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Genius who captured Google's heart

By | Published Sat, December 25th 2010 at 00:00, Updated Sat, December 25th 2010 at 00:00 GMT +3

Shikoh Gitau, the 29 year-old computer genius is a force to reckon with having designed an innovative mobile phone application that not only impressed the technology giant but is also helping a poor community in South Africa. She spoke to KIUNDU WAWERU

Shikoh Gitau, 29— together with her twin sister—was born close to two months premature. They lived in Mathare, and her dad would tell her later: "If it mattered where you were born and my income, you would be dead by now."

Unfortunately her parents lost property during the 1982 coup, and went to live with relatives in Nakuru followed by a series of moving houses. And during these turbulent times, Shikoh held on to a biblical message, Jeremiah 29:11 that was hanging on their wall, "For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, saith the Lord, thoughts of peace, and not of evil, to give you an expected end."

When she was ten, Shikoh witnessed her first graduation ceremony on TV, presided over by the former President Moi, where a lady received a PhD. She told her mom then, "Mom hata mimi siku moja Moi atanivalisha kofia." (Mom, one day Moi will confer me with a PhD)." They were poor, and things were not getting better anytime soon.

But the future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams, so goes the adage. Last year, Shikoh became the first person in Sub-Saharan Africa to win a prestigious Google Award. And just recently, she finished her PhDin Computer Science, and her research thesis is not accumulating dust in a shelf; based on her research project, she designed a system, tested it with an NGO that now owns and runs it, and it is now helping a poor community in South Africa.

Alleviate poverty

"As a research student, at the University of Cape Town, I was looking at how mobile phones can be used to improve livelihoods among the poor in Africa," and this led to her designing the system of which she explains; "We created a system that allowed semi-literate people create an A4 CV from their mobile phone, be able to attach documents, email and fax them to prospective employers. The system also scans the Internet for blue collar jobs, aggregate, categorise them and present them in an intelligible way on a mobile phone."

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The beauty of the system, she opines, is that it has cut down the cost of seeking employment a hundred fold, besides cutting down the amount of paper used, which saves the environment.

She would like to replicate the same project in Kenya, though she has first to work on logistics. During the research that took her to a ‘very poor’ part of Cape Town, she came to a realisation that if Kenya utilised its human resource capital, it can leapfrog the country’s economy several levels higher than South Africa.

"I think the poverty situation in SA is really bad, the gap between the rich and poor is incredibly big, second only to Namibia. Also, the education system is skewed, as illiteracy is higher than in Kenya," she says passionately, "but then again I may be wrong."

And Shikoh believes that, to improve peoples’ lives, of which she is passionate, the cell phone, which is ubiquitous, can be used by the willing people to do just that.

Indeed, her Google Anita Borg award was also based on a cell phone application, whose ingenuity and applicability won the hearts of the technology gurus, Google. Granted to exceptional female students in the field of computing, Shikoh’s proposal was titled M-Ganga.

Empower communities

"M-Ganga is an application that provides healthcare through indigenous knowledge," she says. Growing up, her ambition was to become a medical doctor, and providing universal healthcare is her passion.

"My other passion is on indigenous knowledge, regarded as outdated. From old folks I have learnt that there is a lot of information that we can leverage to meet some of the pervasive problems including health care."

Thus M-Ganga’s system proposal aim is to store this information so it does not die with the older people, also providing a tiered health care support.

"Over 80 per cent of the African population consults with traditional healers. Wouldn’t it be wise to equip them with tools that can enable them to provide better health care?" she poses.

On the same note, while pursuing her Masters Degree in Computer Science, Shikoh again used the mobile phone, to see how they can be used for democratic purposes.

Prior to joining UCT, Shikoh completed her undergraduate studies in Computer Science at the African Nazarene University in Nairobi. Even there she was an achiever bagging the university’s Merit award in 2003, its Leadership award in 2005 whilst appearing on the Deans Merit List and Honors Roll throughout her time there. After getting her degree, she worked briefly as a volunteer at Unicef before getting a job as a programmes assistant at the Centre for Multiparty Democracy (CMD).

Math’s geek

Her stint at the CMD ignited a passion for politics. She also learnt that the youth are misinformed on political matters and thus the aversion. But perhaps her greatest lesson was that the mobile phone, even though having the ability to change lives positively, could also be used to a dangerous end; "In 2007 I saw all sorts of text messages peddling untruths. This was a reality check for me as a technologist that any innovation has a good and a bad side."

And at a young age, Shikoh says she has learnt the value of hard work. She acknowledges that she talks a lot, she’s loud and opinionated.

As a tech savvy woman, complete with a PhD, and an Internet presence, (she shares about her life in her blog) does her achievements scare prospective dudes?

"Let’s not discuss my personal life. But, you really cannot pick me from a crowd. True, the PhD thing does scare a few people, but I am yet to meet those who are totally put off, I guess God gave me a likeable personality."

On her being talkative Shikoh candidly says that she picked up reading to make sure that the stuff that comes out of her mouth is useful.

Says the bubbly whiz kid: "I read a lot, and I have formulae; pick five people you look up to, check what they read, or what they have written and read it. I read a lot of Joyce Meyer, and Maya Angelou. I also do biographies; this is the best way to learn from the mistakes and success of others."

A pastor’s daughter, Shikoh grew up with this title, and it is inevitable that she mentions God in every sentence, saying were it not for God; they wouldn’t have made it in life.

Her twin sister, Jennifer is married and lives in Malawi. Her other siblings are Kim and Joe.

"I grew up in a loving family and at some point, with the right person, at the right time, I would like to have my own children and nurture them, marriage is an ordained institution."

A self confessed ‘math’s geek’, Shikoh thanks her high school teacher, Louise Koile who inspired her, and coached her to love mathematics.

"I love people; the spirit of survival among people is one thing that makes me want to wake up and try again. My life’s motto is; ado nio ido, ‘no one is beyond redemption.’

Her advice goes to the young women like her out there.

She tells them to have a dream; "The ability to dream is a gift, though most of us take it for granted. No matter where you come from, know that it is possible to make your dreams come true."

 

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