Dr. Shikoh Gitau
Head of Products, Alpha at Safaricom Limited
When she was fifteen years old computer scientist Dr. Shikoh Gitau fell in love with mathematics. There are assurances in mathematics, she explains, that just don’t exist in other sciences. With Maths, there is an answer, one just has to find it. Unlike most teen romances, however, this love has endured. Dr. Gitau may be a renowned expert in computer science and innovation in tech, but she still approaches everything in her life mathematically.
“For a successful career,” she declares fairly early on in our interview, “I always tell people, that they need purpose plus passion, the two work together.” Indeed her seemingly meandering route to computer science was rooted in a desire to follow the passion of mathematics. While attending Kisumu Girls High School, her math teacher, the late Loise Koile, who Dr. Gitau credits with much of her early decisions in her life journey, identified her love of mathematics and enthusiastically nurtured it by giving her extra mathematical puzzles and marking them carefully, letting her know what she had done wrong and encouraging her for what she had done right. Her teacher’s and principal, Mrs. Leah Muma, belief in her were fundamental to her determination to pursue her dreams.
Dr. Gitau got into the Africa Nazarene University (ANU) and settled on computer science for her course work. While attending ANU, she volunteered with UNICEF and met a young woman, only 22 years old, who had three children and was HIV positive. The encounter haunted her deeply. She considered what meaningful way she could impact this woman’s life in the long term and wondered if there was any way her passion for mathematics could be used in a way that was beneficial to social justice.
Her foray in the NGO world opened her eyes to a new formula: in order for tech to have a lasting impact in a community, sustainability must be a component. She had now found her purpose.
The seeds of this concept were first planted during her pursuit of her PhD at the University of Cape Town (UCT). The lesson of access to opportunity reverberated throughout her life and she asked the question again, how can mathematics make people’s lives better? She began to research the most common internet uses by people in townships around Cape Town, South Africa. Even with limited access to and understanding of the intricacies of the online world, by and large, the majority of unskilled and semi-skilled workers were using the internet to look for employment opportunities. She decided to design a solution for seamless access to opportunities and creation of profiles, Ummeli, started with a small cohort of 30 people, that enabled people to upload their CVs and connect with possible employers. By the time she was graduating with her PhD, more than 1 million users had partnered with the Prakelt Foundation and Vodacom South Africa.
In her career, Dr. Gitau has worked at Microsoft, Google, the African Development Bank and now Safaricom in Kenya. Through it all, she often considers her purpose and her passion to ensure she is putting both into practice. When she first began to research mobile connectivity in the lives of Africans, there was still a large misconception that the pursuit of such research would be much too ambitious for this continent. When she first got to UCT, she studied with the late Professor Gary Marsden, who argued that not only were such tech development inevitable on the continent, it could very well be the tool to economically advance whole communities. In these cases, Dr. Gitau worked against the grain, trusted God, listened to her gut and also looked at the math. “Sometimes you just have to take risks with your life,” she advises, “Sometimes that is when you will have the biggest rewards.”
Follow Dr. Gitau on Twitter (@DrShikoh)