‘Coding gave me a voice.’

(Courtesy of Abisoye Ajayi-Akinfolarin)

(Courtesy of Abisoye Ajayi-Akinfolarin)

These Nigerian students are coding to solve their community’s biggest problems.

Before 13-year-old Mariam joined the GirlsCoding initiative, she had never used a computer. Where she lives in Lagos, schools don’t offer technology classes — and many girls aren’t enrolled in school at all.

GirlsCoding is the signature programme of Pearls Africa Foundation, an organisation founded by software engineer Abisoye Ajayi-Akinfolarin. Pearls Africa Foundation equips Nigerian girls with the skills they need to thrive in the labour force — including helping girls like Mariam learn to code. After just two years, Mariam knows HTML and JavaScript and is building her own website to raise awareness about food security in Nigeria.

Abisoye with Mariam and Nosirat. (Courtesy of Abisoye Ajayi-Akinfolarin)

Abisoye with Mariam and Nosirat. (Courtesy of Abisoye Ajayi-Akinfolarin)

Like her GirlsCoding students, Abisoye grew up in challenging circumstances. She lost her mother at a young age and faced abuse at the hands of her father. With no idea what she would do or where she would go, Abisoye left home at the age of 15. “You’d rather step out on your own than be beaten every day,” she says of her decision to flee to Lagos.

After graduating from secondary school, Abisoye landed an internship at an IT audit firm. It was there that she fell in love with coding: “I was extremely voiceless and coding gave me a voice.” She steadily rose in the company ranks over the next seven years and decided to use her expertise to help Nigerian girls discover their passion for coding.

“I know what it feels like to be from an underserved community. I know what it feels like to be a vulnerable young girl. And I know what it takes — I think I can brag about that — to make your way up,” Abisoye says with a smile.

Many of the girls who participate in the GirlsCoding programme are from Makoko, the community where Mariam lives. Makoko is the world’s largest floating slum — the entire settlement of about 400,000 is built on stilts. Poverty, early marriage, teen pregnancy and gender discrimination prevent many girls in Makoko from going to school.

Pearls Africa Foundation provides girls living in Makoko with after-school transportation to attend GirlsCoding classes. For many girls like Mariam, this is their first exposure to computers. “When they start, they are confused. They are extremely confused,” Abisoye explains. The classes start with the basics of how computers work before diving into coding languages like HTML, Python, JavaScript and CSS.

A cornerstone of GirlsCoding is multi-year project where girls work to fix a problem in their communities through code. Abisoye begins by asking each girl to identify an issue they see. For Mariam, she thought of food security and how local farmers are not producing enough to feed their communities. Her friend 13-year-old Nosirat chose female genital mutilation (FGM): “It leads to death and lots of girls become isolated... It’s so rampant in my country especially in the northern part... ignorance causes this and lack of adequate information.”

Next, the class breaks into groups to develop websites to help solve these issues. Some girls work on the frontend of the site, meaning the part of the website that a viewer would see. Others are assigned to backend, design or functionality, which determine how a site looks and operates.

Nosirat’s site focuses on educating users on FGM and encouraging them to advocate to end the practice. Another group of girls from Makoko created a website to help local fisherman make more money. Their site allows Lagos buyers to purchase fish directly from the fisherman, eliminating the middlemen and increasing profits.

Makoko is the world’s largest floating slum — the entire settlement of about 400,000 is built on stilts. (Courtesy of eWASH)

Makoko is the world’s largest floating slum — the entire settlement of about 400,000 is built on stilts. (Courtesy of eWASH)

Mariam’s favourite part about GirlsCoding is that it “helps girls to think big and also to create something on their own.” Nosirat says, “I love coding because it helped us to solve problems.” She recognises that not every girl has the opportunity to learn these skills: “There are lots of girls who don’t have access to this type of education in my community and I feel sorry for them.” But Abisoye is working to expand GirlCoding around Nigeria.

In addition to holding after-school classes for girls in Makoko, Abisoye also holds an intensive summer programme for internally displaced girls living in camps around Lagos. Abisoye explains that the majority of these girls fled Boko Haram in northern Nigeria and witnessed tragedies like watching their parents die. She is helping them create a website where they can share their stories.

Before girls participate in GirlsCoding classes, Abisoye says they are limited in their dreams for the future: “What they are exposed to is what they hope to become, which is not a good thing… They see their teachers in school, so they say, ‘I want to be a teacher.’ They see their mothers as traders and say, ‘I want to be a trader.’” But after learning these new skills, girls begin to imagine themselves in other careers and Abisoye will now hear: “I want to be a software engineer,” or “I want to be a developer.”

“I’m giving them skills that they will probably never learn in school, because they don’t go to the kinds of schools that teach what they can use in jobs in the future,” Abisoye says of GirlsCoding. At age 13, Nosirat recognises the importance of Abisoye’s work in changing her life and the lives of her peers: “What she is doing now is turning us into the leaders of tomorrow. It is important for girls to learn technology and programming skills so they won’t be left behind.”

This article is also available in Arabic, French, Portuguese and Spanish.


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Tess Thomas is editor of Assembly, a digital publication and newsletter from Malala Fund. She loves books, cats and french fries.