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SISTEM one-on-one from Nairobi, Kenya with Ms. Sharon Nthoki Mutisya, Operations Manager of @iLabAfrica: A Centre of Excellence in ICT innovation and Development.

Sharon Mutisya

I am a Kenyan citizen and the current operations manager of @iLabAfrica, Research Centre based in Strathmore University. My career started out as a research assistant and administrator of @iLabAfrica in 2011. I am holder of BSc degree in Business Information Technology and currently pursuing an MSc in Mobile Telecommunications and Innovation. I am a talented graphic designer and co-founder of Infused Ltd a design and software application development company. I am a member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), Internet Society (ISOC), volunteer mentor with Akili dada and member of Akirachix. Outside of the tech space, I enjoy working my way through recipes I come across on Pinterest and indulging my love for seeing new places.


Q:  Please tell us about yourself, educational background and the path that led you to @iLabAfrica. What challenges did you face and overcome? 

Mutisya: I am currently the operations manager at @iLabAfrica, a research center based at Strathmore University. My primary role is handling policy formulation, which entails developing proposals that are effective and acceptable courses of action for addressing issues that arise in the work environment.  I also play an advisory to the Research Centre director on proper resource control. 

I completed my Bachelor's Degree in Business Information & Technology in 2011. After a failed attempt at setting up a Web Design & Development Company with a few classmates, a friend recommended that I look for an opportunity to gain some technical experience at my alma mater. Dr. Joseph Sevilla, the founder and current director of @iLabAfrica, became my mentor during this time, giving me solid advice on how to maneuver the Information Tech industry. Our conversations soon led to an interview and eventually my first research assistant position. This position gave the opportunity to work with Dr. Sevilla to build the tech hub at Strathmore, which has since become the leading research hub in the STEM industry in the East African region.   

I started off initially as a research assistant & administrator and with time moved on to take up the role of Executive Assistant to the Director and eventually to being the Operations Manager. Each new role has been accompanied by its own set of challenges, but over time I have learned to gracefully accept them and love what I do, even as I juggle work with school (currently pursuing a Masters of Science in Mobile Telecommunication & Innovation). 

Through my tenure @iLabAfrica, I have faced a number of challenges. Overcoming the opinion of others -those who underestimate your abilities- is something that I have dealt with from time to time and has been one of my greatest lessons. Through personal experience, I have learned to appreciate the fact that everyone is entitled to their opinion and I now find I am better suited to recognize and act upon useful criticism while ignoring the rest.

Gender stereotypes, outdated notions of tradition and ageism remain prevalent in modern work culture. Focusing on being a professional aids in overcoming this challenge as others begin to perceive you as an individual and not your gender or age. Undertaking large projects and seeking higher academic qualifications have gone a long way in proving my worth and highlight my leadership skills despite my gender and age. 

Q:   Tell us about the @iLabAfrica Research Center. 

Mutisya: @iLabAfrica is tech research center established in January 2011 under the Faculty of Information Technology at Strathmore University. The center spearheads Research and Innovation in the ICT for the Development (ICT4D) ecosystem towards the attainment of the UNDP Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and Kenya’s Vision 2030. 

Our main focus areas are: 

  •  ICT Research and Innovation: this theme identifies technological innovations and solutions that can be developed in addressing issues such as health, education, agriculture, IT security and capacity building. 
  •  Incubation and Entrepreneurship: theme seeks to provide a nurturing environment that builds on the potential of the youth to develop viable ICT solutions and businesses that work for the common good in society and reach the base of the pyramid. 
  •  ICT Policy Research: Focuses research on the uptake and impact of ICT bringing forth new solutions, technologies, training methodologies, innovation models that may require new policy direction to achieve their full potential. 
  •  IT Outsourcing: This centers on offering business and technology consulting, business application development. 

The research center is involved in interdisciplinary research, students’ engagement and collaborates with Government, Industry and other funding agencies, both local and international.  

Q:   Please elaborate on @iLabAfrica’s Bootcamps.

Mutisya: Bootcamp Training, Holiday Bootcamp, Bootcamp sites, Hackathons & Mobile Bootcamp Developer Challenges. Why is coding so important? The @iLabAfrica’s boot camps are short and intensive courses on software development offered to students in primary, secondary and tertiary education and to young professionals as well.

 The boot camps aim to: 

1.              Provide a platform for student developers to learn some of the latest programming technologies and use them to create applications that are relevant for Kenya and Africa at large. 

2.              Foster a creative and enterprising spirit among students and young professionals in the mobile application development field in Kenya and Africa. 

3.              Create an interactive atmosphere and platform where experienced developers can share knowledge with the keen participants. 

4.              Increase the tech-preneurial spirit among the developers by exposing them to other tech-preneurs who operate startups in the programming sector. 

