What you need to know:
- This growth has not just been about providing for the kids. As Mwasi believes that technology has the power to transform all it touches, the growth of external reach has mandated an internal growth burst both in terms of leadership and work culture.
Dar es Salaam. Someone once said technology is evolution that comes as a result of human intelligence, as such, it is only as powerful as the human mind allows it to be.
I did not quite understand that at first because technological evolution has taken so much prominence that in some ways, we have placed it on a pedestal.
As I sat with Ubongo Chief Executive Officer, Ms Mwasi Wilmore, something about that phrase began to click.
Mwasi began by sharing how technology has always been around her and even when she tried to get away from it, she always found herself right in the middle of it again.
“I fell in love with technology before I even knew I fell in love with it,” she shares as we settled in for a chat. “Part of my dad’s retirement plan when we moved back to Tanzania was, he and mom opening a computer training centre which was one of the first few at the time. I was about six-years-old then and spent a lot of time in my parents’ office.”
“I would see people come in, looking sharp, but do not know how to do basic things like typing or are scared of the mouse and then leave the centre with this profound understanding of how to use a computer and how it can transform their own organisations,” she adds.
From as early as she could recall, technology has always been factored in her day-to-day life but like every child growing up, curious to explore all possible alternatives, Mwasi began to seek out paths away from engaging with technology as much.
The first opportunity she got was college, where she opted to study finance and banking. “Like anyone doing finance, the dream was to move to New York, only for me to end up working for Deloitte under the enterprise risk services but with focus on operations and technology,” she shares.
“I still ended up in technology and loved it because I was helping these really large organisations transform using technology. So anything from managing a concurrent system, system implementations for a bank, to helping a hedge fund and breaking apart Lehman Brothers; whatever the project was, it was using operational technology which was amazing to me.”
However, what stayed at the back of her mind constantly was the question that despite all that she was doing, how was she bringing positivity.
Having come from parents who raised her and her brother to always strive to do something good, that became a guiding beacon for what she eventually chose to do with her life. Her father, who at one point was the director for Save the Children in Zimbabwe and Malawi, would often take them to visit refugee camps and share presents with the children there, which instilled in her, at a young age, the sense that your value stems from what you can do for other people.
“I worked for Deloitte in New York for about five years, and then decided to pursue my masters in the UK, after which I came back to Tanzania and continued with Deloitte,” she shares, adding that all the while, she still had that itch to do something positive.
“I ended up banding with a group of other like-minded individuals and began to explore how we could use technology to do something good, which led us to start a 4G LTE company.”
With this company however, came the component of commercialisation, although for them, what really drove the vision initially was how different Tanzania would be, if everyone had equal access to fast speed internet and things like telemedicine or virtual schools became a reality.
The prospects of what that would bring in terms of revolutionising Tanzania was so big but a while into building this company, they were bought out by a mobile network operator (MNO). While that dream ended there, Mwasi does attest that it was a period that widened her understanding of just how much technology can achieve and deepened her desire to do what she can to push for this growth.
“I did a lot of other things around consulting, but at the back of it all was always that technology piece,” she shares. “I did have an opportunity to work for a tech NGO and with that, we were getting used computers from the UK and around Europe, then bringing these to Tanzania, putting educational content in them and donating them to schools in effort to help kids to level the playing field.”
“That's actually how I met Ubongo. We were on a project together and I loved what they were doing and eventually, when they were doing a search for a new CEO search, they reached out to me and I knew this was something I would love to do,” she narrates.
Mwasi further attributes her journey to Ubongo to being a combination of understanding that technology is a tool and doing something transformational. It is the intersection between education, where you are teaching people and in the process of using technology to transform the world, you are doing something great for people, especially those who may have otherwise not been granted the access to plug in to this evolution.
Ubongo, a Tanzanian-grown NGO, creates educational content that has proven educational impact, and this content is given to children on whichever platform that they have access to; be it a smartphone, smart TV, apps, printables, books and even radio. It is currently available in over 20 countries and in over 10 languages.
“One of the things that is really important to us is making sure that each child, regardless of their economic standing abilities, gets access to education. With that in mind, we have expanded what we mean by inclusion,” she explains.
For Ubongo, inclusion is not just about affordability. “We think further than that, for example, for the kids that can't see, we're looking to start introducing Braille products; or for kids who can't hear, we create content for them in sign language,” she further explains.
She also adds that content is created in a way where kids who have different learning abilities are also able to consume the content, such as kids on the autism spectrum or those with ADHD and other various needs that African kids may have. All of this content is free, including that which is shared to broadcasters and podcasters.
The company has grown significantly in the last 10 years from just a local Tanzanian company to being one that is registered in several countries across the continent.
This growth has not just been about providing for the kids. As Mwasi believes that technology has the power to transform all it touches, the growth of external reach has mandated an internal growth burst both in terms of leadership and work culture.
Where leadership is concerned, Mwasi is proud to be part of an organisation that has created a phenomenal representation, with the C-suit leadership being all women, as well as a balanced representation on the digital and production teams.
“We're very cognizant in terms of making sure that representation is present within our organisation. There was a time we recognised, for example, that we didn't have women on the digital side and the technical side of the developers so we had to make sure this representation was taking place,” she shares.
In terms of work culture growth and inclusion, the company has been very intentional in fostering an environment that creates personal motivation within individual employees to be able to perform at their best.
“We've also recently hired our head of people and culture, to make sure that we're able to address these issues more systemically and systematically within the organisation,” Mwasi says.
“We have worked to create somewhere where everybody feels they belong, they can thrive, and they can grow by making sure that people are always afforded growth opportunities, not necessarily upwards but even horizontally or strength-wise in their particular spaces,” she adds.
“We also have various initiatives, from wellbeing to health, especially mental health. For example, on World Mental Health Day, we give people the day off and do have mental health awareness initiatives, coaches, mentors, and access to different tools that people need to better themselves,” she explains further.
For Ubongo, leveraging on technology to bring about educational transformation as well as company growth and a healthy work culture has been essential to their success. Going hybrid during the Covid-19 pandemic helped with fully embracing technology to still be able to deliver quality work.
Having worked in environments that would call at odd hours of the day to demand for work or a drive up to some remote destination, Mwasi and her team are proud of how they continue to leverage technology to both create inclusive and engaging content as well as foster an environment that promotes a healthy work culture.
For Mwasi, despite the strides we still need to take in pushing for inclusion in Tanzania, the growth that we have achieved as a country is commendable and having grown up in an environment that exposed her to technology at a young age, she is glad to have been able to witness Tanzania’s technical growth and played her part in championing it.
Supported by Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation