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Female drone pilots: Moving from an exception to the rule for women in Tanzania

Rose Funja in the field

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A young African woman thriving and growing her business in the male dominated field of drone piloting and data science. Rose Funja is also giving back by working to also to promote young womens’ participation in STEM.

Rose, Managing Director of Agrinfo Social Enterprise, is a leading female drone pilot in her home country of Tanzania, and further afield across the African continent. Not only is Rose a pioneer in her field, but she founded Agrinfo where she has the opportunity to train more women and girls to be drone pilots. Her story is a best practice in terms of scalability: Rose, like most successful entrepreneurs, started off by identifying a solution to a challenge that she saw in the world of agriculture, namely, women’s access to digital tools and Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects. Although Rose says that she started her social enterprise Agrinfo ‘by accident’, she went on to win the 2013 Agrihack competition, which gave her initiative unprecedented visibility. From winning at the national level, Rose and her team also went on to become runners-up at the regional level, where they benefited from mentorship at the innovation hub. Within a year, Rose became a Mandela Washington Fellow and won a start-up grant from the US state department after attending the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) to the developed the ‘She Codes for Change’ initiative in 2014. 

Rose has successfully won a number of other grants, which has allowed her to develop the ‘She codes for change’ programme and its reach to both rural and urban communities, targeting both young girl students and teachers. She has recently extended this training in STEM within Impact Hubs and she is one of the driving forces behind opening the very first impact hub for girls in Tanzania. Despite many advances and successful innovations, Rose is reminded constantly of the need to develop girls and women’s competence in this field. During her school days, she recalls that there were only two women in her high school class and even later at university very few women took STEM courses. By the time she became a teacher herself, at the University of Bagamoyo, nothing had changed. Additionally, beyond the classroom and training, challenges persist with empowering women within local rural communities.

Often as the only female drone pilot in she is reminded of the ongoing challenges in the field. These can range from adequately preparing for field missions in very remote areas to being stuck with a vehicle break down! There are also challenges concerning engaging with communities where women are not active participants in discussions and decision-making, although they play a key role in the agricultural development of the community. Rose explained that her presence as the lead on such field visits contrasts significantly with the marginalised position of some of these women. Rose explains that ‘I am in a unique position to gain a deeper understanding of the best interventions and making sure that the community is engaged and understands the work that is being done and how it can be of benefit to them’. In her perspective: “While it’s true that drone flying is a male-dominated field just like most of the STEM careers, I feel like it’s also an advantage for the few females that excel in it because they become a priority.”

Rose is certainly piloting ahead to make female drone pilots a priority. Through her wide-ranging experience – in academia in Africa and Asia, as well as a social entrepreneur – she has been exposed to Information Communication Technologies (ICTs) and women in many different contexts. For her, she feels that more needs to be done to ensure that African women can access digital tools. She explained, “opportunities lie in the applications development for the those who already have phones so that the value on phone usage is tremendous to them. Rural electrification and renewable energy sources is a huge opportunity that is being explored but not to the maximum.” Yet again, she warned that affordability is still a key issue, which remains a barrier for women. She also identified alternative sources of energy, such as solar, as an opportunity for women to improve access to digital tools.

Rose’s vast experience gives her a well-rounded understanding of the challenges and opportunities. She highlighted that “When I was teaching I used to advocate for two things, one is practicality of the knowledge that is being shared at the university, and the second is using the knowledge to solve real-life problems especially the community around the university. In my case, I like to think that I have moved from academics to work on real-life problems and my focus has been on agriculture sector that employs 75% of the Tanzanian population.”

Currently launching Tanzania’ first Impact Hub for Girls, Rose’s message for young women in ICTs is straightforward: “If it has been done before, they too can do it.” She added, “Statistically women handle most household chores and when it comes to farming they are the workforce. Technology gives us the opportunity to automate and gain insights into our activities and agriculture isn’t different.” In addition, she underlines how challenges can provide opportunities: “Those who feel the pinch (women) have a better chance of coming out with the solutions to challenges that they face and therefore it’s important to take part in the discussion (…) take the front seat in addressing the challenges while armed with the knowledge.”

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