Faraja: Start building, tech grows with you

What you need to know:

  • She acknowledges the advancements made in women’s empowerment but believes more has to be done to achieve equality

The phrase ‘beauty with brains’ has always been passed off as a compliment and for as long as it has existed, and women have often taken it gushing and giddy.

While for some it may be given from a good place, for women working and thriving in a male-dominated industry, it may denote surprise that she is capable of thriving in that area or that even gutsy enough to actually do it.

When I met Mrs Faraja Nyalandu, her warm, gentle and friendly nature had me in awe over her accomplishments as the Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Shule Direct.

A lawyer by qualification, Chairperson of the Tanzania Education Network, successful technology entrepreneur and social activist, Faraja wears many hats.

Shule Direct is a learning platform that has been able to create access to much-needed learning material for students as well as teaching material for teachers.

It initially started off as a platform for students but with time, teachers also became users.

Faraja officially stepped foot into the tech space in 2013 but her journey wasn’t by chance as she notes that such initiatives begin with all the steps you take before you get to any position of impact.

From a young age, Ms Nyalandu was very passionate about community development and serving people and sought opportunities that would propel her into a position to help.

She began as a girl scout and grew up reading up on ways to improve the country’s situation and push for development. 

An unexpected opportunity presented itself in 1999 in the form of an essay writing competition called ‘Tell the President’.

The goal was to have young people write letters to the president, giving advice on what to do to improve the lives of children and youths in Tanzania.

These essays would then become a sort of manifesto for the incoming president at the time (2000) with insights and ideas for him to work on.

“I was 15-years-old and in Form 2 at the time and I did take part in the competition. The competition targeted 15 to 30-year-olds and I saw no chance of winning but our English teacher insisted that we do it as an assignment. I was among the winners,” shares Faraja.

“My essay touched on youth and different aspects of development, with focus on what we can do in Tanzania, and education was a big part of that. I looked at how best we can improve our curriculums to ensure that whatever you're learning in school is relevant to the country's needs,” she explains.

Upon winning the competition, Faraja and the others had the opportunity to undergo a workshop on children’s rights which was organised by UNICEF, Save the Children, and in collaboration with the Ministry of Children and Women (now Ministry of Community Development, Gender, Women and Special Groups).

As opportunities to learn about community and child development kept presenting themselves to a young Faraja, she grew to find her voice thanks to the trainings on peer education, health and education issues surrounding children as well as how best to improve student participation.

She also worked with a number of local and international organisations on adolescent sexual and reproductive health and HIV prevention.

As life around her continued to evolve, she finished school, trained as a lawyer and in between, got married and had her children. Juggling physical classes as a law student, being a wife and a mother was not an easy task and during this period, she had a lightbulb moment of appreciating the potential technology has for education in terms of accessing content and learning material as well as engagement.

While she did not see herself working in technology initially, she does attest that her experiences helped build on her understanding of the power of technology in helping her balance her life as well as give her the reach she desired.

The Shule Direct legacy

While learning resources could come from a textbook, a teacher or even peers, teachers were at the centre.

Equally as significant was access to qualified learning and teaching resources that neither students nor teachers had access to. 

Another was compromised material which was not relevant for their consumption.

“I started thinking, perhaps we can leverage technology to ensure that students not only have access to learning resources, but access to qualified resources that have gone through a system of reviewing them to ensure that they are actually qualified and are the right resources to be used in the classroom,” she shares.

“So I felt that I could engage with other organisations to start developing platforms, digitising the resources and then creating the access but it wasn't as straightforward because the government does perform content review but does not exclusively develop content, and that which they do is for specific purposes,” she adds.

This means that the government receives ready-made content and then reviews it to make sure it is relevant for the education system, both private and public.

Seeing this very real need there, she however wasn’t sure she wanted to be the one implementing it so she sought organisations to pursue this with.

At the time however, the response was that Tanzania is not ready to pursue technology for learning.

