Rachel Sibande is a young Malawian lady 29 years old. She is the first in a family of five, a wife to Chrispine Sibande and a mother to three bundles of joy that she calls the U team, as all their names start with the letter U, in the names of Uwemi, Uzengi and Unenesko. Rachel has a Bachelors degree in Computer Science, a Master of Science in Information Theory, Coding and Cryptography. She is currently reading for a PhD in Computer Science at the Rhodes University in South Africa.
Rachel had a passion for gadgets from her childhood. When asked about her passion, Rachel said, “Growing up I had a passion for gadgets, I liked to open old radios, and I was curious and meddlesome on anything innovative in the area of science and technology. At first I thought I would become a laboratory scientist. With time, my passion transcended to computers”.
Rachel started off her career as a programmer then moved on to academia where she had a three-year stint in teaching and lecturing at the Kamuzu Academy and Mzuzu University in Malawi. In a quest to use technology in making a difference in the life of the common person, she decided to move into the development industry where she had a 5-year stint with United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Flanders International Cooperation Agency (FICA) and Deutsche Gesellschaftfür Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) funded projects in Agriculture.
She held various portifolios, rising from a Market Information Specialist to Deputy country director and ultimately to Country Director of the multi million-dollar development projects. Through these initiatives, she was the lead person in the rollout of the first ever web to Short Messaging Service (SMS) agricultural market information system deployment in Malawi which supports over 400,000 smallholders with SMS extension and commodity market prices via SMS. The success stories from some of the farmers on how a piece of information on their cellphone had transformed their livelihoods was an affirmation of satisfaction to Rachel to do more in the area of ICT for Development beyond agriculture.
“As such, I engaged into another sphere in using technology for citizen engagement and elections monitoring. I was the lead technology expert on elections monitoring project in the 2014 Malawi elections through a coalition of 18 civil society organisations led by the Malawi Electoral Support Network. Through this initiative, over 300,000 citizens verified their voter identities at the tip of their fingertips via SMS, 88,000 messages were sent in on standard indicators from observers at the 4,500 polling stations country wide on incidences as they occurred and in total over 1.4 million messages went through the system from citizens, observers and the civil society. This created an open platform for engagement and rapid sharing of information for rapid intervention. In October 2014, I also supported the Mozambican civil society roll out a similar initiative during their general elections and I am currently working closely with the Tanzanian civil society on the same in preparation for the 2015 elections”.
Rachel describes the ‘technopreneurship’ environment in Malawi as young and challenging due to some constraints like high cost of Internet access.
“There are a couple of young technology enthusiasts in Malawi. Most are from colleges, fresh with ideas and keen to develop applications that can solve key bottlenecks in the industry or in our communities. The industry is however flooded with off the shelf applications that are simply maintained by the local experts or even at times can only be maintained by foreign experts. This creates a vacuum in technology entrepreneurship, as local enterprises in the trade are not given the chance to flourish.
“From a technical perspective, Internet access is pretty expensive in Malawi which is a hindrance to access to technical resources for developers and other technology enthusiasts that constantly need to be up to date with new trends in packages and information. The curriculum is not autonomous to rapid change to conform to new technology trends hence the supply of technology personnel from colleges and universities is such that, there is need for further polishing. Access to finance for startups is a challenge due to high interest rates among other reasons. There is a lack of a strong tech forum for expert discussion, information sharing, and advocacy to spearhead independent advisory on policy formulation in ICT. These challenges have created a less conducive environment for technology entrepreneurs to thrive in Malawi. So as it is, the environment is not favorable”.
Rachel narrated how she first got introduced to a hub concept.
“I was first introduced to the concept of a hub in 2012 when I had gone on a 6 week internship programme in the USA under President Obama’s Young African Leaders initiative (YALI) Programme. I was motivated to set up a technology hub in Malawi that would be customized to suit the Malawian perspective whose challenges I found to be unique. The idea of the hub was to ensure there was a space where young technology enthusiasts were nurtured with technical and business skills through mentoring and facilitation of the hub and its members. The hub would act as an incubator space for technology startups and leverage its networks with key partners in the corporate and development sectors to foster the development of home grown technology solutions for Malawi and beyond”.
“Being the first of its kind in Malawi, the hub is a new concept that most people do not understand. Sourcing initial funding locally was a challenge to the extent that it was a Dutch donor Hivos that came forth to fund the mHub”, said Rachel.
mHub is an open space where young technology enthusiasts thrive and are nurtured to grow their ideas into viable technology solutions that can transcend into sustainable business models. mHub targets young people, male and females with a passion and skillset in software development, hardware building and maintenance. It facilitates the engagement of the young technology entrepreneurs with the industry and communities to understand the challenges that exist and develop relevant solutions to the key bottlenecks that exist. Mhub conducts hack-a-thons, which are competitions where young technopreneurs pitch various technology applications in a competitive process. It also facilitates linkages to assignments and job opportunities between the industry and the technology entrepreneurs. The goal of mhub is to become a leading ICT think tank in Malawi and the region.
Rachel indicated that there is need for more hubs and co-working spaces that can focus on other sectors of development other than technology.
“60% of Malawi’s population is the youth and children whose talents ought to be polished and nurtured if we are to enhance the culture of entrepreneurship. Hubs are a good space where entrepreneurs can be nurtured and mentored. There is need for financing institutions to open up in enhancing access to finance for startups while at the same time engaging communities, academia and research in awareness on financial literacy and management which are a defect that has led to high default rates on seed funding for start-ups. The academia also ought to engage in a rigorous process of constant curriculum review that introduces the concept of entrepreneurship as a cross cutting issue”.
Rachel is very confident and optimistic of the future of technology and innovation in Malawi. She believes that within mhub and beyond there are very skilled young technopreneurs. mHub recently hosted the first ever tech-fest where such unique and talented technopreneurs emerged with their tech-applications. At the tech-fest the following technopreneurs showcased their applications: a local social media platform, Malawi’s own ebay, a credit loader application, a local simplified accounting package, a stadium management system and an e-tourism application.
These were but some of the technology entrepreneurs that mHub is working closely with to sharpen their ideas and products into viable technology solutions whilst supporting them to develop corresponding sustainable business models.
The final thoughts of Rachel were that she would like to see more females in the technology sector. “Right now, we are yet to have an application that has been developed by a young female technology enthusiast. As a hub we are keen to support both male and female technology enthusiasts. I urge girls to step out and embrace careers in technology. As a deliberate policy, the hub is open for free membership to aspiring young female technology enthusiasts”.
Post contributed by Africa.co Fellow Lombola GamaFollow and Subscribe Nyasa TV :