SEATTLE — On August 3, hundreds of women met in three cities across South Africa to attend GirlCodeHack. The event is a “hackathon”—a days-long event in which teams of computer programmers compete and collaborate to create original software. The hackathon is organized by GirlCode, a fledgling nonprofit organization with big plans to help African women in tech.
Women have nearly as much access to the internet as men in most wealthy countries, and even have slightly more in countries like the United States and France. The same cannot be said in the developing world, where 25 percent fewer women have internet access on average. The gap skyrockets to 45 percent in some areas of sub-Saharan Africa.
This wide gap in access harms both women and their communities. The internet provides individuals with information, work, avenues of communication and key services like banking. It is also a significant driver of any modern economy. Expanded internet access for women would open up new markets and give the means to produce billions of dollars of GDP growth across the developing world.
GirlCode started in 2014, when it hosted its first all-women hackathon after noting a lack of diversity at similar events in South Africa. The goal was to provide an inclusive space for young women of diverse backgrounds that would allow them to learn new skills, collaborate together and apply their knowledge more effectively in their lives and the field of technology.
That first event had only 20 attendees, but it was enough to inspire the organizers to turn it into an annual event. The numbers have grown in the five years since; last year’s event drew 114 women.
After expanding to three locations in 2018, GirlCodeHack is expected to become the largest women’s hackathon in the country with 400 participants, official corporate sponsors and thousands of dollars in prizes available to the best teams. The winning team will also be awarded a trip to the Women in Tech conference in Amsterdam later this year.
Expanding Opportunities for African Women in Tech
With the growing success of the hackathons, GirlCode has expanded its ambitions to include other programs. An example is its digital literacy course, which aims to teach basic skills like internet browsing, using Microsoft Office and applying for jobs to women who have little or no prior experience with digital technology. The organization has also formed partnerships with major companies like Amazon, which set up a new Amazon Web Service location in Cape Town in July.
GirlCode plans to extend its reach even further in the future to grow the number of African women in tech. Its upcoming projects range from expanding the scope of its hackathons and workshops to launching a digital academy to teach technology basics to unemployed women and an accelerator program to help young women apply their theoretical knowledge to employable skills.
Through all of these programs and partnerships, the still-young organization aims for its work to have a significant impact on women in South Africa and the continent in general. Within the next decade, it hopes to have reached 10 million African women. While GirlCode’s programs are still far from reaching that ambitious goal, the organization has already taken significant steps to help hundreds of women achieve the education they need to access the digital world.
– Joshua Henreckson