The reasoning behind that was that the statistics, in terms of smartphone use, penetration and connectivity were very low, and this overshadowed the need to begin preparing for the long-term.

“I was looking at countries that had been at our stage 5 years prior and were progressing very fast, like India, and I could see that in 10 years, we would have a significant number of users and digital platforms,” she shares.

“Eventually, I decided to just get started and got my co-founder on board then started working with a tech company and teachers to create these resources.”

“It was quite a bumpy ride at first and I remember how ugly our first web page was. It had a zinjanthropus on the landing page and I have no idea why we kept it there,” she jokingly shares.

There’s a saying that goes ‘If you are not ashamed of your first product, you probably started late’ and for Faraja and her team, this proved to be one of their major stepping stones to getting to where they are today. For her, it was important to first start.

“All the while, we were building features and writing content simultaneously. That is the beauty of technology – you don’t always have to have everything ready. It’s always a work in progress and for us, developing as we went allowed us to have our educational content repository on the back-end such that if we were told there is a satellite where we need to put in our content, we are plug-and-play,” she said.

This content repository took years of work and it is the engine and back-bone of Shule Direct. This means Shule Direct is able to map out any curriculum from anywhere in the world into this repository and then create the content and access to it without disturbing the flow of the current content or how it appears.

An added advantage for Shule Direct was that they were able to get feedback almost instantly. “We started seeing people coming in and it was momentous for us when we hit the 1 million user mark,” she adds.

The journey was quite an interesting one and Faraja does applaud the growth of Tanzania’s technology ecosystem from when they began, saying that it is a lot more structured with better support and readily-available information which contextualises Tanzania and that is key to helping one start.

“We've had great mentors over the years but there wasn’t really one place where you can actually find all the information that you needed contained, structured, and very much contextual to Tanzania’s market much like the present so I'm quite impressed,” shared Faraja.

“I really wish that perhaps more corporates would be attuned to the innovators' needs, because I also feel there's a mismatch and there's potential for good work to be done with innovators and entrepreneurs.”

Likewise, with policies, Faraja is of the opinion that there's been an inclination to make sure that the policies are supporting startups, at least by identifying that they are startups. “I think the tax code will keep on improving to ensure that it is cognizant of the fact that they are startups as well as the practices around it,” she adds.

“I also think it's important that all the different regulatory authorities understand the differences in businesses and their trajectories.”

“I think we also have to understand technology as a business and innovation cannot be treated the same way as when you have a physical product because in this case, it's almost like a bubble of ideas.”

Tipping the scales                                                                                 

As much as there's a lot of improvement and progress made in women's empowerment, this is still pretty much a male-dominated industry and bias is one challenge women often face.

“It could be that a platform developed by a woman will meet the bias that it may not be a good solution. Concerns over whether it is technically advanced, relevant or able to solve the problem could surface because it's a woman who has developed it,” she explains.

Faraja also explains that this bias and prejudice will also be within the woman herself as she faces self-doubt over her capability to develop a great piece of technology.

Another challenge, which women in the tech space face is the fact that this is a very fast-paced and demanding sector to work in. A woman is often required to balance a lot more than her male counterparts.

“You still have to be a mother, a wife, and still be a good colleague and innovator. A man on the other hand can get away with being focused on building a solution and zeroes in on that particular task,” she adds.

That automatically puts a woman at a disadvantage but the silver lining being that she develops the ability to pace herself by planning, delegating and managing her time and responsibilities in a manner unique to women.

"Whatever the situation you may find yourself in, the key is to appreciate the fact that one thing will always have to give while the other takes priority at any given time," Faraja encourages.

"If you then need to be a mother or wife, then make sure you maximise that time so that when you have to go to work, you can fully focus on those responsibilities."

Women continue to make unimaginable sacrifices to achieve their dreams, and for those who successfully carve a niche for themselves in an ecosystem that doesn’t favour them, the work is twice as hard but when done just right, the success is ten times sweeter.

Supported by Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation