Nurturing software developers for refugees
When Grace Kapinga fled the political turmoil in her home country, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), to seek refuge in Malawi, she thought her dreams of becoming an information technology (IT) guru were instantly shattered.
But little did she know that it was just the beginning of a new chapter in her life.
Today, thanks to Microsoft’s 4Afrika Initiative, the 20-year-old Grace is among the 31 young refugees and asylum seekers benefiting from the Microsoft AppFactory.
The AppFactory was recently launched at Dzaleka Refugee Camp. It is the first of its kind in the world to be set up in a refugee camp.
Dzaleka Refugee Camp is situated in Dowa District in the Central Region. It, currently, hosts about 30,000 refugees and asylum seekers mainly from the DRC, Ethiopia, Burundi, Rwanda and Somalia.
The Microsoft AppFactory— which was recently launched in June at the camp—is part of Microsoft’s 4Afrika Initiative aimed at equipping young software developers with hands-on experience while helping them build critical business skills.
Microsoft Director of Strategic Partnership, Kate Krukiel, believes the AppFactory will motivate refugees and host communities to develop software systems so as to support critical areas such as education and health.
Krukiel also pledges that Microsoft will ensure that the new technology is available, affordable and usable by all the communities regardless of gender and nationality.
She thinks the new technology will likewise help people to create workable solutions on some of the problems they face in their community on their own.
“There are a lot of ideas and passion that come from these refugees. They just need to learn how to get set and decode those ideas to life. So, with this AppFactory, we will teach them business processes and models, how to code, among others. They will also learn agriculture on how they can do smart farming,” Krukiel said.
Malawi’s Information and Communications Technology Minister, Nicholas Dausi, who spoke during the launch of the AppFactory said the project will provide high speed internet connectivity that will facilitate ICT initiatives in trade and communication.
Dausi said the project targets the youth’s ability to develop critical skills needed to take local ideas to the world and develop software systems to support critical areas such as health and education.
“We came here at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) camp of Dzaleka where Microsoft is making an initiative to connect refugees globally.
“I have made a passionate submission to Microsoft to ensure that, while it is a programme for refugees, it must also benefit Malawians,” Dausi said.
For refugees and asylum seekers like Grace, this is one way of improving their skills development which is critical to compete in the new age of digital transformation.
According to Grace, being enrolled in the Microsoft AppFactory is one crucial way of shaping her future which was in jeopardy due to security lapses following clashes back home in DRC.
Grace believes, she will break barriers by becoming one of the most dynamic software developers with the knowledge acquired from the Microsoft AppFactory.
“I strongly believe that the knowledge and concepts about software programming and developing I learn here will shape my future in the IT sector,” Grace explained.
Grace’s views were also echoed by another 20-year-old Noah Ndahirwa. She fled from her country Rwanda in 2016 due to what she called political persecution. She thinks the Microsoft AppFactory has reignited the vision which faded when he fled his country to seek refuge in Malawi.
According to him, the Microsoft’s 4Afrika Initiative is an opportunity for refugees and asylum seekers to showcase their skills and capabilities. Ndahirwa and Grace are among the 31 students who succeeded in a highly competitive aptitude test for enrolment into the skills development course offered at the AppFactory.
“People see us as just refugees, implying that we are hopeless people who cannot contribute anything to the communities we live in. But that is not the case, granted the opportunity, we can also come up with innovative ideas to our communities,” Ndahirwa said.
He added; “These are some of the reasons we thank Microsoft and UNHCR for their partnership to set this Connectivity for Refugees Project here at Dzaleka.”
Most students participating in this course are a product of TechnoLab, the only computer lab in the camp which is run by a 23-year-old Burundian refugee, Remy Gakwaya. Remy, who is also one of the trainers at the Microsoft AppFactory, voluntarily teaches other refugee youths how to programme.
However, Remy faces communication problems. He, however, said his proficiency in a number of languages which are spoken in the camp makes it easier to clarify some concepts.
Ivan Lumara is a mentor from Microsoft and the lead trainer for the course.
According to Lumara, as part of the continuous assessments of their performance during the six-month training, students will frequently sit for examinations to gauge how they are coping with the training.
“These students will be frequently assessed through theoretical and practical tests. For instance, this week, they will travel to Techno Brain in Lilongwe to sit for an assessment examinations whose fees has been covered by Microsoft,” Lumara said.
UNHCR Malawi is part of the global UNHCR programme in connecting with refugees hence partnering with Microsoft 4Afrika Initiative to launch the Microsoft AppFactory at Dzaleka Refugee Camp.
UNHCR Malawi’s Connectivity for Refugees Coordinator, Pamela Msizi, is of the view that the AppFactory will provide opportunities for many young refugees and asylum seekers.
Msizi says the connectivity project in Dzaleka will open new doors to many young refugees and asylum seekers to break barriers and realise their long, life goals.
“The Microsoft AppFactory, which was set up here at Dzaleka Refugee Camp, will not only connect refugees and asylum seekers but also address lack of digital networks and infrastructure in refugee communities,” Msizi explained.
This is not the first time that Microsoft is partnering with UNHCR to initiate connectivity among refugees and communities. In 2016, Microsoft also provided internet connectivity to refugees living in the camp.
Alternatively, to refugees like Grace, it is not just about becoming technology savvy but also enhancing their livelihoods as she explains: “I will put to good use the skills acquired to secure a job or establish my own business.”
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