What does it take for a woman to make a name for herself in African telecommunications?
Mwamvita Makamba, executive head of pan-Africa business development for Vodacom, talks about the challenges women face in Africa that must be addressed for more inclusive entry into this revolutionary sector.
What are the main reasons for gender inequality in Africa’s telecoms industry?
Mwamvita Makamba: The challenge begins in our schools where careers in telecommunications, construction, engineering and mining are not directly offered to girls. Typically speaking, telecoms is not their first career choice. Women tend to choose a career in something they are already familiar with – something that is closer to their hearts such as nursing or teaching for example.
ICT has always been seen as a masculine job due to the physical labour involved when building telecoms towers; this is a common misconception of the entire industry, which involves so much more than this.
The issue is by no means a problem purely isolated to Africa. You can see the same challenge across the technology industry around the world – in some markets more than others – as women often take on a role that keeps them feeling closer to home.
This has since changed as technology has evolved to be much more inclusive; with the adoption of not just a mobile phone, but the introduction of financial inclusion services and other value-added applications that present huge opportunity for use by women, just as much as men.
The telecoms industry now plays an important role in the socioeconomic integration into our communities, where we can now identify the high-achievers and disregard previous gender stereotypes. The solution is to come up with strategies that encourage a change in these ratios, and to inspire innovation in an industry that is currently prospering.
What do changing attitudes and new opportunities mean for women?
Mwamvita Makamba: The technological transformation has opened a new platform for women to take an entrepreneurial stance in business. The skills needed are no longer based around the hard graft of constructing towers, but helping to innovate around products and services that add value to the end user; beyond an offering of simply SMS and voice.
Traditionally, the lending of money between women has always been a popular trend on the continent, and the mobile phone is enhancing this trait, allowing them to become more creative and mindful of their finances in a much more secure way. As a result of this, there are now a much higher percentage of female mobile phone owners who feel empowered by the additional convenience of transferring money via mobile money applications, rather than handing over the physical cash.
From this, we learn that women use different telephony services to men, which, when translated into an opportunity for employment in the sector, demonstrates that they can bring a new way of thinking to the table.
What are some of the challenges you encountered in the telecoms industry, and what advice would you give to those looking for a career in the industry?
Mwamvita Makamba: The main challenge comes from the (idea) that a career in ICT is typically seen as a “man’s job.” Even today – after working across various positions within Vodacom Group in the past six years – I see very few women in the boardroom, but it is important for anyone in a similar position to carry the self-belief and resilience to look at the wider picture, and recognize the difference just being present can make. For instance, you might be in a position to influence the employment of more women and this decision will have a knock-on effect to increase profitability for the business you work for.
It can be a daily challenge to prove yourself, and you have to do so with as much energy and vigor as possible, remaining the perfect example of excellence through bringing your best and most innovative ideas to the fore.
Now is the time for women to join and explore the telecoms sector. Gone are the days of simply using your mobile device for voice and SMS. We need more women to aid in its transformation to revolutionise the sector, maximising convenience and even educating the public on the exciting role women can play in the industry.
What do you hope for the future?
Mwamvita Makamba: Given the increased uptake of mobile money services among women, the number choosing telecoms as a career path is sure to continue rising and has the potential to flip the gender ratio on its head in the long term.
The evolution of mobile telephony brings with it the realisation of the value that women can bring to the industry, and I believe gender equality will happen organically; rather than remaining largely a box-ticking necessity to comply with a company’s hiring policy. It will be about bringing in strong women who present extreme value for the business.
African women will no doubt begin to revolutionise the technology industry in Africa, filtering equal opportunities right down the value chain; demonstrating the pragmatism, confidence and capabilities to establish themselves in the world of telecommunications and empowering others to do the same. It is clear those already in the sector herald the belief that African women have a significant role to play in its economic and innovative transformation and out of this will emerge new industry thought-leaders who will be able to tell the story of their own rise to entrepreneurial prosperity.
Read more at AfricaOutlook.
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