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Built in Africa focuses on entrepreneurs, startups and technologies that are born on the continent and empower its citizens.
In this, the fifth instalment of our “Built in Africa” series, we feature Rwandan entrepreneur Akaliza Keza Gara, who runs a web development agency and is passionate about using technology to tell African stories.
I got introduced to Gara through Microsoft’s 4Afrika youth advisory board, of which she sits.
Gara is the founder of Shaking Sun, a multimedia company that specialises in graphic design, animation and web development. She has lived in nine different countries and has travelled extensively around Africa. As a result, she “gets” the continent and sees the potential of what technology can do for Africa and its citizens. Her company has worked with a number of government agencies and companies both locally and internationally.
Gara is in a good place to do this as Rwanda is currently making the transition from an agriculture-based economy to services-oriented one. The country’s president is on a mission to turn the land-locked country into a tech hub that will attract investors and multinationals, so tech is a big deal in Rwanda.
But this does not mean things have been easy for Gara as a tech entrepreneur. In the first few months of running her own company Gara needed to train people to work with her, and like many small business owners, had to learn her own lessons.
“I struggled with understanding the tax system. I made a lot of expensive mistakes,” she says.
Stories to inspire and entertain
“Website design, development and animation definitely have a place in Africa. My experience has mainly been in East Africa and the industry here is growing at an incredible pace. I get the majority of my clients through word of mouth, which shows me that these skills are actively being sought out,” she says.
Her longtime dream has been to create animated features that target African children — which is why a big part of her company is focused on graphic design and animation.
Gara argues that African children need characters and settings that they can relate to, as well as stories that can entertain and inspire them.
“As a child there were hardly any cartoons that were representative of my culture and I want to be part of changing that for the children growing up today,” she adds.
She feels that by giving children stories that make sense in their context, they will be more inspired to achieve, and will also have local role models to look up to. This is not only true for the Rwandan context but for Africa as a whole.
Gara hopes that the increasing focus on tech in her country will help her make her goals a reality.
“Tech has infiltrated so many aspects of day-to-day life in Rwanda. Even those who are not in the field are beginning to understand the value of it. There are several government campaigns and initiatives out to improve ICT literacy around the country,” she says.
Gara has just finished her first cartoon educational series for children using local Rwandan animators and hopes to produce more content for African children in the near future.
Africa needs more than innovation
Though Gara reckons that although the continent is buzzing with much-needed innovation, creating something new does not go far enough.
“Innovation has become a buzzword that entrepreneurs and policy makers are fond of using. It is not enough to create something new as a business person, it needs to be valuable to your market. Therefore, at least for entrepreneurs, innovation should be focused and targeted,” she says.
She says that tech is having a positive effect on Africa’s development.
“Technology can, and already does, play a huge role in Africa’s development,” she explains. “As is often said in Rwanda, it is cross cutting – in other words, it can come into play in all the other sectors of the economy. Technology is a tool and when used well, it improves the efficiency and impact of other development initiatives.”
The major challenge for Africans is owning the oncoming storm of innovation and building useful and relevant products — not just for Africans, but the world as well.
Women in tech still a challenge
Growing up in Rwanda, Gara experienced a number of obstacles when trying to break into the African tech industry — including a general lack of encouragement for women to make a career in the sector.
“I struggled with that, and finding mentors. But having stuck to it, now women in the ICT industry are truly celebrated,” she says.
This is a common struggle for young African women looking to get into tech with its heavy gender bias. There are few women that are celebrated and profiled for doing great work in Africa’s tech space.
Gara is an impressive young woman. A member of the Kigali hub of World Economic Forum’s Global Shapers community. She is also a member of Girls in ICT Rwanda — a group of female ICT entrepreneurs and professionals encouraging teenage girls in Rwanda to not only consider tech as a career option, but also to understand the value of developing tech skills in order to succeed in any career.
“There are not enough women in the tech space,” she says, although Gara concedes that it’s not just an African problem. There not enough women in tech “in Africa and around the world”.
Gara actively encourages girls to pursue careers in ICT and shares key insights with emerging tech entrepreneurs in Africa. She also mentors young girls in ICT at kLab and Girls in ICT Rwanda, where she serves as a female role model for young women in tech.
“Many women do use technology, but we also need to be more involved in its development,” she argues.
Things are changing. The 27-year-old was awarded as the Outstanding Woman Entrepreneur in ICT by the Rwanda Ministry of Youth and ICT in 2012. She says that there are a few challenges left to push women through the glass ceiling.
The challenges for women in tech is we occasionally face discrimination among our peers. I think that will change as more women join the sector. For women entrepreneurs, I think in most African countries, women make up the majority of business owners – but in the informal sector. The challenge of formalising their businesses could be mediated if they received more training in accounting and legal rights and obligations.
Image: Orphelie Thalmas, supplied.