Amazing story of Ajegunle girls who design computer programs
The first day they entered the only computer laboratory in Ajegunle, Ajeromi-Ifelodun Local Government Area of Lagos State, to learn coding, they were all very scared to touch the computer.
Their fear was not unusual — about 70 per cent of them had never touched a computer before, let alone operated it. It would be the very first time they would have access to one.But six weeks after, the girls had not only learnt how to operate a computer, they had also learnt how to code.
According to a Lagos-based Information and Communications Technology expert, Mrs. Olusola Oladeji, although computers are amazing, they cannot think for themselves, hence they require people to give them instructions.
“So basically, coding is a list of step-by-step instructions that get computers to do what you want them to do. Coding makes it possible for us to create computer software, games, applications and websites,” she said. “Also, coders, also known as programmers, are people who write the programmes behind everything we see and do on a computer.”
Weeks after they have learnt coding, the girls, dressed in pink tops emblazoned with the words, “This girl can code,” told our correspondent that programming would be one of the most delightful things that had happened to them since they were born.
“I never knew I could be a coder; I didn’t know what it meant until some weeks ago,” said one of the girls, Mmesoma Joseph.
The 13-year-old was one of the 60 girls in Ajegunle trained by Anuoluwapo Adelakun and Jerry Odili, who are both 2016 fellows of the United States Consulate General-sponsored Carrington Youth Fellowship Initiative in Lagos.
The fellowship, a year-long programme, was designed to enable 20 Nigerian youths to develop their leadership skills and implement projects that have social impact.
Adelakun and Odili, who were on the same team, said they both had passion for the education of the girl child, hence when they were to choose which project to work on during their fellowship year, it was not difficult for them to choose to train young girls on ICT.
“The fact that the future is technologically-driven is undeniable and girls need to be trained as they are often the neglected ones,” Odili, a graduate of Computer Science from Olabisi Onabanjo University, Ogun State, said.
Adelakun said their choice of doing the training in Ajegunle was because it would be more impactful to train girls in remote communities who don’t have access to facilities that girls in nicer neighbourhoods have.
Ajegunle, a renowned slum in Lagos, has produced notable footballers and musicians in the country, among whom are a former striker for the Super Eagles and former coach of the same team, Samson Siasia; Biodun Obende, who plays professionally in Finland; a former striker for Watford, England, Odion Ighalo; a former Super Eagles defender, Taribo West; and Emmanuel Amuneke, a former African Footballer of the Year.
Ajegunle, which is bordered on the West by the Apapa Wharf and Tincan, two of the country’s biggest sea ports, has also produced famous artistes, including Chinagorom Onuoha (popularly known as African China) and John Asiemo (popularly known as Daddy Showkey).
And now, with the emergence of young girls who code, Ajegunle might be on the road to becoming a notable breeding ground for technology talents like Joseph, who said she would use her new skill to develop the community in the future.
“I’m very proud because now I can code. I was taught how to code with Python,” said the 13-year-old Imo State indigene.
According to python.org, Python is a widely used high-level programming language for general-purpose programming, created in 1991 by a Dutch programmer, Guido van Rossum.
Joseph added, “I can use Python to instruct the computer to perform a particular task and it will do it. I learnt so many tips during the training. My parents have also encouraged me to put in my best. I will become one of the best computer programmers or analysts in the future.
“I hope to be one of the greatest ICT solutions providers in the future. I believe the government needs to spend more on us girls. I will not allow this environment to influence me badly as I know that if I improve on my skill, I could be out of this area and even take my parents out in the future.”
Just like Joseph, Mistura Jamiu, 14, whose mother is a food vendor, said her plans was to improve on her coding skill so she could lift her family out of poverty in the future.
“I’m so happy to have learnt coding despite the fact that I never knew how to operate a computer before. It’s a wonderful skill and I will pass it on to my friends and siblings,” she said.
Chioma Aladum, 14, said anytime she remembered her late father and how her mother had been trying to make ends meet for the family, she was encouraged to do more.
She said, “I’m proud to be a coder. It wasn’t easy to learn as I was not proficient at the computer before, but I believe if you put your heart to learning something, you can learn. That’s how I became one of the top 20 out of the 60 girls who were trained.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity I’ve had and I’m grateful for it. Computer is going to be a central part of our lives in the future, so I’m glad I took part in a training that would enable me to be a part of the future.
“My dad is late, my mum is a trader and I’ve vowed to make my mother proud because she has been trying for us four children. My dad died when I was a year and six months old.”
