Regina Agyare is bringing women and girls in Ghana into the ICT space by providing them with the role models and tools to change them from consumers to creators of technology.
The New Idea
Working directly with community leaders, universities, media, and government officials, Regina is activating teams to bring ICT training and curricula for girls into low-income and rural communities. By exposing them to role models and introducing a creative coding curriculum that is specifically catered to girls, Regina is building a new generation of girls that have the skills, mind-set, and desire to have careers and opportunities in the ICT field. By teaching them to code, she opens up pathways for them to lead and innovate.
In so doing, she is changing the mentality that a woman’s greatest success is as a wife or mother. By introducing new opportunities to girls, she is breaking the cycle of poverty and tradition and creating jobs in new fields for marginalized girls in Ghana. Thus, allowing them to break out of paths that have been set for them, and change from consumers and users to creators and developers.
Using a model that requires little operations, she is activating different groups and finding leaders that want to open up ICT opportunities for girls, designing a program that builds strategic partners to run the program in individual communities. With a model where she is positioned as an activator, Regina has already replicated her program in communities in three different cities in Ghana and has plans to replicate throughout West Africa.
Throughout rural and low-income communities in Ghana, women and girls consistently face societal pressures to get married and work in the home as opposed to investing in education and careers. Although, approximately 75% of girls throughout Ghana attend primary school, there is a significant drop in the number of girls who attend secondary school and college, making it difficult for them to compete in the job market. In order to provide sustenance, many resort to petty trading and hawking to make ends meet. This unproductive role of women cycles through generations, leaving families consistently living in poverty and the women in a disadvantaged position—handicapped economically, socially, and politically.
This problem is further magnified in rural religious communities, such as Muslim communities, because of tradition and lack of role models for women and girls as well as a lack of aspirations, opportunities, and the tools to get out of poverty.
Because of these factors, there is an extreme disparity between the number of women and men who are entering the workforce, especially in the ICT sector. Without role models in the field, it is difficult for girls to pioneer studies, jobs, and careers in sectors that aren’t female-friendly. Furthermore, career guidance counselors frequently steer women away from careers in sciences, directing them into careers more “suitable” for women. Men far outnumber women in engineering, computer science, and industrial arts. However, there is yet a high demand for ICT skills—especially knowledge of developing new software as opposed to just using it. This poor representation of women in the fields of science and engineering is reflected in women’s position or lack thereof within the labor force. Gender equity can only be increased when women are not just users of technology but creators also.
Regina’s work initially began with the notion to bring more girls into the STEM focus areas (science, technology, engineering, and math). In her local community, she created an innovation award and an apprenticeship program as a means to help convert STEM skills into businesses and services. It became very clear to her that there was an urgent need to focus on ICT skills. Regina recognized a cultural belief that women did not need these types of skills as it was not necessary to be a housewife and mother. Wanting to change this, she decided to develop her own program—Tech Needs Girls—to teach girls to code.
At the core of Regina’s work is a unique coding curriculum that she has developed specifically catered to girls. Throughout the six-month program, the girls take weekly coding classes where they learn the importance of technology and computers, internet safety and website design in addition to the basics of HTML coding. By the end of the course, each girl has built her own website. Regina uses local content to teach algorithms, integrating elements of play and dance, to create a curriculum that makes it easy for girls and youth to understand coding, apply it to the things that they know, and get excited about the possibilities that it presents.
Critical to the curriculum is encouraging the students to observe a community or social problem that could be remedied through ICT solutions and then working to build a site/program as part of the solution. The girls have full ownership over their projects and at the end of the course participate in a local roadshow to showcase their projects to the community. Not only does this build confidence in the girls and their abilities, but it also is strategic to changing the perception in the community from a narrative that believes girls’ are most successful in the home to one that affirms that they can and are successful in the ICT world.
After finishing the 6-month course, the girls are eligible for a paid internship to get more practical experience. Regina has secured partnerships with several software companies to build her internship program. She will continue to build these relationships and eventually provide direct job placements for volunteers and program participants.
Also key to the program are mentors and volunteers. Regina has partnered with four local universities to build female ICT clubs. It is from these clubs as well as her alumni that she finds mentors and volunteers for her program. The volunteers help teach the courses and each girl in the program is assigned a mentor from the local university who is either studying coding or works in the ICT field. In order to retain the volunteers, Regina offers networking sessions and potential job opportunities. On average, Regina works with 30 volunteers and 20 mentors, each of them sharing their stories, encouragement, and advice to the girls in the program. The use of mentors further helps the girls in the program to see careers in technology as attractive, relevant, and attainable. Having a direct role model helps open up the possibilities for the girls to see themselves in the ICT sector.
