Computer programmer Abisoye Ajayi-Akinfolarin may have lost her mother when she was just four years old, but this hasn’t stopped her from chasing her dreams. On the evidence of recent developments, it appears she hasn’t done too badly.
On Thursday, she was featured as Nigeria’s first CNN Hero — a television special created by CNN to honour individuals who make extraordinary contributions to humanitarian aid and make a difference in their communities.
With GirlsCoding, a free programme run by her Pearls Africa Foundation, Ajayi-Akinfolarin seeks to educate — and excite— girls about computer programming. Since 2012, the group has helped more than 400 disadvantaged girls gain the technical skills and confidence they need to transform their lives.
To start Pearls Africa Foundation, she left a successful, fulltime IT consulting job. She'd noticed how few women worked in this growing field — a 2013 government survey found that less than 8% of Nigerian women were employed in professional, managerial or technology jobs. She wanted to fix the gender gap.
Talking to CNN about life and work, she says growing up was tough for her, after losing her mother at the age of 4, and being regularly beaten by her father.
“Life was just crazy,” she says. “I learned to fend for myself.”
Experience With Computers
Her first experience with a computer was at the age of 10, on a school break, at a business centre run by her brother's friend.
“Learning to type and modify text in Microsoft Word was just beautiful. But I really discovered my love for computers when I joined an IT firm as an intern after high school,” she recalls.
“When I got introduced to the world of computer programming, I was just natural with it. It just flowed. It's all about solving problems. I never knew that I'd be looking for solutions to problems regarding less privileged girls. That is what GirlsCoding is all about.”
With GirlsCoding, Ajayi-Akinfolarin wants the girls to be leaders and change agents. They code towards a purpose, trying to solve problems relating to what they see.
“For example, one project that I really like is called Hope Baskets. The girls wanted to get beggars off the streets, so they created a website to be a bridge between the rich and the poor. They wanted a way where someone can declutter their house and give them a call. Then they take what they're getting rid of — food, clothing, educational materials — and give it to those in need.
“We have another project called Break the Blade, about stopping female genital mutilation. These girls believe there is a lot of ignorance about this and want to be ambassadors on this issue. Eventually, they want to have a wrist band where you can press a button and it calls local authorities to come if FGM is about to take place.
“The fact that they can create solutions to problems makes them feel bold. It is no longer about just coding.”
The Future Plan
For now, GirlsCoding is expanding into different states in Nigeria, but one day it also hopes to have an institution called Girls Village — a residential programme that would provide all types of training for young girls.
“We'd also give them a chance to incubate their ideas about how to solve problems in their communities and learn how to pitch them. You could call it a bigger version of what we are currently doing,” Ajayi-Akinfolarin says.
“We want girls to be creators of tech, not mere users. Watching them write code is beautiful. Many of them never touched a computer before they got here. It's mind-blowing. The joy on their faces, that's more than money. I can't buy it.”
Among Ajayi-Akinfolarin’s numerous testimonies is Sharon Okpoe, who has lived her entire 17 years in Makoko — known as the world's largest "floating slum" — built on a lagoon in Lagos.
Okpoe's father is a fisherman, and her mother sells smoked fish, eking out a living on the fringes of Africa's largest city.
“When I went to Makoko for the first time, I was surprised to see the living conditions of human beings," Abisoye Ajayi-Akinfolarin tells CNN. "Most girls are trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty. Many of them are not thinking education, a plan for the future. Technology is a space that's dominated by men. Why should we leave that to guys? I believe girls need opportunities."
"I believe you can still find diamonds in these places," Ajayi-Akinfolarin said. "They need to be shown another life."
One way her programme does this is by taking the students to visit tech companies — not only showing them what technology can do, but helping them visualize themselves joining the industry. Okpoe, for one, has taken this to heart. She helped create an app called Makoko Fresh that went live this summer, enabling fishermen like her father to sell seafood directly to customers. She wants to become a software engineer and hopes to study computer science at Harvard.
"One thing I want my girls to hold onto is, regardless of where they are coming from, they can make it," Ajayi-Akinfolarin says. “They are coders. They are thinkers. Their future is bright.”
CNN Heroes was launched in 2007. As of 2014, the programme was hosted by Anderson Cooper. Nominees are introduced during the fall of each year and the audience is encouraged to vote online for the CNN Hero of the Year. Ten recipients are honoured and each receive USD$50,000 ($25,000 in 2014). The top recipient is chosen as the CNN Hero of the Year and receives an additional USD$250,000 ($100,000 in 2014) to continue their work.