African women forging ahead in IT


[Image] Sinini Ncube from Rhodes University is
seeking to improve veterinary service
delivery in South Africa.
(Image: Rhodes University)

[Image] Shikoh Gitau developed a mobile
application that will make the use of
traditional medicine more efficient.
(Image: Hasso Plattner Institute)

Jerri Barrett
Anita Borg Institute marketing director
+1 650 857 6095

Janine Erasmus

August is Women’s Month in South Africa, when the country takes time to celebrate the achievements of its women in all spheres.

In the field of information technology, two bright young women are making their mark.

Master’s student Sinini Ncube of Rhodes University, and Shikoh Gitau, a doctoral candidate at the University of Cape Town (UCT), have each won a prestigious Google Anita Borg Memorial Scholarship for outstanding contributions and leadership in computer science.

Ncube and Kenyan-born Gitau are the first sub-Saharan students to receive the award, which is open to applicants from Europe, the Middle East and, for the first time in 2010, Africa – provided they are women.

Using technology to uplift communities

Gitau obtained her computer science degree from the African Nazarene University in Nairobi, collecting a handful of merit and leadership awards along the way.

Seeking a way to use her qualification to help her fellow citizens, in 2008 she enrolled at the Information Communications Technologies for Development Centre in UCT’s computer science department, learning of the institution after her selection as an Oxford Rhodes Memorial Scholarship finalist. The centre focuses on the use of information technology to tackle socio-economic problems in developing nations.

Gitau developed a mobile application titled M-Ganga (the mobile healer), which promotes the use of traditional medicine by recording and cataloguing traditional knowledge, submitted via mobile phone, in a web-based database. Modern doctors using the web interface will gain valuable information about traditional healing techniques.

The application also ensures the preservation of that knowledge for future generations and provides information about the availability of medicinal plants, instructions for their use, and their conservation status. Gitau will use her prize to finalise M-Ganga’s development.

For the millions of Africans who don’t have ready access to western medicine, but who can find a traditional healer almost around every corner, the application has significant implications.

“It’s an opportunity for a more proactive means to provide healthcare through this traditional means, which can be optimised through technology,” said Gitau.

She is currently also working on a mobile service that will allow impoverished communities in the Western Cape to upgrade their skills and look for employment through their mobile phones, which in many cases is their only access to the internet.

“It will be pointless if my PhD in computer science is not relevant in addressing people’s real life problems.”

Once her studies are complete she plans to return to her home country and help build the nation, even entering into politics if necessary.

For her master’s thesis in computer science Ncube is developing a method of visualising outbreaks of zoonotic diseases, which are transferred from animals to humans and vice versa, using a web-based user interface.

Containment of zoonotic outbreaks depends largely on early awareness of the event, a quick response, and efficient communication between parties involved. Ncube’s innovation will vastly improve surveillance methods currently available in South Africa, which can result in a delay of up to one month between first report and confirmation. During this time people and animals would have suffered, and possibly died.

The project will also provide a platform for consultation and cooperation between veterinary bodies, and result in a more efficient response to zoonotic outbreaks.

The technology, Ncube hopes, will help to contain outbreaks of diseases such as avian flu and anthrax, which are a major threat to the economies of developing countries, and improve veterinary service delivery in South Africa and in its neighbouring countries.

Her thesis is supervised by computer science lecturer Dr Hannah Thinyane and Prof Greg Foster, the MSc and PhD manager in Rhodes’ Department of Information Systems.

Ncube and Gitau shared the award with 23 other whizzkids from Russia, Israel, Romania, Morocco, France, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Austria, Germany, the UK, Ireland, Italy, Denmark, Turkey, Qatar and Sweden.

Pioneer for the advancement of women

The award is given in honour of the late American computer scientist, one of just a handful of women who held a doctorate in computer science in the 1980s. Borg devoted her life to breaking down barriers that women encounter in traditional male-dominated strongholds such as computing and engineering, and inspiring more women and minorities to become scientists.

Her work carries on today in the NGO Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology, based in Palo Alto in California. The organisation’s mission is to “increase the impact of women on all aspects of technology, and to increase the positive impact of technology on the world’s women”.

In honour of this pioneer, search giant Google established the Google Anita Borg Memorial Scholarship in 2004, with the same aim of encouraging women to choose a career in technology and computing, and then excel in it.

To qualify for the award candidates must be female students at a university in Europe, the Middle East or Africa, and must be studying computer science, computer engineering, informatics or a related field. Their academic record must also be top-notch.

The scholarship consists of a €7 000 (R67 380) cash award and an extended visit to Google’s engineering facility in Zurich, Switzerland, where the laureates participate in workshops, panel discussions, breakout sessions and a variety of social activities.


Director of Marketing