After years of women in evening gowns vying for the title of national beauty queen, glamour is giving way to geekery in Rwanda. A group of female tech entrepreneurs decided it was time to ditch Miss Rwanda for a different kind of competition, one that judged women on brilliance rather than beauty. It was time for Ms Geek.
The first Ms Geek Rwanda was crowned in 2014, and the competition has since expanded to include other African countries under the unifying banner of Ms Geek Africa. The event, open to girls and women aged 13 to 25, encourages contestants to use technology to solve everyday problems in their communities. The finalists receive business training and the winner is awarded financial backing to help realise her idea.
This year’s Ms Geek Africa is Salissou Hassane Latifa, 21, from Niger. Her winning design is the Saro app, which helps communication between people caring for accident victims and the emergency services, and allows medical staff to advise on basic first aid before they arrive at the scene.
“Ms Geek has already changed the perception of what girls can do,” says Esther Kunda of the Next Einstein Forum, a founding member of competition organiser Girls in ICT Rwanda.
The contest was set up as part of a nationwide effort to transform Rwanda from a small agricultural economy into an engine of technological innovation, with women and girls at the forefront of the revolution.
The government has set a target of achieving gender parity in the information communications technology sector by 2020, an ambitious goal in a worldwide industry notorious for its lack of diversity. But through educational campaigns, scholarships and mentorship programmes, Rwanda is determined to become a global leader for women in ICT. “It’s a good place to be a woman in tech right now,” Kunda says of Rwanda.
Before the genocide of 1994, it was uncommon for women in Rwanda to own land, receive a formal education or hold jobs outside of the home. After the atrocity, the country’s surviving population was 60-70% female, according to contemporary accounts.
President Paul Kagame, who has led Rwanda with an iron fist since 2000, realised that advancing women was the only way forward and has championed their rights ever since.
Rwanda now leads the world in female representation in parliament, due in part to a quota system that reserves seats for women. Gender rights are enshrined in the national constitution and laws were changed to give women the right to inherit land and obtain credit.
As a child, Rosine Mwiseneza, who was orphaned during the genocide, recalls watching the women around her stepping into leadership roles in government and civil society. They became police officers, accountants, butchers, shop owners. Girls went to school and competed alongside boys for internships and scholarships.
Mwiseneza was studying business management at Kepler University in Kigali when she entered the Ms Geek contest in 2016. Her idea was for an automated irrigation system that would help farmers cultivate their fields year-round as opposed to just during the rainy season.
Mwiseneza says she was astounded when she won the competition. In that moment, she remembered her parents and all the hardships she had endured. “It was very difficult to believe,” she says. “I started thinking of everything that had passed before that day and I began to cry.”