“I am confident in the present generation as the change agents of the future” #LLA Interview With Abisoye Ajayi-Akinfolarin, Founder Pearls Africa Foundation and Girls Coding Initiative.

According to a survey carried out in 2013, only 8% of Nigerian women were employed in technology jobs. Abisoye Ajayi-Akinfolarin wanted to fix the gender gap so, she quit her IT job at a consulting firm to start Pearls Africa Foundation which promotes the cause and advancement of girls living in rural communities with functional skills to help them gain economic independence and have a chance at better opportunities in life.

Abisoye is a Social impact entrepreneur, Microsoft Certified Solutions Developer and Oracle Database Administrator. As the Project Director of Pearls Africa Foundation she promotes the educational advancement of young girls through trainings in technology, skills acquisition, entrepreneurship and mentorship. In this week’s LLA Interview, she gives us a virtual tour into her life discussing at length- growing up, how losing her mum at 4 shaped the woman she has become, her CNN Heroes feature, the vision of Pearls Africa Foundation, how Girls Coding was birthed and the Impact Girls Coding has had on under privileged teenage girls. Enjoy!

How in your own words would you introduce Abisoye Ajayi-Akinfolarin to the world?

Abisoye Ajayi-Akinfolarin is an advocate for the education and empowerment of women and girls, a Nigerian social entrepreneur who is passionate about quality education, gender equality and tech. With her NGO, Pearls Africa, she is promoting the cause and advancement of vulnerable young girls and women in underserved and underprivileged communities in Nigeria for the purpose of economic independence. She is a leader and a mentor to young girls, an IT consultant with over 13 years experience and a serial entrepreneur.

Congratulations on the CNN Heroes feature- that was major. How did that make you feel?

It is such a big honour and I am happy that my work is worth honouring in such a big way. This honour will help young girls know that regardless of what their background is, it should never determine their future. I hope that they can use my story and journey as an example to know that anything is possible and they can fulfil their destiny in life. I hope young girls can see that they are enough and there is no limit to what they can achieve in life.

Apart from the impact your initiative has had on the girls, many people are shocked a place like Makoko exists in Lagos. How did you discover the place?

Tell us briefly, the impact Girls Coding has had in Makoko specifically?

In 2015, when I made up my mind to give computer-programming skills to girls who cannot afford it if they were to pay for it, Makoko was not the first place on my mind because I did not even know of its existence. The first point of call was an orphanage home but it took roughly 6 months for our letter to get approved by Lagos State. In this space of time, I was looking for other communities where I can find girls in this category, then a friend told me about Makoko, I went through 4 other contacts to gain access to this community eventually.

There are many other places like that in Lagos, Nigeria where people still face poor living conditions. Pearls Africa, started as a response to the inequality and injustice observed with the lives of girls and women in Nigeria.

Our biggest project: Girls coding started 3 years ago (late 2015) and many of the participants that started the classes were from Makoko. They were mostly in public junior secondary schools as well. With Girls coding, we have been able to boost our girls’ self-esteem, they now believe in themselves and know their rights. By learning how to code, they have been able to develop their critical thinking ability, which is one very important skill people need; to be able to think reasonably and clearly. Girls Coding gives them a stronger voice in society because they now have skills asides their formal education. Their parents are very proud of them and other girls in the community look up to them as girls worthy of emulation.

When we started in 2015, girls were reluctant to join our program because they did not understand it, but today more girls are eager to join because they can see a reason to.
Our girls have gotten to the stage of recognizing problems and thinking of likely solutions to them, this has made them change agents and leaders!
The app (Makoko Fresh): a team of girls created will enable fishermen make more money in Makoko, knowing that the major occupation is fishing. This is a platform that brings buyers and sellers together, besides economic prosperity for the economy; it will also bring about light, positivity and progress.

You left a job with a consulting firm and made the transition into entrepreneurship. What informed that decision and what initial hurdles did you have to scale to get to where you are right now?

