The effects of technology are ubiquitous. Internet access, automation and other tools of the digital age have especially helped remove the barriers that have previously kept women from participating in the broader economy.
When speaking about the far-reaching effects that these digital technologies have had, it’ s important to remember that access remains a problem for those in rural and sometimes even low-income urban areas. These difficulties affect women disproportionately –especially women in Africa.
With rapid technological developments taking place today, there is a certain level of concern around whether Africa will keep up and, if not, how this will affect women. Gabrielle Lobban, founder of health and wellness platform Zumbudda, is optimistic about the future of tech on the continent. “Despite a history of low tech capability, the past decade has seen Africa leapfrog over these challenges to become a highly connected region.
“Instead of progressing from written communication to computer-driven communication, Africans have become citizens of a mobile technology ecosystem. From Fintech to health tech, Africans are solving local challenges and, in turn, galvanising others into designing new innovations that are uniquely African,” she says.
Lobban believes that developments which are driven in this way are advantageous as they are suited to solving local problems. “One can only really understand the challenges of a particular community if one has either lived in or engaged with that community.”
Because of this, locally-focused programmes have the potential to make massive impacts. One example of this is Taungana Africa, a programme that provides rural African girls in high school with the opportunity to access and explore science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) fields.
“[Founder] Sandra Tererai is passionate about financial independence for women through STEM. Once a year, Taungana invites girls from rural communities in Zambia, Zimbabwe and South Africa to attend a one-week multi industry immersion and entrepreneurship programme,” explains Lobban. “Taungana recently celebrated its five-year anniversary, and it was only then that I fully realised the programme’s impact on the lives of these young girls. Many are already well into their tertiary education and are studying finance and medicine, while some are studying engineering.
“After speaking with the alumni, I was amazed by their drive to continue solving problems within their communities. These young women understand the daily challenges of water, electricity and sanitation first-hand and, through the Taungana programme, they have been given the opportunity to explore their ideas. This has provided them with the motivation to acquire the skills necessary to continue to create sustainable solutions.”
Healthcare in Africa, Lobban says, is an area that is particularly ripe to benefit from technological developments. “Africa has some unique health challenges, including disease outbreaks, high incidences of maternal deaths and elevated risks of tuberculosis and HIV infection. These epidemics, as well as migration and disasters, have severely impacted communities – both economically and socially.
“Traditionally, these communities have managed their own healthcare. But as they have become less self-reliant and more dependent on Western medicine, there has been a need to educate and provide more access to centres of knowledge and care, which are predominantly located in larger towns and cities.” This is where technology is a major asset; although remote care and telemedicine are not new phenomena, more recent developments have catapulted the health tech sector into new territory. “New technologies like apps, video and text consulting platforms can reduce the need for the community healthcare practitioner to travel to cities to receive ongoing training. Instead, they can receive training online to ensure continuity of healthcare services within their local community,” explains Lobban.
“The burden on city health centres is enormous and one of the ways to make healthcare more sustainable is to empower local caregivers within their communities using digital health innovations. Text-based information services like MomConnect and NurseConnect have had a positive impact on communities by bridging the knowledge gap in maternal healthcare in South Africa.”
As beneficial as internet-based healthcare services can be, connectivity is still often an issue. In areas where there is low connectivity, other solutions must be found to make the system sustainable for everyone – although this can prove difficult.
Trust is another major challenge. A former ePatient, Vanessa Carter, has begun using social media to educate and communicate with the professional healthcare community around the challenges patients face. Since collaborating with Carter, who uses Twitter chats to take the temperature of civil society on healthcare issues, it has become clear that trust is an indispensable element to the relationship. “She and I agree that there needs to be more trust between clinicians and patients, and one of the ways to build trust is through the use of technology,” says Lobban.
Being a full-time working mother and having established Zumbudda out of her own need to balance priorities of work and home – especially when her daughters fell ill – Lobban is acutely aware of the need for health tech innovations in Africa. “As the primary decision-makers in most households, women are often burdened with the responsibility of care. Often this is financial, but also when it comes to making time to seek care,” she says.
As with countless other issues, technological innovations that help women will help the world. Enabling women and girls to access this industry and filtering equal opportunities down the value chain in a field whose effects are so farreaching will have a significant impact on economic and innovative transformation.
What is key is that women themselves get involved in the technology sector. Driving innovation that is female-centric, Lobban believes, is the only way to ensure that Africa is able to fully embrace and take advantage of the opportunities technology presents. “Women are both the problem and the solution. The best way we can empower each other is by supporting one another and ensuring better outcomes for all.”