Jane Nnadi, 14, used to hate computer, but today, she has also become one of the female coders at Ajegunle.
She said, “I hated computer because I kept failing the subject in school. I couldn’t even put it on and off. I was scared each time I saw a computer, always thinking if I touched it, it would spoil.
“When this coding training opportunity came, a friend of mine said I should participate in it and eventually I did. I’m grateful I did as I found out that computer is very interesting. Now, all my fears are gone. I can now code.
“I’m also very bold now in the class when it comes to answering questions about computer. I tried developing some solutions during the training and I will keep on learning so as to become a great developer. I’ve told my parents to buy me a computer and they have promised to do so after my Basic Education Certificate Examination.”
Nnadi added that she would use her new skill to benefit her community in the future.
“I will pass on the training to my friends as we’ve been instructed by Aunty Anu and Uncle Jerry. I see myself as a world-class coder. I’ve always dreamt of travelling to places like Brazil, New York and others, so I will work hard to achieve my dreams as a coder,” she said.
Fourteen-year-old Juliet Ejim said she used to be shy before she learnt coding, but now she has overcome timidity, thanks to her newly-acquired skill.
She said, “I was extremely shy before, but once I got the coding skill, it’s like I’m feeling a special kind of pride in me. It has boosted my self-esteem. I will train others too in the future, probably they too would have their self-esteem boosted.”
Pelumi Ayodele, 15, also never knew how to turn on and turn off a computer before, but that is now a past.
“I’m proud that I was part of those who were trained how to code in this community. I was not computer literate, I had never operated a computer before, but the training made me become who I am today — a coder. I intend to develop various ICT solutions in the future to benefit humanity,” she said.
Just like Ayodele, Judith Odiri, 15, said although she never knew how to operate a computer before, she could now use the Python language to perform many tasks on the computer.
“In the future, I see myself as one of the greatest female coders in Nigeria. I want government to bring more computers to my school so we can all have access to computers,” she said.
Also, 16-year-old Anuoluwa Opatola, said she had never seen a computer before, but today she is also a coder.
“I was only taught about computer on the blackboard, but I never had access to the real device. But now, I can programme and I’m interested in developing solutions for some of the world’s problems,” Opatola, whose father works at the Lagos State Waste Management Agency, said.
Sixteen-year-old Chianakwana Ebele’s father is a carpenter in the community, while her mother is a petty trader.
Through coding, she said she would bring her family to limelight.
“I’m going to make them proud in the future,” the Anambra State indigene said.
An excited Sarah Sunday, 15, also said she was going to use her new skill to benefit her life, family and the country.
“As the first child, I know I have lots of responsibilities and I don’t intend to disappoint myself, my family, my community and Nigeria at large,” she said.
Getting girls to code: The challenges
When Adelakun and Odili decided on training the girls to code, they never knew it would not be that easy, especially as most of the girls never knew how to operate computers before.
Adelakun, who studied Politics and International Relations at Lead City University, Ibadan, Oyo State — said before the project commenced, she and Jerry took a tour of schools in the community to select the girls, only to discover that most schools’ computer laboratories were not equipped.
That was when she realised it would be tough to train them how to code.
She said, “Some of the computer labs were under lock and key; there was one we even entered and we saw a mortar and a pestle. I found out that the schools and the society as a whole only encourage our girls to be wife materials, but not innovators.
“We then became very interested in the project because we wanted to catch young girls young, especially those in the junior secondary classes. We wanted to change the trend and get more girls to become computer scientists and engineers, bringing them into a male-dominated industry and showing them that they thrive.”
Odili said other challenges experienced during the training were that some parents didn’t want their girl children to be involved, electricity problem and lack of computer laboratories in the community.
He said, “There is only one computer centre in the whole of Ajegunle community, so getting a place where the girls could be trained was very hard. We worked it out, anyway, and we were able to use that only computer centre to train the girls.
“Thankfully, the girls were positively responsive even though they didn’t have a background knowledge of how the computer works. Right now, we are proud to say each of the girls taught is now proficient at computers; they can operate computers and they can code. Some of them are now even intermediate coders using the Python language.”
Asked how the girls would sustain their training, seeing that there are no enough computer laboratories in their schools and in the community, the duo said they had started a social enterprise called TechMe.
“It’s a computer laboratory where the girls can continue to learn coding. They have full access to the facility and the resources there. By the time they start practising, they will become experts at coding,” Odili said.
