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A Kenyan activist explores ways to get more Africans reading about Africans.

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It must be lonely at the top, sometimes. Since Kenyan geek, lawyer and political activist Ory Okolloh became Google’s policy advisor for Africa in early 2011, she is one of the few women in senior management in information technology (IT), a still largely male-dominated industry.

“The absence of women in technology is a challenge, not just in Africa but across the world,” Okolloh sighs. Through her work at Google, she wants to change that—by getting more Africans online, encouraging the creation of local internet content relevant to Africans and creating opportunities for young Africans to become developers and entrepreneurs.

Google, in a clever way of growing its own next generation of potential employees, is focusing on attracting women to the IT sector through close collaboration with universities, fellowships and internship programs. As a result, the number of women in IT should increase, Okolloh believes, and should translate into women taking up leadership positions.

Ory Okolloh, Johannesburg; 7 June 2012 – Photo by Brett Eloff.

“You need to build a pipeline first before you can look at how to get women into the higher, more visible roles,” she says.

She also hopes her own career path—after growing up in a relatively poor family in urban Kenya, she graduated from Harvard Law School in the United States, then accepted a high-powered position at multinational tech giant Google—will be an inspiration to other African women: “I hope I come across as very normal, so women can look at me and think, ‘I can do that too’.”

It was at Harvard that Okolloh discovered the power of the internet.

“I started blogging, which as a woman, gave me a voice and a space that I didn’t have to negotiate with anyone,” she says. Freedom of speech, liberation from patriarchal structures and participation in current political and social debates were no longer abstract concepts. Okolloh could exercise them every day and perhaps, most importantly, without intermediaries.

It was a realization that gave her life a new course. In 2006, she co-founded a parliamentary watchdog site Mzalendo (‘patriot’ in Swahili) which increased the accountability of Kenya’s government by recording bills, speeches and other official documents and making them available online. A year later, when the east African country was engulfed in violence following disputed presidential elections, Okolloh created yet another site, Ushahidi (Swahili for ‘witness’) that collected and mapped eyewitness reports of violence. The open source software created for the website has since been used to track violence in Eastern Congo, monitor elections in India and Mexico and map crime in the middle-American city, Atlanta.

Although Okolloh describes herself as a nerd, she is far from geeky. Fashionable, witty, warm and charming, she says working in the IT sector doesn’t mean hiding behind a computer screen.

“I can’t code to save my life,” she admits. “I’m much more interested in how technology can change lives.”

Her role as Google’s Africa policy advisor allows her to pursue this goal. The 34-year-old spends her days jetting from one of the continent’s 54 nations to the next to convince governments and private sector representatives of the importance of internet access for everyone.

“I try to encourage them to adopt policies that lead to getting more people online, to put in place regulations and come up with initiatives that can give people more access to the internet,” she says.

Internet connectivity and expansion should be a key aspect of any African country’s economic growth strategy, Okolloh believes: “The internet needs to be treated as an ‘infrastructure’. It’s as core, as critical, as electricity, water or roads in terms of growing the economy.” Optimistic about Africa’s future, she trusts in the continent’s ability to generate economic growth, but is wary about how it is being harnessed.

“This is a key decade for the continent in terms of opportunities. The question is how we make it a sustainable, inclusive and transformative growth, not just a boom decade.”

One way to do this is to improve internet access—currently only about 10% of Africans are online—which will have a direct impact on people’s pockets, Okolloh says, because the internet gives everyone, even those without much capital, access to the world.

“That’s why I’m drawn to technology. It’s an opportunity for people without resources, particularly young people and women, to place their stake in the ground. Those who can’t get a loan, can’t set up a manufacturing plant, can’t get an agent, but have access to this platform where they can make something happen for themselves. You can’t create jobs for everyone, you have to encourage entrepreneurship,” she says.

That has certainly been true in her own life. A mother of three young daughters, it’s largely thanks to the internet, and a supportive husband, that Okolloh manages to juggle a demanding career, frequent travel and family life as well as she does.

“The internet is a key enabler for women because it gives them mobility, flexibility and connectivity wherever they are. It helps them juggle multiple roles, work from home, be more efficient,” she says.

But until Okolloh reaches Google’s goal of Africa reaching a level of connectivity that matches that of Western nations, she will have to overcome some major challenges. Although the necessary undersea cables have been landed to connect the continent to the world’s major data hubs in the States and Europe, transmitting data inland is still too expensive.

“We still have a long way to go to tap the internet’s full potential in Africa,” Okolloh admits.

Another obstacle to innovation is lack of regional integration, which would allow entrepreneurs access to all 54 African markets.

“For innovation to really flourish, as an innovator, entrepreneur or business, you need to be able to at least sell to the continent, if not worldwide,” she explains. The basis for this would be a regionally accepted online payment system, like PayPal in the States, to facilitate e-commerce continent-wide. To date, Africa doesn’t have one.

In addition to that, Okolloh, who was on the Forbes list of Names You Need to Know in 2011 and named by Foreign Policy as one of the world’s top 100 thinkers in 2010, is rooting for more local content creation including text in local languages and country-specific geo-mapping to create “an internet that speaks to you where you are”. Currently, local content is at a dismal 2%.

“I would like to see Africans not only consume technology, but produce it. It’s about making the internet more relevant to Africa but also about sharing our content with the world,” she says.

The more Africans use the internet daily, the more likely Google is to make a profit on the continent. Since the web-search giant started operations in Africa in 2007, it has expanded into South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria, Ghana, Senegal and Uganda and opened offices in each of them, employing a total of about 90 staff.

“We are still laying the groundwork, understanding the market. We will grow as a business if people are online and local content is online,” Okolloh says, predicting that Google will profit in Africa within this decade.

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