As a result of the inequalities that exists in the level of education that most girls are able to attain in Nigeria, especially when they are from underprivileged homes, coupled with the fact that the field of IT is usually gender-biased, there was a need to bridge that gap and to encourage young girls to develop interest in Tech related subjects.
One major hurdle we had to scale was getting funds and resources to rent a training facility, laptops/computers as well as getting a strong source of Internet connection. Today, with the help of our partners, we’ve been able to get to where we are currently and we hope to expand and have branches in all the states in Nigeria.

Amazing! Let’s talk about Girls Coding and Pearls Africa Foundation- What is the idea behind both and how has the response to Girls Coding been?

 Pearls Africa was established in April 2012, as an NGO to promote the cause and advancement of girls living in rural communities with functional skills to help them gain economic independence and have a chance at better opportunities in life. Girls Coding started as one of the programs under Pearls Africa in 2015. The response has been encouraging so far. Parents are really keen on giving their children the best of education and so by offering their children free coding classes, they key into the idea and permit their girls to attend our classes and they are very much involved in all that we do. This was not the case when we started. Thankfully, we have been able to build relationships with the parent and the communities. We have also been able to get a number of partners who believe strongly in quality education for girls.

What’s your vision for Pearls Foundation?

At Pearls Africa, our vision is to build a Girls Village – an incubation and residential program for girls, where they can build solutions using tech to solve common problems in Africa.

Does Pearls Foundation have other initiatives?

Yes we do. At Pearls Africa, we run a number of projects to address the issue of gender inequality especially as regards employment opportunities and they include; Girls Coding, Empowered Hands, GC Mentors and Girls In STEM. Also after their training, the NGO tries to get Internship opportunities for girls who are interested in IT related Jobs.

How have you funded the initiatives, and what have been some of your challenges?

As regards funding, we started with family, friends and in-kind forms of support, over time we have been able to get project-based grants majorly from the US Consulate and Union Bank, in-kind support from BudgIT
However, I’m grateful to our volunteers who help out despite not being paid enough and do so with a good heart, knowing that the girls don’t pay to acquire these skills.
This shows that Nigerians are very kind-hearted and understanding people.

One of the challenges we are still facing is inability to secure partners who can work with us on a yearly basis with our yearly operational running cost, as well as securing a larger space to have bigger classes. With our desire to expand Girls Coding to other states and countries in Africa, we are hopeful that we would get more partners and possible donations/contributions to achieve our dreams.

How can the public support with the vision and mission you have for Pearls Foundation?

Through different means, depending on their capacity: Volunteering to teach or mentor, monetary support and technical support and in kind support.

Apart from coding and learning tech skills, are there mentoring structures on ground for the girls? What does life after Girls Coding look like for them?

Yes, we have mentors for our girls. We organise events regularly where they get to meet professional ladies in the tech space and generally every other career/field. They get opportunities to interact with these ladies one-on-one. After Girls Coding, we try to find internship opportunities for our girls especially those who have left both secondary school and in University, to give them more exposure and help them hone their tech skills in a professional environment.
For now, what life after GirlsCoding is the ability to think University education and think Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) and then practicalize what they have been taught to develop solutions to common societal problems during University and after.

Why the specific focus on Technology?

When I got into tech, females were really underrepresented. You find very few girls in STEM related areas because they have been made to believe that it’s not a field or sector that they can go into based on their sex/gender, which is a lie. Even though some developed countries face similar challenges, the ratio of women in science and technology is still fair and not as bad as here in Nigeria. Coding is an important skill for every young person to have everywhere in the world, especially as the world grows into a global city everyday.

The world of technology gave me a voice and economic independence and I feel its one of the pathways for anyone from a disadvantaged background can take to succeed in life, I am sure there are other skills that can lead to prosperity, this is dear to my heart because it stems from my personal journey, which has been tried and tested.

 If you weren’t involved in social impact and community development – what would you be doing?