Adelakun added that the top 20 girls who performed well in the training had been given a Raspberry Pi [a tiny and affordable computer that can be used to learn programming through fun, practical projects], courtesy of Python Nigeria, a technology firm.
Both Adelakun and Odili said they hoped to train more girls in remote communities in the country and even at Internally Displaced Persons camps in the North-East, where terrorism has led to the death of over 70,000 persons and displacement of two million people, including girl children.
The duo also called on parents and the government to invest more resources in the development of the girl child in the country.
Adelakun said, “Parents need to encourage their girls to venture into the science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects. Some parents are the ones holding their girls back. Some still have the notion that girls should only be trained how to cook well for their husbands, how to manage the home finances and so on.
“What they don’t know is that women are also fantastic innovators. So, parents need to encourage their daughters, they shouldn’t hide computers away from them. I suggest that when girls are growing up, parents should allow them to choose between doors and trucks or doors and bricks. Don’t enforce it on them. For the government, it needs to invest heavily in educating the girl child, especially in ICT, which is the future.
“Mark Zuckerberg [Facebook’s founder] believed enough in Nigeria that he came last year to state this fact. There are women in technology, but they are not many. There is so much that they can do. The government should equip schools with computers. How can a school be teaching computer science and the children have never seen a computer before? By the time they want to take the West African Senior School Certificate Examination, for example, how can they compete with their counterparts from highbrow schools? They will fail woefully.”
Odili also said the government should help build computer labs in communities across the country in such a way that anybody interested in computer could walk in and learn.
“Having computer labs in our communities can help solve the illiteracy problem,” he said. “Let’s educate our girls and we will empower our nation. They are usually the forgotten ones when it comes to education and empowerment.”
Meanwhile, the Head of Department, Education, Ajeromi-Ifelodun Local Government Area, Mrs. Fausat Olanrewaju, said she was hopeful that the training would help the girls become solution providers to the community in the future.
She said, “The training was awesome for the girls; it is a plus for the community and the country. I have told the girls to make use of the training to benefit the community and pass it on to others.
“There are few girls who are educated in this community, as you know it is a slum. By virtue of the skill they have acquired, they have joined the elite and I believe they will improve the community. We encourage initiatives like this and we will continue to support them.”
Opportunities for girls in ICT
There are vast gains when girls are trained in the ICT sector, according to the United Nations Women.
In its statement titled, “Vast gains for young women and girls with the right ICT skills and assets” — on the International Girls in ICT Day on April 26, 2017, the organisation quoted a 2013 Intel report that enabling internet access for 150 million women would contribute about $18 billion to the annual Gross Domestic Products of 144 developing countries.
However, the report said women were at the risk of losing out on tomorrow’s best ICT job opportunities, whether in the public or private sector, or as an employee or entrepreneur.
The statement said, “This is especially so within STEM fields. For example, women currently represent only 20 per cent of engineering school graduates and only 11 per cent of practising engineers. We also know that 25 per cent of women engineers leave the field after age 30, compared to 10 per cent of men engineers; and that women receive only seven per cent of venture capital in Silicon Valley.
“Current and emerging technology is fundamentally altering the job market, the type of jobs that will exist in the future and the skills that will be required for those jobs. Women’s already low participation in STEM professions, where the new jobs are expected to be created, put them at risk to lose out even further.
“Estimates show that women will gain only one STEM-related job for every 20 jobs lost in other areas, whereas men will gain one new job for every four lost elsewhere.”
To tackle these challenges, UN Women said policy tools and focused programmes were needed to shift priorities and investments, and to change the stereotypes and perceptions of women and girls in STEM fields that begin in early childhood.
It added, “To achieve sustainable development, we must rethink education, training and learning strategies to equip young women and girls with the skills required by 21st century labour markets.
“Enhancing the use of ICTs to empower women is an explicit target of Sustainable Development Goal 5, which is to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.”
An Abuja software developer and ICT expert, Ms. Bunmi Olagunju-Uche, who spoke to Saturday PUNCH via LinkedIn, said it was high time the country invested in the training of girls in technology in order to provide them a better future.
She said, “When girls learn to code, it helps them to develop essential skills such as problem solving, logic and critical thinking. Through coding, they can learn that there’s often more than one way to solve a problem, and that simpler and more efficient solutions are often better.
“Learning to code encourages girls to become creators, not just consumers, of the technology they use. This is the future and we must key in to it.”