerator Lab, which is envisioned to be a platform consisting of academia, government, private sector, civil society, development partners, and young people that provides a vehicle for partnerships, investments and business linkages to accelerate local innovations and ideas through research and growth of the entrepreneurship ecosystem.

The SDG Accelerator Lab will provide a robust vehicle for collaboration and engagement to address the challenges affecting young people in the country, with a focus on addressing inequalities such as gender, disability, and geographical representation.

Takeaway #3 Tangible and meaningful support for women-led innovators is crucial

Kenya is home to many globally recognizable women-led innovations such as:

· Ushahidi, an open-source crowd-sourcing crisis mapping tool

· EcoPost, a social enterprise making environmentally friendly plastic lumber from recycled plastics

· Majik Water, an innovative approach of harvesting water from air for water-scarce communities

· Food for Education, a non-profit providing subsidized nutritious meals to primary school children to improve education outcomes

“Whereas a lot of efforts have gone in to support women in technology and innovation, there remains a gap in the numbers of women-owned start-ups,” says Josephine Ndambuki, the Economic Development, Partnerships and Resource Mobilization Manager at Konza Technopolis.

Data shows that globally, women-led start-ups have a tougher time securing support for their innovations and enterprises which ultimately limits their growth. Access to financing, markets, networks and other resources are barriers that disproportionately affect women in the broader innovation ecosystem. The Government of Kenya has developed financing opportunities such as the Women Enterprise Fund and the Access to Government Procurement Opportunities (AGPO) Programme to help tackle this disparity. At the Accelerator Lab, we leverage partnerships with different stakeholders, like Konza Technopolis and Association of Countrywide Innovation Hubs, to support female innovators with funding, mentorship and networking, to develop market-ready solutions that respond to existing and emerging challenges and opportunities. Examples of these solutions include Plant Signal, by Maria Njoroge an agriculture-diagnostics system powered by artificial intelligence (AI) and Nywele Nyumbani, by Mercy Kiptui a mobile application that seeks to connect hairstylists to clients.

As the UNDP Accelerator Lab, we continue striving to bridge the gender gap by nurturing impactful partnerships, amplifying local innovations, and finding ways to support the growth of female innovators and entrepreneurs towards the achievement of the sustainable development goals. We invite you to join us as we #ChooseToChallenge the gender gap in innovation.

We would like to appreciate women leaders who were generous enough to share their thoughts and insights with us based on their wealth of experience in their respective fields.

· Nadia Ahmed Abdalla — Chief Administrative Secretary (CAS), Ministry of ICT, Innovation and Youth Affairs

· Ruth Kaveke — Co-Founder and Executive Director of Pwani Teknowgalz, a non-profit organization in Mombasa working to bridge the gender gap of women in technology

· Josephine Ndambuki — Economic Development, Partnerships and Resource Mobilisation Manager at Konza Technopolis Development Authority (KoTDA), a global technology and innovation hub and key flagship project of Kenya’s Vision 2030

· Sandra Simbiri — Programme Specialist, Generation Unlimited, a global multi-sector partnership to meet the urgent need for expanded education, training and employment opportunities for young people.

[1] Women-owned start-ups receive 23% less funding and are 30% less likely to have a positive exit compared to male-owned businesses

[2] Women in Kenya are 39% less likely than men to have access to mobile internet as reported in the 2019 release of the GSMA Connected Women, Mobile Gender Gap Report

[3] Exploring Enabling Interventions for Increasing Female Students’ Access and Participation in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (Stem) Disciplines in Kenyan Public Universities, Kenyatta University

[4]Exploring Enabling Interventions for Increasing Female Students’ Access and Participation in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (Stem) Disciplines in Kenyan Public Universities, Kenyatta University

In #Kenya, UNDP works with the Government and communities towards inclusive and sustainable socio-economic and human development.