African women in tech: Ethel Cofie on why men are seen as ambitious and women bitchy

Ethel Cofie 1

“I spent years not speaking up because my career was just starting and I didn’t have anything of consequence to say, I remember going to a meeting once and being mistaken for my bosses PA/Assistant.”Ethel Cofie

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Where are the women in tech? Who are the women building technology or working in technology in Africa? These questions and many more are asked on a daily basis. When it comes to technology in Africa, the general consensus is that women are not present. We beg to differ.

Africa has a range of women working and building cool technology for the continent and the world. To answer the above questions we are launching a new article series that highlights Africa’s tech women: Women who work in technology, women who build technologies and women who are passionate about what technology can do for Africa.

In this, our second instalment of African women in tech, we feature Ethel Cofie. Cofie is a techie at her core and is working on bridging the women in tech movements across Africa.

Cofie has started a number of businesses and is one of five women shortlisted for a GEM Tech Awards, a United Nations and the International Telecommunications Union initiative. Her category looks at the work of individuals promoting women in tech.

The Ghanaian-born entrepreneur is the founder of Edel Technologies, a company that builds custom software and mobile applications to help corporates enter the mobile market. When Cofie was introduced to me, it was hard to believe that our paths hadn’t crossed before. Though her company is a great source of joy for her, it is her passion for promoting women in tech that finally connected us.

She has founded and currently pioneers a number of women in tech initiatives, including:

Women in Tech Ghana: an informal networking group focused on education and enhancing women’s careers by sharing experiences and lessons learned in members’ career development.

Women in tech Africa Alliance: an umbrella body of all women in tech groups across Africa, to give us a stronger voice and help us access more resources, share knowledge and network.

“Soon I will be launching Africa Twenty 10 Accelerator,” she tells me. “A virtual accelerator I stared with two equally passionate friends from Zimbabwe and Guinea to help African startups launch in multiple markets, Africa Twenty 10 launches at the end of October.”

Africa, the great leap-frogger

Cofie reckons that building capacity and using appropriate technology will give Africa the edge to take over the world as a technology and economic leader.

“Remember five of the fastest top 10 growing economies in the world are in Africa; the middle class of Africa has grown at 3.2 % average year on year since 1983. This is all in era where growth has stalled in most developing nations,” she says.

Technology is the is extremely important to this continent she argues. For the entrepreneur it is the way forward if Africa wants live up its full potential.

“Think about it, 15 years nobody was looking at India, in the last 15 years they have became the technology outsourcing capital of the world,” she says.

The same will likely be true for Africa in her view. She believes that through the use of appropriate technology, the continent could indeed begin to close the wealth gap.

Battling the access issue for women in Africa

Cofie argues that access to the internet is still one of the biggest challenges. However, she also feels there is a lack of access in terms of education and understanding of how to build and use technology.

“Access to the internet is critical – the internet is no longer a luxury; it’s important for development,” she says.

According to the International Telecommunication 2014 Report, mobile-broadband penetration in Africa reaches close to 20% in 2014, up from two percent in 2010. This is an improvement but it still not enough she says.

In her view, access to education and understanding of technology are important for ensuring that Africans are not only consumers but contributors and builders too. A continent of over 70% Mobile penetration means the continent is in a unique position to drive innovation and cutting edge technology through mobile.

“Power issues across the continent does not help either, but I am hopeful that as a continent we will begin to take advantage of our abundant resources and use solar energy much more.”

Fostering women in tech in Ghana

Ghana doesn’t get enough credit or press for the role it is playing in Africa’s tech revolution. On a macroeconomic level, the country’s GDP growth reached seven percent to US$49-billion in 2013 driven by the services and industrial sectors.

According to Cofie, GDP growth has performed well, hovering between four percent and seven percent over the past year and peaking in 2011 due to increased oil production. The rising middle class in Ghana’s per capita wealth increased five percent to US$1 850 in 2013 and over the past five years has grown 70%. This makes Ghana worth Africa’s attention as a formidable player.

The country’s economic growth means good things for the big technology companies but other factors need to come into play. Factors such as: stable government, increased urbanisation and the rise of mobile computing. Mobile growth creates steady demand for technology projects by banks (mobile banking) and telecom as consumers are taking place through a mobile device.

“Technology companies are continuing to feed the ecosystem by investing in the infrastructure and skills necessary for success,” says Cofie.

She argues that the more start-up capital the country has the better things will be.

“New sources of financing are readily becoming available at the earliest stages in the investment life-cycle (when African startups need them the most).”

Ghana investment landscape as become more active in the last few years with players such as MEST, the Savannah Fund and the Ghana Angel Investment Network (GAIN). These organisations are providing investments that give startups the capital they need to scale their product to reach a wider consumer base.

There are may opportunities for women here, Cofie thinks.

The world is unforgiving to women, so speak up

“The world does not forgive us [women] when we take a seat at the table or stand up to speak without being able to speak from a place of knowledge and understanding,” says Cofie.

She says this the nature of the beast, but women need to be prepared. Her advice is to take that seat at the table and speak up. She recalls early in her career, when she didn’t speak up in meetings because she felt she didn’t have anything of consequence to say. Her silence lead people to assume she was the personal assistant.

“Don’t be afraid of criticism, research shows that in cases of men and women with the same type ‘A’ personalities, a man will always being seen as a go-getter and ambitious and the woman will be seen as bitchy and loud; understand it and move on.”

This she reckons ties into being able to negotiate. In her opinion, “you don’t get what you deserve, you get what you negotiate”.

Women need to learn to be uncomfortable, she says to me. Do you understand the cost of doing business? Are you willing to do a dinner or a late night drink with a VC or learn to integrate with the boys’ club, sleep on the hard floor on the night of deployment?

“You must understand that’s the cost of doing business? I have had to survive initially in tech by being one of the boys until my reputation spoke for me. I don’t know if it’s the best advice; I know that’s what I had to do for survival in business and technology.”

She argues that though sexism, the glass ceiling and the boys club are a problem for women in tech, sometimes women are the bigger challenge. Women are often in their own way by not thinking they are worthy or good enough. These doubts often fuel misconception around women in tech is mostly around incapability, or because of family and commitments women are incapable of putting in the late nights and the work required to work in the tech sector.

“I created women in tech Ghana because I wanted to create a girls’ club – if corporate promotions and business has been conducted over the golf club and over beers, then I was going to create a space for women in tech to help each other move up and excel,” I am told.

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