This year’s Women’s History Month theme is “Women Inspiring Innovation Through Imagination: Celebrating Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics”. In observance, USAID is spotlighting innovative women working in these fields.
Fiona Mati from Kenya won a second place prize of $3,000 in USAID and Humanity United’s Tech Challenge for Atrocity Prevention – responding to the challenge to “develop technologies to better identify, spotlight, and deter intentional or unintentional third-party enablers of atrocities”. The second round of the Tech Challenge opened on March 6. Below is an interview with Fiona.
Tell us about your winning idea and your process for developing this concept.
“Conscious Vacations” seeks to deter tourists from visiting countries whose leaders perpetrate crimes against humanity, thus becoming themselves third party enablers. Most travelers remain unaware that their spending could possibly be used as a tool for sponsoring the activities of cruel dictatorships. Conscious Vacations intends to inform potential tourists by sharing data such as the amount of money the government spends on security or defense as opposed to other social sectors such as education and health, incidents of mass atrocities (and other human rights abuses), as well as the amount of government revenues raised from the tourism sector.
To make the concept of Conscious Vacations more vivid to you, imagine for an instant lying on a sun lounger on a pristine beach. Now imagine if you knew that your being in that country enjoying the beach and all the facilities means that the local population will continue to live under the authoritarian rule of a dictator. How would you feel knowing that the dollars you spend are going to buying guns rather than school books or food? Would that beach look as pristine? This is what Conscious Vacations is about: acting as a virtual conscious-barometer to enable tourists to make informed decisions about their next holiday destination.
The idea came to me after reading an article that quoted Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi speaking in 1999 during the military junta’s rule. At the time a debate was raging among pro-democracy activists on whether to press the international community to boycott the country’s tourism. Her words spoke volumes to me when she said: “Burma will be here for many years, so tell your friends to visit us later. Visiting now is tantamount to condoning the regime.”
What are some of the challenges you have faced as a woman working in the field of science and technology?
Coming from Kenya, I have to say that the tech ecosystem is very supportive of women, so I can’t attribute my gender as presenting any obstacles. This has been the case particularly in the past five years with the growth of mobile phone use and the widespread adoption of mobile money systems such as M-Pesa, which has encouraged many women to venture into the tech space.
How can organizations encourage more women to enter the field of science and technology and nurture this talent?
Kenya’s accommodating technology ecosystem is mainly urban-based, and it would be great if organizations would work on enabling rural women to access the same opportunities. It’s also important to continue encouraging more girls to pursue careers in science and technology. Judging from local university enrollments in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) courses, women by and large remain in the minority.
Learn more about the Tech Challenge.
Fiona Mati is the founder of Yipe!, a resource portal for young Kenyan entrepreneurs.