Caption for the landscape image:

Barbara Mutabazi spearheads ICT inclusion in women

Scroll down to read the article

Ms Barbara Birungi Mutabazi is a social entrepreneur . PHOTO/COURTESY

Barbara Birungi Mutabazi is a social entrepreneur dedicated to promoting youth innovation, women economic empowerment, gender equality and digital transformation in Uganda and Africa at large.

Her work life primarily revolves around integrating innovative digital and technological solutions in various sectors and encouraging young people to build solutions for the challenges that they see.

“When you build something that people need, you do not need to look for customers, your product sells itself. So, identify a need, build a solution, and customers will come. And that is what we are doing, helping young people to figure that out,” Mutabazi says.

After graduating with a Bachelor of Business Computing at Makerere University Business School, Mutabazi went for a Master’s in Information Systems and Management at Salford University, UK and is currently doing a Stem MBA Master’s at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), US.

Ms Barbara Birungi Mutabazi is a social entrepreneur . PHOTO/COURTESY

The beginnings
The mother of four says she had a passion for computers and learning more about what computers can do. Prince, a game brewed her curiosity about computers. It was about a prince who wanted to rescue a princess. Soon, she wanted to build her games and this sparked her interest in computers and she wanted to learn as much as she could.

After graduating, jobhunting, she became a mainstay at Makerere University computer labs since there was free internet. But, several other people had graduated, and were yet to get jobs. They would also regularly visit, and this helped her in that there were many people she would share with  and inquire from in case of anything.

“And it was here that I found my first boss, an American who was starting a software consultancy, and he hired me as one of his web designers and personal assistant at the same time,” Mutabazi remembers.

She quickly showed her value and was elevated to project manager. To effectively execute her role, she rushed to Uganda Management Institute for a diploma in project planning and management.

“My role was basically to work with clients, understand their needs, and come and relay them to the developers and then be the go-between, making sure that the client is happy and we are doing exactly what the client is looking for.

She worked for two years and the American boss decided to move back to the US. With the firm getting closed, she started to search for jobs and she got one with one of the audit firms in the country, but it wasn’t her passion so she ended up not going.

“At the time, innovation incubation spaces were just beginning to kick off in Africa. Nairobi had set up one, and without doubt, we felt we needed one in Uganda to support young people,” Mutabazi explains.

“Together with a few other brains, we started Hive Colab  whose mission is to scale ideas with positive impact. We wanted to support people who are building innovations that are solving everyday challenges, for the nation,” she adds.

Barbara  Birungi Mutabazi with her  classmates at Massachusetts Institute of technology in the US. Photo/ Courtesy of Mugambe family.

Women-only programme
She started as the pioneer managing director of Hive Colab and while running the hub, she realised that women were not coming in and even those that were coming were leaving either before completing a programme or were many in the programme and not fully participating.

And after thoroughly examining what the problem was, she zeroed on running a women-only programme just to test it and see how it would go, and the results were interesting.

“The quiet women were now bubbly, free, basically themselves and contributing. We concluded that it was a confidence issue, in that if a young woman does not fully understand a point, in a room that is full of men who are potential husbands, she is going to keep quiet to avoid the risk of looking stupid,” says Mutabazi.

“With such findings, it became a policy that women start in a Women only programme before integrating with men later. We decided to integrate them because the world doesn’t run in silos, they, therefore, have to learn to work with men.”

Mutabazi chats with Korean delegation. Photo/Courtesy of  Barbara Mutabazi.

Women in Technology
In 2014, Mutabazi started Women in Technology Uganda (WITU), to eliminate barriers to women in STEM and entrepreneurship, by looking at the unique challenges that women face, and building strategies that would move or change this trajectory.

“At WITU, women are made to feel safe to share their challenges, and learn, but also escape from everything around them to fully focus on their dreams and work towards achieving them. The focus areas are confidence building, working on their technical skills as well as sharpening their communication and public speaking skills,” Mutabazi explains.

Working with up to 6,000 women annually, the organisation also connects them to work opportunities and investors for those building startups.

Mutabazi is the brain behind Women’s Digital Centre; a platform that helps connect young women to opportunities.

