Virginia Odor’s plans for a college education weren’t different from those of thousands of other young Nigerian women. She would study theater art, staying away from the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields that men have long dominated in this West African nation.
But in 2014, the 14-year-old joined Odyssey Educational Foundation, a coding initiative based in Abuja, the capital. Her dreams have changed, and she isn’t alone. Odor is part of a silent revolution shaking Africa’s largest economy.
Odyssey is among a growing number of initiatives sprouting up across Nigeria that is teaching young women and girls coding and other software skills, opening doorways to careers in STEM fields. Unsurprisingly, many of these efforts are led by women motivated by a combination of their relative privilege and a desire to take on the deep-seated gender stereotypes that have defined previous generations.
Girls Coding, an initiative of the nonprofit Pearls Africa Foundation, came up in 2015 after its founder, Abisoye Ajayi-Akinfolarin, left her job with an information technology audit firm in Lagos, upset with the minuscule number of Nigerian girls in STEM careers.
Girls Coding trains girls between the ages of 10 and 17 in programming, user interface design and animation. Odyssey was founded in 2013 by Stella Uzochukwu-Denis after she left a high-paying job at an Abuja telecommunications firm.
The Women’s Technology Empowerment Centre (WTEC) started in Abuja in 2008. Now, it has expanded across Nigeria and has trained more than 5,000 women and girls in tech skills. And Women in Technology, a Lagos-based initiative, has grown from its launch in 2009 to a presence across 36 Nigerian states, educating and equipping girls to pursue — and hold onto — STEM careers.
It organizes hack-athons and camps to nudge high school girls to join STEM courses in college, and runs a program designed to help Nigerian women in rural and underserved communities grow their businesses using information and communication technology (ICT).
That these initiatives are expanding points to the growing demand to which they are catering. And the women signing up to learn at these organizations are now themselves emerging as agents of change in a deeply conservative society.
“I’ve learned how to create mobile apps, how to program robots. I want to become a computer engineer, inventor and programmer,” says Odor, the Odyssey student.
For some of the founders of these initiatives, the drive to motivate girls to join STEM professions came from experiences outside Nigeria.
Uzochukwu-Denis was studying for a master’s degree in telecommunications management in India a decade ago when she saw girls there enrolling for after-school coding classes. “I was really inspired when I saw young girls building software, animations,” she recalls.
“Then I told myself this has to happen in my country, Nigeria.” On returning home, she began visiting high schools in Abuja to encourage girls to join similar after-school programming classes.
That her drive was sparked outside Nigeria isn’t surprising.
Research shows that women make up only 17 percent of Nigerians pursuing science-related careers. That’s part of a larger challenge too. According to UNICEF, there are half, or even a third, as many girls as boys in schools in many Nigerian states. Early marriages are prevalent among girls, and 23 percent of all Nigerian mothers bear their first child before the age of 19. Cultural biases are key too, and parents often end up reinforcing these stereotypes, suggests Oreoluwa Lesi, the executive director of WTEC. “Parents do say, ‘Our boys will become engineers and our daughters will become something else,’” Lesi says.
But there’s change in the air.
On a sweltering Wednesday afternoon, I visited the Girls Coding office in Yaba, Lagos’ Silicon Valley that hosted Mark Zuckerberg during his last trip to Nigeria. I was welcomed with quick gazes from high school girls still in their uniforms, otherwise peering at their laptop screens, performing programming tasks in the after-school classes.
Here, there’s no lack of inspiration. On the wall behind the girls are images of Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg and former Google vice president Megan Smith, global trailblazers in the IT world.
At school, says 17-year-old Sharon Okpoe, they’re taught theory but no practical coding skills. At Girls Coding, she says, she learns both for free. “This place is my second home,” she says, grinning.
Sustaining these initiatives and transforming Nigerian society are far more complex than coding, of course. Ajayi-Akinfolarin, the Girls Coding founder, finances the initiative on her own, and teaches and mentors the girls for free. Across Nigeria, most private high schools do not have the facilities to train girls in STEM-related subjects or programming. In government schools, STEM-related subjects are often taught by rote.
Nuela Adanna Ononiwu, an IT consultant and the founder of InspireIT — another initiative that encourages girls to join STEM careers — says rote-based teaching and learning of subjects like math, physics and chemistry discourages girls from taking STEM-related subjects. “These subjects have a role to play in STEM,” she says. “If the foundation is faulty, there’s no way they would learn programming.”
But the first ripples from these initiatives are being noticed, suggest Uzochukwu-Denis and Lesi — including by Nigeria’s government. The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) celebrates a Girls in ICT Day on the fourth Thursday in April every year.
Prodded by Nigerian women programmers, the country’s government has begun to observe the day too. And in 2017, the Federal Ministry of Communication Technology celebrated women in ICT through an event in Abuja — the country’s women coders were again the brains behind that initiative. Companies, says Lesi, are increasingly talking about hiring more women in their engineering and technical departments. The shift is hard to measure, but it’s clear.
“We now have more people talking about it,” she says. “We now have more people who are aware of it.”