Women’s innovative technology projects advance digital drive

Five women teams produced innovative technology projects in the first inter-university technology innovation competition in Cameroon that caught the attention of state authorities and other stakeholders in the digital drive.

The competition, Y’ello Digital Talent, is a computer programming challenge where students at private and public universities and other institutions offering computer and technology programmes compete in teams of five against one another. It is sponsored by the ministry of posts and telecommunications, higher education, and partners including MTN and CAMTEL.

In addition to prize money of up to CFA2,5 million (US$4,000), winning teams will be able to participate in a high-level business incubation programme.

A programme called My Comfy Doctor was announced as one of the winners. This concept allows women to anonymously consult doctors and bypass conventional care to avoid social taboos and discrimination.

Estel Nkeng, a student at the Catholic University of Central Africa in Yaoundé and the group coordinator of My Comfy Doctor, said, “Our platform allows women with specific health issues to fill out an online form and instantly receive a code on their phone. All aspects of their consultation are anonymous. The doctor also wears a mask.”

The group’s objective is to promote the use of information technology to address health challenges. “We want women to know they can easily access health information using our platform," Nkeng said.

Another group, from the University of Dschang, developed a three-stage fast firefighting system based on artificial intelligence to better manage fire breakouts. When a fire starts a sensor detects it and sends a mobile app alert to a firefighting squad. Even before the firefighters reach the location, the alarm instantly prompts an initial drone response, one of the group members, Doris Enongene, explained.

“With exponential growth of our university towns and increasing fire accidents, we think this technology will help curb the problem of late intervention by the firefighting company,” Enongene said.

A group named Dynamic Girls produced a smart solution for street waste management. Their innovation, called Keep Clean, is a public trash can with sensors that allow it to automatically open its lid when someone approaches it.

“As a user drops in their trash, the bin sorts it into several compartments, one for plastic items, another for glass, and one for biodegradable waste. Once full, the smart bin automatically alerts a waste collection company,” said group member Gladys Nadine Simo.

Women in IT

The Ministry of Post and Telecommunications alongside the National Agency for Information Communication and Technologies (ANTIC), as well as the Telecommunications Regulatory Board, are all responsible for several government initiatives geared towards creating a vibrant digital economy and opportunities for women and girls.

According to a report by the Nkafu Policy Institute, Cameroon’s 2030 Agenda places gender equality and empowerment of women and girls at its core. It recognises the importance of training girls and women in information technology to enable them to contribute their quota to the country's development drive.

Felix Sumbele, coordinator of the National Digital Switch Infrastructure in the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications, says there is no clear data on the number of women in ICT studies in higher education given the many private institutions cropping up in this domain almost every year in the last five or six years. He, however, says the government knows the number remains low compared to men.

For the recent digital innovation competition launched by the ministry, the students were mostly level 400 (final year) students in ICT, computer science departments, or department of engineering in the different participating universities.

“These are students who have already acquired some deep knowledge in information technology and are ready for the job market or [to] establish their own businesses,” Sumbele says.

Nelly Banaken Elel, the first counsellor at the Permanent Mission of the Republic of Cameroon to the United Nations, also confirms that women’s participation in technology fields in Cameroon remains low.

Though the government has created multimedia centres to bolster the digital skills of women and created a digital lab programme which provides training and computers to help women upgrade their technology skills, women generally still face many obstacles.

“The country's technology infrastructure needs to be strengthened, especially in rural areas. The expansion of technology needs to be sustainable and inclusive and cover all women,” she said while speaking at the 67th session of the UN Commission on the status of women earlier in March.

Women should take the lead

Referring to the competition, Minette Libom Li Likeng, Cameroon’s minister of post and telecommunications, told journalists on International Women’s Day on 8 March 2023 that the government is proud of the great strides women are making in innovative technology in the country.

“With this competition, the government and partners enable the university students to not only express their talent and mastery of information and communication technologies, but especially contribute towards accelerating the digital transformation of the country.”

Beyond training women in digital technology, the government focuses on rewarding girls who excel academically and providing support to young women owners of start-ups to attract women-led investments in the digital economy.

Rebecca Enonchong, founder and chief executive officer of AppsTech, said during an online seminar to mark International Women’s Day that, “[t]he gender approach to innovation, technology, and digital education offers immense opportunities to achieve the 2030 Agenda's Sustainable Development Goals and the 2063 African Union’s Agenda.

Unfortunately, the opportunities of the digital revolution also present a risk of perpetuating existing patterns of gender inequality. The need for inclusive and transformative technology and digital education is therefore crucial for a sustainable future.” The online seminar was organised by the ministry of post and telecommunication in Cameroon.

“By actively leveraging and participating in digital innovation and transformative technology, women can empower themselves and unleash a wealth of entrepreneurial and career opportunities,” Enonchong said. “Transformative and innovative technology can be a lever for women and girls to thrive, overcome challenges, grasp opportunities and benefits in this increasingly digital era.”