Neema: How tech can bridge the existing justice imbalance

What you need to know:

  • Growing up, Neema knew she had always wanted to be a lawyer, a dream that was fuelled by the number of female lawyers in her family

Dar es Salaam. When all is said and done, what truly matters is having found your purpose and actively lived it.

Such is the story of Ms Neema Magimba, a young trailblazing lawyer with a killer fashion sense.

“I am a woman on a mission to changing the different negative narratives that have been imposed on women in this country. I do that actively through my lifestyle and my work,” she says by way of introduction.

Professionally, Neema is an advocate admitted to practice in Tanzania mainland as well as in Zanzibar.

“I have majored in intellectual property practice and I am currently the Managing Partner of corporate and intellectual property law firm called Extent Corporate Advisory (ECA). I'm also one of the Co-Founders and the Head of Legal for the first legal tech platform in Tanzania, Sheria Kiganjani (law on your palm),” she shares, adding that she is also the only woman in the group of co-founders.

Growing up, Neema knew she always wanted to be a lawyer, a dream that was fuelled by the number of female lawyers in her family. “I had about four female family members, who were lawyers working in different areas and what I loved about them was their confidence and how they dressed. I wanted to be really good at it, I wanted to look like that, to talk back like that and stand for myself like that,” she says.

However, when finally getting into the field, studying and interning in different places, her reasons for wanting to be a lawyer changed.

After finishing her LLB at Mzumbe University, she had the opportunity to intern for an NGO that worked to provide legal aid services in the Lake Zone area, Mwanza specifically, reaching out to rural areas where people could not easily access legal services.

The NGO would set up legal aid camps in different villages and for a duration of a week or so, a team of lawyers would be available to provide free legal aid services. These were areas where poverty ran deep and access to legal representation was almost non-existence.

“That internship programme lasted for three months and during that period, a couple of things came to my mind. Firstly, I started asking myself that if it wasn't for that NGO, how would these people access legal services, keeping in mind these are people who were really poor and couldn't afford a typical lawyer’s retainer fee or consultation fee at most,” she says, adding how touching and extremely sensitive their stories were.

“Secondly even if they could afford this service, the distance to lawyers in the city was immense, meaning they would have to leave whatever economic activity they were doing; we're talking about farmers, kiosk owners, and teachers, to go and look for a lawyer without the necessary assurance that the lawyer can actually assist them.”

There is a general misconception in society that all lawyers can handle all matters but the reality is that there are areas of specific practice where a certain lawyer is competent in, meaning they may not always be able to help you with every issue.

For those who take all these factors into consideration, they also may end up completely putting off their pursuit for legal assistance.

“Up until that stage, my idea of being a lawyer was very glamorous; knowing I’d look good, be confident, and more but getting to in that environment, working there and getting to hear the injustice that happens to these people, my initial thought of what I pictured being a lawyer was really was not going to drive any impact,” she shares.

“I felt that if I have a job and a professional understanding and knowledge that can help change the lives of these people or bring impact into their societies, that's what I needed to be doing instead of romanticising a big corporate life.”

“One of the stories that really struck me throughout that internship programme was that of a 21-year-old lady I met at the time who had been forced into an early marriage at 13. She got married to an older man who was very abusive, demeaning, and after a couple of years of marriage with this man she had three kids with him and he eventually passed away,” she says.

Unfortunately, as goes for plenty of these cases, the man's relatives decided that because of their cultural and traditional norms, especially the Lake Zone area that is known to be very patriarchal, they decided that as a woman, she was not entitled to inherit anything.

“Initially, when she was getting married, that in itself was against the law, but she didn't have any understanding of the laws, and because it was a tradition and something that had been normalised in her society, she went with that,” Neema explains.

“However, a second issue was happening to her and she now had the understanding that what was being done to her was not right and she needed to seek help. Weighing heavily on her was the concern over whether she could afford that help; she could barely afford to feed her children.”

“Once she heard about the legal aid clinic and the tents that were being set up, she came and asked for support. And there were so many other stories similar to that girl's story that we were encountering,” Neema narrates.

“These girls were my age, or a year or two older than me, and some even younger than I was so I came back to town with so many thoughts in my head about what I can do and what difference I can make and even how I can do what the NGO is doing.”

“My first response was that I can't afford to do what the NGO is doing. I’d have had to set up an office in Mwanza, recruit a team of like-minded lawyers who would be able to or are willing to provide services at a relatively reduced cost or no cost at all, which is a challenge because a lot of people are driven by what they get at the end at the end of the process,” she says.

“After the internship, I joined Law School in Dar and of the many people I met, our CEO and Co-Founder, Nabiry Jumanne was one of the people with whom I quickly realised that we shared the same passion.”

“We had the same question; ‘How can we impact these people?’ He had also just finished an internship in the lake zone area as well, Bukoba to be exact. He had been around similar issues that I had been around so we had the same question, how do we do this? How do we help?”

Queue Sheria Kiganjani

In law school, they had mutual friends who brought in the tech expertise. They were in the tech industry and were also looking to do something that is more impactful.

“That was when we brought our minds together and put two and two together. We brought in the legal expertise and began looking towards building something that will impact not just the people around the Lake Zone areas where we had interned, but people from around Tanzania who had the similar same issues,” she shares.

The mere knowledge of the laws can go a long way but the challenge is that 90 percent of the laws in Tanzania are in English and majority of us speak Swahili. Even the fluent English speakers sometimes do not always understand the law, cannot interpret it or even know how to apply it in their lives and so you need a lawyer to help with that.

“Our question was how do we change that and our mission became simplifying how people understand and digest these laws,” Neema explains.

“We believe that if someone is informed, they can make informed decisions. If someone is informed, they can reach out and seek out justice to enforce their rights,” she adds.

“We started out with the question and answer segment on a website we developed as we didn't have an app at the time. We commissioned a couple of university students because we believed in collaborative working, not just within our team, but with other competent people, especially competent youths who had the same motivation, passion and zeal of the profession, and wanted to make a difference.”

While the tech guys worked on the platform, Neema and her partner also registered a sender ID for bulk SMS, which is where the bulk SMS solution came in and through that, they were sharing informative questions and answers.

Eventually, it spiralled and grew from just a simple platform that allows you to read and understand the laws in a language that you can understand to something to an access to justice platform.

“From our user’s needs, we also learnt that people wanted more than just the questions and answers. They also wanted to be able to talk to a lawyer and ask questions that are specific to their issue. We incorporated the talk and chat option within our platform. We had to get a number and allow our users to be able to talk and ask further questions,” Neema explains.

This provided even more access to many and the platform saw people come in with more than just queries to some coming in with actual pending cases. Before 2019, they were able to only connect people to lawyers but after the introduction of the legal aid providers law, the company was given a basis on who is eligible for legal aid provision, and who can provide this legal aid services. The system is now able to connect a person not just to a lawyer, but also to a legal aid provider.

There are people who are eligible for legal aid provision in Tanzania but are not aware of this. The law defines who is poor enough to not be able to access or pay for legal services and if you are determined as an indigent, you are allowed to get free legal aid services from a registered legal aid provider.

While legal aid providers are not necessarily lawyers, they do have a better understanding of the law and are registered to provide assistance and to help minimise unnecessary costs that an indigent may be forced to cover in pursuit of a lawyer, the platform was then able to connect people to legal aid providers within their vicinities.

With all these diverse services being provided on the website, the growth and demand for more led to the development of the Sheria Kiganjani application which introduced even more features, such as the document section where one can access templates of an array of legal documents such as contracts, affidavits and necessary court documentations in the case that one wants to represent themselves in court.

“You can get a draft or template that you can customise and use in your interactions. Before amendments to the laws were made, in the primary courts, lawyers were not allowed to represent you and these are the courts that are at the baseline, the grassroots where the people that we were targeting would start,” she explains.

“So when one wants to represent themselves in court and they miss a single document, or if the document is not drafted in accordance to how it's supposed to be drafted, then the whole case can get removed.”

“In our mission to bridge that justice gap and allow people to be able to access justice easily, technology really played a huge role because the question that I had when we were setting out was how can I reach people like that unfortunate widow if I'm in Dar es Salaam, and I am just a single lawyer who cannot travel or be in these places all together at the same time to listen, resolve and assist people?”

Technology can help you be in so many different places at the same time. Right now, instead of travelling from Dar to these regions where people have a justice need, with one single tap on their phones, be it a feature phone or a smartphone, people call and talk with lawyers in real time – it’s a 24-hour service.

“Technology has also helped us provide real time solutions and services to our users, enhancing accessibility of justice for a person anywhere,” she says.

 “We have reached over 2 million Tanzanians since 2018.These are people who have read our Q&A segment, called for inquiries, opened and lodged cases with us, requested us to connect them to lawyers and legal aid providers.”

“We also receive and resolve about 30 to 50 cases in a month. These will be cases that are resolved amicably through leveraging the police, village councils and street leadership, while others are resolved in the courts,” she adds.

The goal is to reach at least 5 million Tanzanians by 2030. This is to mean that Sheria Kiganjani works to bridge this gap for these people, enhance and equip them with the knowledge and the understanding of the laws, as well as the knowledge and understanding of how they can enforce these laws and get justice.

The experiences and injustices that Neema witnessed made her resolve towards mentorship a rather biased one and she chose early on to invest herself in activities that seek to empower young women. Her personal mission: ‘to change the different negative narratives that have been imposed on women in this country, especially young women’ meant that whatever effort she put in had to begin at the grassroots.

She has been an active and hands-on type of mentor and whenever an opportunity for mentorship comes along, she is one to encourage pro-active approaches from both the mentor and mentee.

Supported by Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation