Building technological bridges for digital inclusion in Africa

13/12/2021, por Angel

Building technological bridges for digital inclusion in Africa

Hanae Bezad

Tech entrepreneur and founder of Douar Tech


Empodera Impact Stories interviewed Hanae Bezad, an entrepreneur dedicated to social impact through the promotion of digital and economic inclusion. Her areas of interest and expertise focus on the intersection of technology, sustainability, inclusion, entrepreneurship and international development. Much of her work and undertakings have been carried out on the African continent. Hanae is the founder of Douar Tech, an inclusive technology hub that aims to build the resilience of vulnerable youth, especially women living in rural and peri-urban areas, through training in entrepreneurship, web development and other technology-intensive skills.

 

Hi Hanae, let’s start with your work at the pan-African organization Smart Africa focused on startups and innovation ecosystems … which programs have you developed with them to promote digital transformation with social impact in Africa?

My entrepreneurial adventure in Africa began in 2017 when I moved back to  Morocco to set up a coding school and launch an inclusive program aside. In 2018, I had the opportunity to visit Rwanda for the first time. Coincidentally, a close friend mentioned that my advocacy work in digital inclusion may show greater results if I were to move my work there. At the time, the government of Rwanda expressed high hopes for technology with an intent to eliminate many barriers to entrepreneurs. At that moment, I thought: “this is the place to be … to create something.”

In 2019 I was invited to be part of a group of tenacious entrepreneurs, accelerators, and incubators gathered from the entire African continent. We came together with the idea of developing approaches to co-create innovation policies that meet the needs of African businessmen and entrepreneurs.

A few months later, the role of Project Manager for startups and innovative ecosystems supporting Smart Africa was open. I was approached to take on the position, and in 2020 I moved to Kigali to support the mission.

Smart Africa is an alliance that aims to channel the digital transformation of the Continent. Each member country chooses a flagship project and Project Managers, like myself, work very closely with the governments of the country to come up with the best way to disseminate best practices. This experience was very exciting for me as an entrepreneur, bringing the voice of other entrepreneurs and learning how these multi stakeholder platforms work.

My experience with Smart Africa helped me understand the complexity of decision making to conduct change that would lead to the digital transformation of the Continent. I sincerely think that the grassroots work that entrepreneurs in Africa are doing is immense and very effective when we look at the results on the ground, and I’m hopeful that governments work towards creating more favorable conditions for our African innovative businesses to thrive.

 

You are the founder of Douar Tech – an inclusive tech hub, whose mission is to promote a cultural change among young people by taking advantage of the opportunities of the digital revolution in Morocco. How was the project born and what are the objectives?

 

The first approach to Douar Tech was in January 2017. This project was born from an idea that had been maturing in my head for years. My profile as a social entrepreneur, together with my interest in learning web development and project management, cemented a firm belief that we could carry it out.

In the fall of the same year after I had moved to Morocco, we managed to pilot a program dedicated to 35 young women to allow them to take advantage of their full business potential.

At Douar Tech, the entrepreneurial spirit of precarious populations in Morocco is fostered and accelerated by supporting community-anchored projects. Through our approach, the programs foster a cultural change among young people to take advantage of the opportunities of the digital revolution, while also creating and developing an exchange network between their peers and communities. In short, we want to promote the economic independence of young people through entrepreneurship and innovative employability, especially between women.

 

22 female entrepreneurs in the province of Chefchaouen, Morocco take part in a 6-month capacity building program – the Academy for Women Entrepreneurs – to scale their businesses and integrate digital processes implemented by Douar Tech in partnership with the US Mission of Morocco (November 2021).

 

We want to achieve the final objective: that the people supported by Douar Tech can autonomously find opportunities within the formal labor market or develop their own tech-enabled businesses. This is what makes me continue to advocate in the social tech field.

 

Your activity with the collective of female leaders across the African Continent with the Marana Women’s Network is very interesting. Tell us more about it and name some examples of female entrepreneurs leading innovation in the community.

 When we talk about the empowerment of women in regions like Morocco, the reality is multi-layered. It is a country in which no matter how much women work, they are not as recognized as they should be. Female participation in the country’s labor force is very low. Some people believe Morocco needs empowerment programs for women to change the existing power dynamics of society. Others are more conservative and do not support these initiatives. We are talking about a country that has had an Islamist government since 2011, just recently ousted in the last elections in 2021 — this has a great impact. We have had prime ministers who have used very degrading language in their speeches about what women could aspire to be in their lives and as human beings.

Aspiring entrepreneurs present pitches of their projects in Chichaoua, Morocco during a Douar Tech-led Digital Entrepreneurship Immersion workshop in partnership with UNICEF Maroc (June 2021).

 

Obviously this creates an environment full of potential challenges and obstacles that we face. In the Marana project, which means resilience in Arabic, we collaborated as part of the AfriLabs Alliance of African innovative hubs. In launching the project, we wanted to share our expertise with the rest of the Hubs of this ecosystem across the Continent.

We created a program within our network to meet the needs of women entrepreneurs on the African continent and it works very well, we had very positive feedback. Many of them are really interested in developing their digital skills as entrepreneurs. We had 26 nationalities represented among our participants; these included a radio host in Ethiopia, an EdTech social entrepreneur in Uganda, and inspired a partnership between a social entrepreneur in Nigeria with a web developer in Morocco. We want to identify these women to provide them with the specific skills they need to make a community impact, and match them in dialogue with experts from our network. Actually the most important part of this network is the human capital that we have, we generate valuable connections for them with inspiring profiles from all over the world whose work is rooted in social development on the Continent.

Without a doubt, we have found extremely competent female entrepreneurs in Africa, in addition, women have an additional drive to undertake because this platform for female entrepreneurs is the space where they express themselves and discover new ways to earn money and restore, in some way, their status in society.

 

“Morocco needs more empowerment and support programs for women because it is an effective way to change the power dynamics of society”

 

In addition to a digital divide in general, is there a digital gender divide in Morocco? Do women have more difficulties accessing technology or STEM careers? In what areas? Without a doubt you are an example to follow for younger women…

First, when we look at test results in public and private schools, most  of the time women have the highest and best grades. Most women achieve excellent results through high school. Later in university, things change because societal pressure can become stronger, for instance to get married and have kids. In my case, I was lucky to be born in a family that truly values education, and to go to university in Europe and the US. My mother was the first generation university graduate, while her mother was not allowed to go to school. It gives me hope to see how in two or three generations we are changing many things, but these advances can be fragile and we must move forward and make the most of our potential so that other women can identify with us.

Then, the challenges need to be addressed in the labor market: women face a glass ceiling. Many statistics in developed countries show how women earn sometimes up to 30% less for the same job, if not more. I experienced this firsthand in Paris when I was 27 years old. I found out about this because one of my colleagues told me that he thought this was unfair and that it didn’t make any sense that he would be earning more while I was responsible for the development of the account that made the majority of the revenues of the firm. I know the same thing happens to many other women. One of my objectives is to share my experience and empower as many people as I can to help generate more female human capital.

Yes, the truth is that you are right, in some cases with the talks, debates and individual conversations that I have had with so many people who came simply to ask me for advice on my experience and my career, I have been able to serve as an example to some women. But this has always surprised me a lot because I used to have that famous impostor syndrome, thinking that other less privileged women in Morocco would not see me as a model, since I studied in Europe and the US, I’ve traveled the world, I enjoy a lot of freedom, etc. Actually, I realized we bond on so many other levels beyond social class and education – simply by means of commonality, of our common challenges of being women in highly patriarchal societies. Another type of society is possible, where humans connect with one another on equal terms. I would like to make everyone understand that this has to be done in a way that respects who they are and what they can contribute. In the end, if we advance in a new social model, we all win! We rise together!

 

 

From your experience, how can digital competences be the key for a more inclusive and participative society? What are the challenges and opportunities to open knowledge access?

 Technology today allows societies to advance. Human beings around the world, from the moment they have access to the Internet, they have access to knowledge and this is unprecedented in our recent history. It does not mean that you have access to the same tools to analyze that knowledge, but it does mean that many underserved communities can broaden the perspective of their knowledge to create and to find new opportunities. A recent example can be seen in Wikipedia, a group of people in Morocco translated this knowledge into Dārija which is the Arabic language spoken in Morocco, this means that this immense source of knowledge is now accessible to thirty-five million inhabitants, some of whom do not speak English or French.

 

Our guest speaker shares his story of migration to Morocco from his West African home country, later learning Moroccan Arabic and navigating his employability in Morocco. The session was hosted during a Digital Entrepreneurship Immersion workshop in partnership with UNICEF Maroc (June 2021).

 

“If knowledge is accessible and we allow people to respond to their challenges, we can have more social mobility that is key to our society”

 

There’s no doubt that if knowledge is accessible and we allow people to respond to their challenges, we can have more social mobility that is key to our society. Personally, I feel that we are in a historic moment, full of hope, of challenges too. We need to remind ourselves that it is not just about sharing knowledge and technology, it is about sharing more resources, human capital and financing. Projects like ours are very important, people need to be aware of what is happening in the country and to know that they themselves can participate in this transformation. They must learn, commit and take this experience elsewhere, because I believe that what we are building with Douar Tech hopefully can become in the coming years a Rural Tech House, as a prototype first evolving to many other Rural Tech Houses in and outside of Morocco.

It is important to ensure that we are all acting to promote justice and equity. Douar Tech is one of the many promising such projects in the African continent.

 

“Technology today allows societies to advance, human beings around the world, from the moment they have access to the Internet, have access to knowledge”

 

Female entrepreneurs in Taroudant, Morocco discuss the status of their business plans and timeline to pitch for initial investment through the Academy for Women Entrepreneurs program in partnership with the US Mission to Morocco (November 2021).

 

What is your opinion and predictions on how the global shift has occurred during, and after, the crisis of COVID-19? Through this shift, how can disruptive technologies generate sustainable solutions?

I will give you an example from my experience in Smart Africa. When we launched the call for projects to be carried out, we received 307 responses to our call. I spent literally five weekends analyzing all the projects, the vast majority of them came from the African continent, which means that it was very clear that we had a huge source of talent proposals within Africa. Now, the other battle is financing. At the moment we have a health crisis, and this crisis unfortunately has a great impact in Africa.

We also need to talk about vaccine nationalism and the many discriminations and injustices faced by the Global South, and Africa in particular. I’m currently in the US (July 2021). In this country, more than 70% are vaccinated or have the option of being able to do so, while in the African continent only 3% are vaccinated. This discrepancy exists for many reasons. Among those, property rights on the patent of vaccines combined with a differentiated production capacity makes the African continent unable to develop and produce a vaccine for its own needs. I am almost certain that in 6 months, the percentage of the population to be vaccinated in Africa will remain very low and much lower compared to Europe and North America. This is a blatant failure of the global cooperation systems. We can only resolve a challenge like a pandemic as one, not with such divides and discriminations.

All this, without a doubt, is an impediment to the development of the Continent. Let’s make sure African countries are allowed to produce in a capacity that meets their needs, instead of letting the Global North act as white saviors only when they wish, and with this flawed mechanism of extra vaccine supply redistribution.

The pandemic challenges the development dynamics that are underway and particularly the digital transformation of the continent. At the same time, I am very happy to see that the innovative ecosystem is very motivated, all the more creative, all the more committed to accelerating the change in the African continent.

 

DOUAR TECH website –  https://www.douartech.org/

Instagram – https://www.instagram.com/douar.tech/

Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/douartech

 

 

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