When Regina decides to start her program in a new community, the first step that she does is get to know local community leaders and identify someone who will partner with her to bring the program into the community. Knowing the impact that it would have, the first communities that Regina started working in were Muslim communities. She strategically finds an Imam—a local Muslim leader—who values her idea. Until she has the support of a well-known and positioned community leader, Regina knows her program will not be sustainable. Thus, that is always the first step when expanding to new areas. In the first Muslim area that she worked in, Nima, Regina was able to build a strong partnership with the Imam, who eventually gave her space on top of the mosque to teach her classes. This physical placement of the learning sent a message to the rest of the community that it was important that the girls learn new skills, be owners of their own learning, and seek to make their communities a better place. Additionally, the local community leaders help bring sustainability to the program, identifying other community members, companies, and volunteers who can contribute to the program. Thus, once the team is set in place and the program set up, Regina is able to step back and allow the community, mentors, and volunteers, to run the courses.
In addition to Muslim communities, Regina has expanded her program into several other areas of Ghana in the cities of Osu and Kumasi. With community support and strategic media usage, Regina is changing the perception about the role of women in the ICT space. As part of her website, she has a blog where the girls in the program can write posts about the work they are doing and the skills they are learning. This not only allows them to share their voice but allows the rest of the community to learn of the power and value behind Regina’s work. Regina’s work has also been featured on several community radio stations and international media outlets (CNN). She is now working with the Ministry of Education as a means to build her curriculum into secondary schools in Ghana and encourage the government to invest in ICT education. All of these elements—working with community leaders, Universities, government officials, and the media—are key ingredients to replication by activating as opposed to a direct service delivery approach.
Not wanting to be donor-driven, Regina decided not to set up a non-profit business model, but rather a hybrid approach. In 2012, Regina started Soronko Solutions, an ICT consulting and software development business, consisting of three full-time employees in addition to herself. In 2013 she began to pilot her Tech Needs Girls initiative and in 2014 officially opened the foundation arm of Soronko Solutions as a platform for Tech Needs Girls. Eighty percent of the revenues from the for profit leg of Regina’s work go directly back into the foundation side so as to cover expenses and maintain sustainability of her work. Relying heavily on volunteers, Regina’s work is low-budget as the primary expenses are just the ICT equipment and salaries.
As part of her learning initiatives, Regina has started an evaluation program in which she starts with a baseline assessment of each girl who goes through her program. She collects data on their progress as they complete each module of her curriculum. In addition to testing their coding skills, she does a baseline and follow-up analysis of the girls’ aptitude for math and science and has proven that there is direct positive correlation. Additionally, she is beginning to survey parents and teachers to measure behavioural changes in the girls as well as perception changes in the parents.
To date, over 465 girls have been through Regina’s program and by the end of 2014, she plans to have reached over 1500 girls. Regina plans to expand to other areas throughout West Africa, building her curriculum and creating a new generation of girls who are not just users but developers of technology.
Born in Kumasi, Ghana, Regina was raised with pressure from her parents to be a doctor but during her primary school years she had several experiences that shaped her aspirations. One such experience is when her father brought home a computer. Regina enjoyed using the computer, exploring what it could do, and playing games such as Pacman. She envisioned herself designing computer games in the future.
While in secondary school Regina developed a love for science. After watching a movie where a man built a rocket, she decided that she too would build a rocket. Much to her dismay, however, her teachers discouraged her from doing this when she revealed this dream—telling her that girls are not meant for doing such things. Not wanting to be discouraged, Regina continued to try new things and excelled in school. She won a Miss Teen personality competition which led her to a one-year exchange program in Norway. It was there that she was inspired to think bigger and become a problem-solver.
Upon her return, Regina enrolled in a computer course at the start of her University studies. She failed the first test in the course but instead of giving up and switching courses, she decided that she would try even harder and not give up on her dreams of becoming a computer scientist. She learned computer coding and programming and was quickly able to improve her skills, get a job, and support herself during her schooling.
After graduation from the University she worked in several banks and played a key role in helping to develop the ICT department and the e-banking system in two banks from scratch. While working at one of the banks, Regina was denied a promotion simply because she was a woman. Having heard such messaging throughout her life, Regina decided that she wanted to counteract the mentality that women cannot be in the ICT space.
Regina started her own ICT consulting company, Soronko Solutions, and in 2012 she established the foundation arm of the company—Tech Needs Girls—to encourage young girls to get involved with ICT and become creators of technology as opposed to just computers. Visiting different regions of Ghana, Regina was struck by just how few opportunities that girls from low-income families had. Noticing even fewer opportunities in Muslim communities, Regina decided that she would start her work there. Spreading quickly, today her work focuses on young girls from many different regions and backgrounds.