As a child, I wanted to be a news broadcaster just because I liked to talk but I didn’t know that I could talk anywhere in any field or sector I find myself. I also had a flair for entertainment; at the time I didn’t know that the industry would get to this level. I may have delved into these areas. Two certain paths I would have remained in, is tech and business. Overall, if I was not involved in social impact and community development, I would be a serial entrepreneur, because I feel I have a gift for business and multiplying money out of creating value and negotiating.

Let’s backtrack a little bit. You lost your mum at the age of 4 – how has that shaped the woman you are today?

Growing up was quite tough for me, especially as a result of not having a mother. I learnt to be independent very early in life, to survive and cater for myself from a very tender age, and also with the support of my siblings. I faced a lot of hardships financially, physically, emotionally and even with my education, but because I’ve always had a never-give-up attitude, I kept forging ahead and it has kept me going over the years, even when I was not sure where my life was going to end up.

My background has greatly influenced what I do today, which is to give support and opportunities to young girls in under served areas in Nigeria, for them to have a brighter future. To be a role model for young girls who may be going through rough situations in life, to show them that with hard work, determination and zeal, they can be whoever they want to be regardless of their circumstances in life.

What are the upsides to what you do? The moments when you look and say “I love where I am”?

Seeing the smiles and happiness on the faces of my girls happy, fulfilled, learning and on the way to a brighter future as well as the gratitude and prayers of their parents and an appreciation of what we do. I am confident in the present generation as the change agents of the future.
Seeing many of them go from having never seen computers before to being coders and then thinking of solving problems and actually creating solutions to problems in their immediate environment, is a beautiful feeling money cannot buy.

Can you share some mistakes you have made that now with hindsight vision, you believe you could have acted differently? 

Hmmmm…..let me think about it.
Really, I didn’t have a blueprint of the work I am doing currently when I started but I know I took a risk of venturing into this field not sure where I was going with it. What I do know is I have an idea, I know how it works and I know that no one should get into this sector with the thought of enriching oneself.

What does success and fulfilment mean to you?

Opportunities will always come and they need to meet a prepared mind and to me, that is what is called SUCCESS. Many of the people that have become successful today are so because they have always been prepared and when opportunities came their way, they took it.
Also for me, success is relative; success is the achievement of set goals. So my goals and your goals are different; achieving mine is success, and achieving yours is success. The question is, what are your set goals? And being constantly successful in all that I do, and seeing that my actions are felt in society, is fulfilment for me.

What do you have to say to that young woman who has dreams but is crippled with doubts and self-limiting beliefs?

Dear young woman, I was in your shoes a while back, you must learn to discover and celebrate your uniqueness: we all are unique and we have different gifts and purposes!
Often times, we find that thing we are called to do in life when we take a moment to look inwards and find our true essence, what makes you, you! This may not be popular or be in trend, people can laugh at you, as long as you are doing what you are called to, its not a problem, you are okay.
Find your gift and calling and endeavour not to compare your life to another. Often times when you compare, you miss it. The folks you may be comparing your life with, do not necessarily have it together, they simply make it seem so. What you have is so precious, be careful not to trade your real for fake that seem real.

Be real, authentic, don’t fake it…..you will always stand out. There is nothing like shortcut, nothing like overnight success. Consistency is key, don’t give up on your dreams, even if it does not seem to be working out, stay at it and persevere.

What do you do for fun, and how do you unwind?
I unwind by watching movies, playing table tennis and squash, dancing, reading books and going to the beach to appreciate nature.

Last words for women who are looking up to you?

Be you! Ensure to always add value wherever you are. Always volunteer for good causes and have a mind-set of making and leaving things and situations better than you met them. Take every challenge that comes as a stepping stone for greatness.

The Leading Ladies Africa Series is a weekly interview series which focuses on women of African descent, showcases their experiences across all socio-economic sectors, highlights their personal and professional achievements and offers useful advice on how to make life more satisfying for women.

It is an off-shoot of Leading Ladies Africa, a non-profit that promotes women empowerment and gender inclusion for women of African descent.

Do you know any woman of African descent doing phenomenal things? Send an email to lead@leadingladiesafrica.org and we just might feature her.

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