Young student is mapping the way for women to geomatics

At the age of 23, Zimbabwean geomatics student Letwin Pondo was the youngest participant at two geospatial conferences in Italy earlier this year. She is a fourth-year undergraduate student in the department of surveying and geomatics at Zimbabwe’s Midlands State University (MSU).

It did not come as a surprise that Pondo, young as she is, was chosen to represent Zimbabwe’s mapping communities and open-source users at the conferences. The student is the co-founder of African Surveyors Connect, the national point of contact for Women in the Geospatial Space, the administrator of the Zimbabwe Institute of Geomatics’ secretariat, and co-leader of the Volunteer Community Surveyor Program – a branch of the International Federation of Surveyors.

She also runs #SheSpeaksSpatial, an initiative that encourages women to participate in the geospatial sector. As the administrator of the Zimbabwe Institute of Geomatics, she helps to compile reports for the youth network and hosts GeoChat sessions.

Pondo’s involvement in the field of geomatics received a further boost as she flew to Italy in August to attend the State of the Map 2022 and the Open Source Software for Geospatial (FOSS4G), both in Florence.

Conferences led to new initiatives

Her role in Women in Geospatial Space is to recruit more women into the network, share opportunities with them, organise events that motivate, encourage and empower women and boost their confidence in this industry.

Pondo told University World News that attending international conferences has empowered her to start some of the initiatives she is running.

Pondo said she always wanted challenges and, as a female student, she wants to tread where few women have gone to prove that women are just as competent as men. She said she realised that women generally have fears when it comes to science, technology and engineering because society taught them to “keep it low” and let the gentlemen lead. Pondo said that, when women try to lead, some men oppress them; they’re taken advantage of and looked down upon and, therefore, choose careers they feel are meant for women. But she was going to break out of that mould.

Mapping no longer a man’s world

“I have always wanted to do what men think only they can do. Couple this with my love for maps, cartography, curiosity about land laws and policies, surveying, and geomatics was the best way to go for me,” she said.

“In August, I was one of the grantees of the [Italian] conferences and the only Zimbabwean. The conferences are attended by those in the geospatial field who use open-source software. State of the Map mainly centres on the OpenStreetMap (STET) (OSM) and is organised by the OpenStreetMap Foundation. People who use OSM and OSM-related apps, and developers of OSM-linked apps get to showcase their work, share research findings, and how they’re using open data and open sources. Ideas are shared and collaborations formed. Networking is on top.”

She said students must always strive to attend such international conferences to rub shoulders with those who are already in the industries they are training for.

Pondo said the experience was overwhelming and exciting at the same time, getting to see people that she has interacted with online only, or those she follows on social media because of the great work they do in the industry or because they are her role models.

Gatherings the best place for networking

“So, meeting them ... and talking to them was an honour. Getting first-hand information from an app developer or mobile mapping app developer was also amazing and felt like a dream. I got to learn and share experiences with experienced individuals within the industry, got conversations rolling, and plan events together. I admit I was one of the youngest people there, if not the youngest, and everyone was amazed at how Zimbabwe would bring up such a confident and busy young girl,” she said.

"I was honoured to meet the founder of YouthMappers [a global network of university student-led mapping chapters], the director of Everywhere She Maps, and YouthMappers regional ambassadors. I specifically mention these people because I’ve worked with them online in one aspect or the other and they’ve been amazing and still are.”

Back home, Pondo is involved in initiatives aimed at bringing more women into mapping.

One of those initiatives she is undertaking is the #Shespeaksspatial programme that falls under African Surveyors Connect. Launching this initiative was a way to speak to women directly to boost their confidence, Pondo said.

She also founded the Ladies in Maps Zimbabwe together with her colleague Rufaro Tinago, something that she described as “a new gift from the impact of the conferences on me”.

Helping women to break free

“Experiences have been shared by various women within the industry either in a podcast or in profiling. The stories and experiences women share with women are the ones that can move the next woman from what she feels like a comfort zone, from a toxic environment or small-pan mentality to someone unbreakable.

“Women, just like anybody else, carry unique and important skills or ideas that can take this profession far but usually they are forced to suppress that by their environment, criticism, abuse, disorders and inferiority. It is our duty as women to lift each other up, inspire each other. We’re in this together and only we can unite to end this,” she said.

Pondo has also founded the YouthMappers chapter at MSU to promote students’ engagement, especially in practical aspects of the profession to foster women’s participation in a friendly environment and promote the use of open-source software in the department.

She said YouthMappers under her initiative engage in mapping activities, talks, debates, mapathons that all promote student leadership, develop communication skills, mapping skills, networking and teamwork in an environment that is much more conducive than a lecture room.

“So far, we’ve managed to engage in mapathons that facilitate mapping of communities that were not yet mapped or needed some help for disaster relief. An example I’d give is Cyclone Idai here in Zimbabwe. Maps come into play in helping to identify the best routes, location of people, neighbouring places of refuge, distribution of people that will be helpful for organisations and rescue teams.

“We always have talks on various themes, with the recent one being on gender, equality and inclusion as we emphasised in the LetGirlsMap branch. Also, working on mapping our school campus for new students and staff to navigate easily through the website when they arrive on campus for the first time,” she said.