Ms Mutabazi signs a memorandum  of understanding. Photo/ Courtesy.

According to Mutabazi, this was premised on the fact that the challenges of not getting a job are not necessarily that the job is not there, but also because the available jobs are hard to access, especially for people who are not based in Kampala or have no access to Internet. 

“To ensure that they are not left behind, we came up with a platform that connects women to these work opportunities. In a way that you don’t need to be online to get access to these opportunities. As long as you share with us your skills and what you are looking for, the system itself has an algorithm that pins you and lets you know that the job opportunity that you are looking for, is available and is similar to what you are looking for,” she explains.

Mutabazi says the platform has been greatly embraced, with hundreds of young women getting  jobs through it. 

“It is also connected to WhatsApp, enabling us to reach people where they are, and here, they get interview tips, they ask questions, and they are connected to the employers of different organisations to give them tips of what they are looking for.

“In the first four days of the launch, we had 1,000 women join and we currently have 16,500 young women who are using the platform. And not all of them are online all the time, but they receive an SMS alerting them of the opportunities.” Mutabazi attributes the high numbers on the platform to innovating a need. 

“The advice I want to give innovators out there, build something that is in need, and you will not struggle to get customers,” says Mutabazi.

Mutabazi is currently working on an innovation that aims at solving the huge financial inclusion gap in not only Uganda but Sub-Saharan Africa.

Women in session. Photos/Courtesy of  Barbara Mutabazi.

Mutabazi says although government policies on ICT and innovations have been improving and are now better, they are not yet where we would want them to be. 

“URSB has for example softened the ease with which people do business,  but the fees are still high, especially when someone has just graduated from university and they have amazing ideas, the cost of registering their ideas is still high,” says Mutabazi.

The other challenge is getting intellectual property for the innovations. Most young innovators do not know how to go about it, and here you find that their innovations are taken up by bigger entities but we have continued to engage URSB as well as inviting them to our accelerator programmes, where they talk to these young innovators on the do’s and don’ts of registering a company. 

“The taxing regime is also challenging in that the taxman estimates and comes up with a figure that instead of attracting,  just repels the young innovator’s away,” Mutabazi says adding:  

“We also have a challenge of working together. There are quite a number of innovation hubs in Uganda today but true partnership is lacking. People partner only when there is a need to work together, like say when a grant is coming, but if we truly work together, we can achieve so much.”

Increasing the number of women in tech spaces
Mutabazi calls for the creation of more education programmes that are inclusive, supportive networks as well as advocating for policies that encourage women’s participation in tech spaces.

She adds that women are deterred from joining tech spaces because of the feeling that technology is a man’s world. And to tackle this, Mutabazi cites the need to start at the root.  

“No girl child is born thinking that they have limitations, but as they keep growing, these limitations are imparted into them, and they start believing them,” she says.

Mutabazi says there is also need to categorise the kind of technology needed for each woman. 

“A farmer in Terego district requires a different kind of technology from a young girl in Kampala. Understanding that the tech needs of different women vary and meeting them at that point of need is key,” she adds.

The wife of  is also a need to be flexible enough to understand that women in either rural or urban areas have different responsibilities, and you need to be mindful of the different dynamics of supporting women.

Role models visa-a-vie mentors are very key, when women see other women succeeding in something, they know that it is possible. It is therefore important that we show these young girls mentorship opportunities and role models, when they see women at the helm, then they know that it is possible, but the challenge is visibility.

As pioneer innovation hub in Uganda and our goal is to scale ideas of positive social impact. Our plans therefore include bringing new learning opportunities for young people. Currently, the big talk is around Artificial Intelligence (AI) and what changes is it bringing, our plan therefore includes educating Ugandans on how we can take advantage of AI, by first, understanding AI and then embracing the opportunities it comes with. 

We also intend to work on driving more investment in Uganda, by rightly positioning the startups in Uganda, as worthwhile investments for the world. 

Away from tech
I love reading and cooking. I am reading The Fearless Organisation which looks at how organisational safety affects employees. There is  high turnover in businesses I love God.