5.              Become a vehicle through which developers can organize such workshops in the future as their own. This will ensure that the workshops are self-sustaining and can go viral thus spinning off into larger communities of developers. 

The boot camps foster development of programing skills because they teach individuals how to think logically in order to solve problems. Coding, as we believe, is about humanity as it affects everything in our lives today (in whatever industry one ventures in - agriculture, politics, manufacturing entertainment). It is an incredible skill to learn whether one wants to make money or change the world. I personally think it’s the closest thing we have to superpowers due to its infinite application potential. 

Q:   Nairobi in particular is positioning itself as one of the major tech hubs in Africa, how can other African cities emulate and follow this example? 

Mutisya: To follow in Nairobi’s stride, other African cities need to prioritize development of infrastructure to cater to the immense rate with which technology is changing our habits and routines. If strategically positioned, this would attract multinational companies to their region and foster talent growth. 

A good example would be positioning research hubs that are open and accessible to the entire student body, regardless of discipline, within every university. This promotes the desire for communities to build skills and expertise in the tech space. Availability of research environments leads to an entrepreneurial culture where individuals are able to build products and services that lead not only to job creation, but also to the rise of solutions that solve regional challenges. 

Government support ultimately plays the greatest role in transforming a country into a major tech destination. Proper policies and strong support structures based in government are a focal point for any technological development. The “Youth Fund” and “Uwezo Fund” programs by the Government of Kenya are great examples of such support structures. These types of programs encourage building of local capacity that takes advantage of new technologies to build solutions that affect the lives of people for the better. 

Q:  In your opinion, what groups in Kenya are the most underrepresented in STEM? Secondly, what key steps should we undertake to promote scientific literacy and STEM amongst these specific science and technology-underrepresented groups? 

Mutisya: Ladies are very much underrepresented, especially those in primary and secondary levels of education. Initiatives to sensitise the young women on the importance and feasibility of STEM related careers are crucial to alter the gender stereotype around scientific literacy. Social initiatives such as AkiraChix and Akili Dada focus on addressing this issue by targeting school going children. Organizations haven’t been left behind in this, Safaricom and Oracle are very active in this sphere with their ‘women in technology’ initiative that celebrates and honors female professionals who have excelled as mentors, exemplified unique vision, shown outstanding leadership, success and contribution towards the STEM industry. These initiatives are remarkable as they motivate and form the lives of young girls that needed encouragement to take on STEM despite it being intimidating in the beginning. 

Q:  In your estimation, what is the importance of STEM education, innovation, technology, entrepreneurship and investment as well as infrastructures and the rule of law in the socio-economic development of Kenya? 

Mutisya: I agree fully with Plato when he said that necessity is the mother of invention. A need or problem encourages creative efforts to meet the need or solve the problem. Innovation, advancement in technology, entrepreneurship and investment all come about because of a need that one seeks to fulfill. Promoting STEM in Kenya will allow for the country to succeed in our information-based and highly technological society. STEM occupation opportunities are on the rise and made available for every unemployed person.    

Investments in STEM would greatly help in bridging the unemployment gap, assuming acceptability by the locals. Such investments would create both economic and societal value, making it easy to measure returns. Businesses that make STEM related investments would not only see new pipelines of talent to fill critical jobs, but could also help societal knowledge by sponsoring new research and equipment means. If STEM is emphasized in the Kenyan educational system, innovative solutions to the challenges faced in this region can be easily mapped to other African cities.   

Technology continues to transform job roles in an increasing number of industries. The National Science Foundation has said that more jobs in the near future that aren't normally considered to be related to STEM will require new science and engineering skills. These fields can include anything from aerial robotics to 3D printing. This only further shows not only the importance but the long-term effects that experience in these fields will have, further proving the importance of early and detailed knowledge. 

The significance of the field remains hugely vital to the coming future. STEM knowledge not only gives workers and students valuable experience and information, but the disciplines can provide our society with a deeper understanding of the world at large, creating new ways to innovate and discover solutions to worldwide problems. 

Q:  Finally, please share a few words of wisdom and advice for students and entrepreneurs, young and old, who aspire to study and enter the field of STEM or related STEM disciplines such as business and economics. 

Mutisya: STEM careers are truly helping professions that build communities and transform nations. These professionals are in charge of solving the complex problems of today’s world and its future. They are working to find solutions for global warming, cancer, third world hunger, disappearing habitats, and an interdependent world economy. Yesterday’s stereotype of the ‘geek’ only being cooped up in a lab is not representative of today’s STEM teams. Economists are collaborating with researchers on diverse topics such as technical transfer while engineers are now building state-of-the-art, cutting edge technologies and equipment for businesses. While STEM careers are challenging, they are also extremely enjoyable – trust me, I would know! 


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