Celebrating Afrikan Women Innovators

"Wathintabafazi wathint’ imbokodo," is a phrase composed to recognize and honor the courage and strength of South African women. The phrase garnered prominence following the event of 9 August 1956 when more than 20,000 South African women from various backgrounds assembled to mobilise a protest against the proposed amendments to the Urban Areas Act of 1950, also known as the ‘pass laws’, whose intent was to restrict Afrikan women from moving about as they desired.

Lillian Ngoyi, Motlalepula Chabaku and Helen Joseph are among the many women who led a march to the Union Buildings against a law aimed at robbing women of their right to freedom of movement.


South Africa Women's Day Tribute.

A similar spirit of courage and determination is present in Afrikan female innovators today. Afrikan women continue to thrive in the fields of ICT, Science & Engineering, Law, and other disciplines. In 2016, the World Economic Forum honored women innovators in a contest termed the “Africa Top Women Innovators Challenge”. Among the distinguished winners were Nneile Nkholise of iMED Tech Group in Bloemfontein, who invented a manufacturing process to design breast and facial prostheses for cancer and burn victims. Other winners included Larissa Uwase of Rwanda, an agronomist by training, whose innovation incorporates creating various food products from the sweet potato, as well as Louisa Ofusuah Obimpeh (Ghana) whose innovation focuses on harvesting human waste to make methane gas, fertilizer, and fuel.

Granted, there has been progress in the advancement of Afrikan female innovators in various disciplines. There is still, however, a looming concern over the inequality that persists across the gender line. A South African entrepreneurship survey showed that women struggle more than men as far as accessing new markets and funding to advance their businesses is concerned. While most women have innovative ideas, they are often denied supplementary resources and pressured to pursue a traditional career.

In addition, innovative contributions and accomplishments by women are not as adequately shared and acknowledged as are those by male innovators. In all probability, those who watched the movie ‘Hidden Figures’ based on three Afrikan-American female mathematicians who pioneered space engineering in the 1950s were, like me, puzzled as to how it is that their story remained obscured from public view for so many decades. Numerous studies show that theirs is not a unique case as many women innovators were/are erased from the history of their own work.

"Granted, there has been progress in the advancement of Afrikan female innovators in various disciplines. There is still, however, a looming concern over the inequality that persists across the gender line."

To further corroborate the disparities, one needs also to look at demographics and trends in patenting. According to a report by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, despite women having more than tripled their representation among patent holders since the late 1970s, they still hold an “extremely small share of patents” compared to their male counterparts. The report estimates that women are not expected to reach a tie with men in patenting until 2092. In cases where women are acknowledged in patents, they are hardly the primary inventors.

The challenges Afrikan women face in the innovation space exist on a long continuum. While we commemorate the bravery of the women who marched against a system which sought to confine them, let us ponder also on the barriers holding African women back from participating more fully in innovation, and commit to creating mechanisms to dismantle them together as the continent.

Disclaimer: This article was written in a personal capacity. The views expressed are solely of the author.

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