As a girl born and raised in the Samburu community of north-central Kenya, Dr. Josephine Kulea was nearly forced into marriage as a child as well as a female genital mutilation practice that is part of the Samburu tradition. Most Samburu girls ages 10 and older will undergo painful female genital mutilation (FGM), which can cause severe pain, bleeding, infections, and urinary complications. FGM contributes to long-term problems, including menstrual issues, complications during childbirth, sexual difficulties,and psychological problems. The practice can even be fatal.

Dr. Josephine Kulea was fortunate to escape child marriage and FGM. She had a mother that protected her and ensured she stayed in school. She would go on to become a nurse and, later, find her calling helping rescue girls in her community.

In 2012, she founded the Samburu Girls Foundation, an organization that aims to fight harmful traditional practices that affect girls among the Nomadic pastoralist communities of Kenya. For the last 10 years, the foundation has educated over 1,500 girls and created a strong network of alums who are now agents of change back in their communities.

It takes a village to support these girls on their new life path. Once these girls are rescued, they often are in need of a very foundational education. Many have never used technology before. That is where Technovation enters the story.

In 2022, a team from Kenya participating in the Technovation developed an app to educate and combat FGM. But Team Almasi wasn’t just from anywhere: They were from the Samburu community. The members of their team had escaped child marriages and FGM. Sponsored by the Samburu Girls Foundation, this team of motivated girls developed the app, “End Cut,” which aims to educate the community on the dangers of Female Gential Mutilation and provide access to global markets for Samburu women to sell beaded jewelry as a tool for economic empowerment and poverty reduction. They ended up winning Technovation’s social impact award for their work.

A brave journey to the Samburu Girls Foundation

The leader of Team Almasi is a girl named Rosilla. In the team’s pitch video, Rosilla bravely shares her story of being rescued by SGF after being married off at nine years old to a 42-year-old man.

Before coming to SGF, Rosilla had not been to school. She couldn’t read or write and didn’t speak Kiswahili or English, only communicating in her local language. But with the help of SGF, Rosilla has excelled. “Now, I am empowered,” she declared. Rosilla recently graduated high school and scored a B- on her Kenyan Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE), a grueling standardized exam given to all seniors across Kenya over several weeks that serves as both a high school graduation and college entrance exam. A grade of a C+ or higher on the KCSE qualifies students to pursue a 4-year university degree, but only around 20% of the students qualify, leaving the majority of students scoring below the threshold. A score of B- puts Rosilla among the top 12% of students in Kenya’s 2022 graduating class—quite an impressive accomplishment!

Addressing a major issue in their community

Technovation Girls invites teams of girls to choose a problem facing their community, and develop a way to address it using tech. For the girls of team Almasi, the problem they needed to address was clear: FGM. Over 85% of the women in Samburu have been forced to undergo FGM, with many of the girls at SGF personally impacted.

Coming up with a solution was a difficult task. The girls used Technovation’s “5 Why’s Worksheet”, which led them to the conclude that poverty was the root cause of FGM. “The main reason for FGM is to get money through marriage.” Many communities in Kenya practice a dowry system in which a man’s family must pay a bride price to the woman’s family before marriage.

The girls met with a volunteer who encouraged them to identify their strengths and talents and to try to see if they could use their talents to solve the problem. This led the girls to add beading to their app as a channel for economic empowerment of women. Rosilla explained, “As you grow up, you see your mother make beads and you find yourself doing it. They are a part of our culture.”

Paying it forward as a mentor

Team Almasi relies on the support of SGF and other partnering organizations like Technovation to move forward. And the cornerstone of these groups are the people who mentor, nurture, and empower the girls to become changemakers. Dorcas Anono Litunya is a shining example. She is a Technovation alumnae in her fifth and final year studying electrical and electronics engineering at university. Her experience with Technovation has had a transformational impact on her life. In her words, it literally changed her life. During Technovation, she learned basic coding which opened up a whole new world for her and changed the trajectory of her career.

She wanted to pay it forward and inspire more girls in Kenya to become engineers, so she decided to mentor Team Almasi in 2022. The insights and power of what the girls created stunned her.

“When the girls were sharing their solution, I couldn’t help but think ‘This has to be the most brilliant idea I’ve ever seen!’” Dorcas shared, as Rosilla beamed, “We surprised ourselves!”

The girls were thrilled and could hardly believe it when Dorcas called them and told them that they won Technovation’s social impact award.

Team Almasi’s experience with Technovation is a powerful reminder of how representation matters and seeing role models from your own community can make all the difference in influencing girls to explore STEM.

Dorcas’ experience is too. In her current program, only around a quarter of her classmates are female and she has completed three internships in which she was the only woman on the team. Sometimes in her engineering field visits, she visited sites with inadequate female restrooms because engineering is such a male-dominated industry.

“You realize that the gender gap in STEM is really a problem. Girls don’t even know they can be an engineer, and that’s why [Safaricom’s] Women in Technology group started working with Technovation.”

Safaricom is a mobile network operator based in Nairobi, Kenya, and a corporate partner of Technovation in that country. Truly, the women at Safaricom’s Women in Technology Group embody the idea that “Engineers are Problem Solvers”—not only taking on technical problems through their daily work as engineers but also personally taking on the challenge of addressing the underrepresentation of women in engineering in Kenya.

Learning about technology for the first time through Technovation

Before participating in Technovation, Rosilla had no experience using technology. “Marginalized communities need much more support. They don’t have access to technology, so we had to start from the basics,” Dorcas shared. The girls learned how to use a laptop, access the internet, what an app is, and how to use something like Google maps, etc. Starting from scratch made the Technovation experience particularly challenging, especially since in Samburu, the internet and electricity are unreliable. The Global Shapers Community in Nairobi were particularly helpful during this time as they provided laptops and monetary support to help overcome the unique challenges faced by the girls in Samburu. Additionally, Rosilla had to balance juggling working on the app with the demands of an intense senior year of high school. Throughout the experience, Dorcas was a source of support and inspiration for Rosilla and her teammates. “She motivated me. She was so patient. And I thank her very much!”

Technovation’s influential role in shaping girls’ futures

In the same way it did for Dorcas five years earlier, the Technovation experience profoundly impacted Rosilla.

“Technovation was the first time I learned about technology. I can now do a bit of coding, something that I never imagined I could ever do. It also changed my interests and career path.”

Rosilla is hoping to study ICT, specializing in cybersecurity. She believes she would be the first one from her community to pursue this type of career.

Dorcas plans to continue mentoring a new team in 2023, with the guidance of other phenomenal technology leads, Asha Panyako, Velma Ngoni, and Ketty Osambo. She had a meeting with seven other young women who had also volunteered as mentors for Technovation – five out of the seven were alumnae of the program themselves. In reflecting on her experience mentoring team Almasi, Dorcas shared how impressed she was with the girls and their positivity. “All of the girls have been through a lot, yet they were so positive, so willing to learn, and never afraid to ask questions. These girls are so resilient. They’ve already won everything.”