May 21, 2021

A Holistic Approach to the Digital Divide (Mission 2030)

Mbali Hlongwane, Founder of Pink Codrs Africa, Johannesburg, South Africa company with a network of African female software developers. Built in Africa.

Despite the increased optimism about Africa’s rise, many on the continent and across the diaspora are still cynical about the future. 

Often, finding it difficult to envision substantial progress occurring within their lifetime.

Nonetheless, more than ever, Africa needs young leaders bold enough to believe they can create opportunities or put forth policies that will provide a desirable lifestyle for the 375 million young people who will reach the working age by 2030.

Although accountability ultimately falls on leadership in the public sector, progress will require significant effort from leaders in the private sector. 

Selfless leaders with the skills to foster community around a transformative vision.

Mbali Hlongwane, who leads a community of over 500 women across South Africa, is one of Africa’s brightest rising leaders. Her courage, community-building spirit, and vision are set to impact hundreds of women across the continent. 

Founded in 2018, Pink Codrs Africa is building a strong network of female software developers across Africa and aims to bridge the inequality gap in tech by adding 100,000 women to the tech industry by 2030.

I spoke with Mbali Hlongwane, Founder of  Pink Codrs Africa, about the impact she hopes to make on women in tech, moving to Johannesburg to start Pink Codrs Africa, and tech in Africa. 

How did your journey lead you to create Pink Codrs Africa?

I was born in Durban, South Africa, in a small township called Umlazi. Growing up in Umlazi, we weren’t exposed to computers. Households that had a computer were considered rich. 

I was a curious child, so gadgets excited me. While watching TV, I was the child wondering what was happening behind the TV that got us to the results that we see. I remember begging my parents for a computer. 

That curiosity is what drove me to tech. In high school, I did IT, and from my first experience with a keyboard, I fell in love. 

But I’m also very talkative and bubbly, many people thought I'd be a social worker, therapist, or actress. When I reached college, I remember feeling conflicted as I decided on my career path.

I realized my personality could be used in a different space, not necessarily where everyone thought it should, so I studied systems development. At the time, this seemed risky because, in South Africa, a lot of people were not getting jobs after graduating with an IT degree. 

In college, I excelled. I later participated in a hackathon host by IBM and Durban municipality. Durban is a tourist attraction, and The Municipality was looking at how to make it a smart city. 

I was the only lady on a team with four other guys. We came up with this time machine concept for the museum. After the hackathon, I was nominated and received a Woman in Tech Award for the concept we developed. 

At the award ceremony, as I looked into the crowd and embraced the claps, I realized that I was the only lady receiving an award. It was at that moment that I identified the gap within the space. 

Instead of taking a job and settling in Durban’s beautiful city, I packed my bags and moved to Johannesburg without family, without anything really, just a vision to bring more women into the industry.

I was determined to figure out why women were not considering tech and fully understand the gap. I started by running meetups at JoziHub, a coworking space in Johannesburg. 

After hosting a few meetups, I found out that a lot of young women were interested in getting into this industry. However, there was a skills gap. Although many of the women had some technical skills most did not meet the industry requirements.  

And what  made it so clear was when McKinsey reached out asking us to assist them in finding female developers. We had over 100 CVs, but they were only willing to look at one CV, which spoke volumes to us.

After, I shifted my focus to take a more holistic approach. 

Why did you decide to take a leap of faith? 

I read something that said, “it’s the people that are crazy enough to think they can change the world that actually change the world.”

I’ve always believed that my life’s purpose here is to impact people, but more specifically, the lives of women.  

I always knew that I wanted to impact lives, but I didn’t know how I would. It was that moment when I received the award, that I realized that here is the space where I’m supposed to make my impact, and since then, I’ve never looked back.

What keeps me going is the question, have I impacted as many women as I can? Since Pink Codrs is still in South Africa, we still have much work to do. 

What are the different programs Pink Codrs Africa offers?

We want to develop the largest community of women in tech across Africa, by equipping, exposing, and preparing women for industry opportunities.

In our community, women can find like-minded thinkers, connect with other women, and tackle industry challenges.

Our programs focus on where the industry is going as a whole to ensure the women are well-positioned for the tech transformation. 

Corporate Training: We create personalized programs for corporate clients and reskill female employees with in-demand tech skills. 

Bootcamps/Meetups: We run coding boot camp and themed meetups.

Talent acquisition: We work with organizations looking to recruit the best talent and hire women.

We are also looking to go into high schools and introduce computer science to young women.

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Why is it important for women to be in tech? 

Our focus as an organization is to bring more women into tech because we understand the value women will bring to the industry.

Anyone can tell you that if you want to run a successful country or household, women have to be a part of it. Applying that same logic, women must be a part of running a successful company.

We are in a time where technology determines how we work and live, so if women don’t have technical skills or understanding, how will they adapt to the changes?

We want to ensure that all women, regardless of their industry, understand the value of technical skills, so they can identify problems within their community and use their skills to solve these problems.

Do you have any success stories that you’d like to highlight?

We’re currently running a data science program in partnership with Kaizer Chiefs, one of the largest football clubs in South Africa. The program has 20 young ladies, and one of my personal favorite success stories comes from a young lady in the program.

To create a diverse group for the program, we intentionally selected ladies from different backgrounds: educationally, we have women from various institutes, and professionally, some women were unemployed.

Typically when corporates want to find diverse talent, they go to the high-end universities i.e., the University of Cape Town and the University of Johannesburg. However, some amazing young women are at lower end institutes, based on affordability, not talent.

We made our intake criteria easy for women from these various groups to enter. We want to ensure our talent pipeline gives all women an equal opportunity to join the become certified as a Data Scientist.  

So far, the women in the program have been amazing. The pass rate of every training module was over 70% despite many of the ladies not having any knowledge of data science before our program.

It’s also been exciting to see them support each other, form a sisterhood, and expand their perception of what’s possible.

COVID-19 affected our graduation time, but once the program finishes, they’ll be moving into a sports science fellowship program with Kaizer Chiefs.

How do you see Pink Codrs Africa evolving over the next 3-5 years, and what impact do you hope to make on Tech in Africa?

Over the next three to five years, I see Pink Codrs as one of the largest communities of women in tech that’s running in five countries across Africa with over 50,000 women learning, connecting with each other, finding opportunities, and starting tech businesses. We are intentional about tackling the dismal number of black women in tech. 

Our vision  

We’d love to have the next female founders and life-changing stories of women in tech, come from the Pink Codrs Africa community.

Built In Africa. What does that mean to you?

As Africans in tech, we all need to start using the phrase Built In Africa to brand ourselves. It’s time to be proud of being African.

Currently, there is a spotlight on Africa, and the rest of the world sees it. They realize the value of African people, our resources, and all we have to offer, from the many untapped opportunities to our untapped talent. There’s so much to be discovered in Africa, which makes it such an exciting place to be.

But it’s important that as the world realizes the value of Africa that we, the ones who are Africans in their DNA also see the importance and get a share of this pie. If we don’t, we’ll wake up, and the rest of the world would have already invested in Africa and own the majority of our resources.

Moreover, it’s exciting to witness African youth from across the world understand Africa’s value and look for ways to raise the African flag higher.

We’ll soon start to hear a lot more amazing young entrepreneurs and businesses that were Built In Africa. It will be up to us to make sure the rest of the world knows that we are “Built In Africa.”

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