Scams abound, and any one plot might have five “owners” – each of whom has paid and thinks it is all theirs. “Not for sale” is scrawled on walls across the country as a rudimentary prevention tactic.
Soon, though, buyers will have an easier way of telling what is really for sale, as four young coders have created an app that should thwart the scammers.
The “women in charge”, as Sigeste’s creators call themselves, are uploading digitised title deeds from the local authority, so that when you look at a map of your area on their app, you can see which bits of land are owned and which are still available.
Nellya Maylis, 24, in geek-chic glasses and a bright flowered headwrap, opened her laptop to explain how it works.
“These are free bits of land, and these are taken. But only the council can see who owns each bit of land – we protect people’s data and don’t share that information,” she said, pointing at blue and pink patches on the map.
Maylis and her three friends are ambitious young computer programmers who study together in the northern city of Saint-Louis, and are part of a growing push to get girls coding in Senegal and several other African countries.
Coding clubs have been set up for girls between the age of five and 24 as part of a #RewritingTheCode campaign started by the charity Theirworld, founded by Sarah Brown, the wife of former British prime minister Gordon Brown. The idea is that girls are born with a certain code, a set of expectations about them that say that they belong at home, and that careers, particularly in technology, are not for them. This code needs to be rewritten, the charity says.
Despite these cultural barriers, Senegalese women have much to offer, according to Bitilokho Ndiaye, the adviser on technology and gender at the country’s ministry of post and telecommunications. As a young girl, Ndiaye was expected to do well in her studies and do a lot of chores at home – something that was not asked of her brothers. Her frustration at wanting to achieve professionally but being so short of time led her to try to push for more equality for girls.
“I can imagine a Senegalese woman at the head of Google without a problem,” she sai
“We’ve started a programme to ensure the training of girls in technology and everything digital, as we realised that there really aren’t a lot of young girls and women in the sector. We’re also trying to push entrepreneurship – to give girls what they need to be entrepreneurs in the tech sector,” Ndiaye said. “Infrastructure-wise, there’s no obstacle in Senegal. What the obstacle is is all of the socio-cultural stereotypes and judgments around the issue of women in technology. And we’re trying to deconstruct that stereotype.”So keen is the Senegalese government to get girls into careers in science, technology, engineering and maths, it has opened new universities, set up technology competitions and held open days in government agencies to show them what working in technology looks like. There are more and more jobs being created in these sectors, and the government wants to make sure that girls are in a position to get them.
Each year the ministry runs a startup weekend for 100 girls in the telecoms sector, where they pitch their ideas for information and communications technology projects on anything from health and education to the environment and women’s rights. The ministry picks the best ideas and finances them.
A 26-hectare digital park is being built in Senegal’s new “smart city”, Diamniadio – aimed at attracting companies from all over the world, growing a local digital business and increasing e-government services. With $80m in funding from the African Development Bank, the government hopes at least 35,000 jobs will be created there by 2025.
The technology push goes beyond government. Unesco in Dakar is helping young women develop mobile apps like Sigeste – and the solutions they are coming up with are aimed at solving very local problems.
One app helps people exchange books, which are expensive and in short supply in Senegal, and offers online classes. Another helps women track the health of their babies, sharing the information with their doctor and giving reminders for checkups and vaccinations.
An app being developed will let users report rubbish in the street to the local authority, and another helps find lost children.
This local focus is important to Moussoukoro Diop, a prominent Senegalese technology blogger and computer engineer who describes herself as “open in spirit, but very anchored in tradition”, who gets homesick and misses her mother when she goes abroad, and wants to stem the flow of Senegalese people seeking work in the west.
“Above all, I want to show children and young people that in order to succeed you don’t need to leave the country,” she said. “You can stay here in Senegal and do well. This is a big issue for us – people leave to try to make it, but you can stay and be happy and successful. I don’t want to say that the next Mark Zuckerberg or head of Google will come from Senegal – rather, we can create our own tools that can be exported globally.”
To do this, she said, the country needs to prepare them better for the reality of modern work – being a self-starter.
“Entrepreneurship is really important here because it’s difficult to find exactly the job that you want, and even if you have a diploma you might still not find employment,” Diop said. “People are leaving Senegal to look for work as salaried employees, but there’s a lot of opportunity for entrepreneurs in Senegal. It’s more important to prepare them for that than to be traditional employees. The world of work is changing. And technology and entrepreneurship go hand in hand.”
Young women are already doing this, though they may go unnoticed, according to Ndiaye.“Women are dynamic, they build things that may not be visible yet, but you’ll be surprised by the contribution to technology that women here will make in Senegal and beyond,” she said. “When you hear women talk, you realise that they are in fact beyond what the state has proposed for them.”