INTERVIEW WITH CATHERINE MURAGA: Why Kenya needs female tech leaders

"We need more sponsors who will champion women in technology in rooms where women are absent". PHOTO/ CIO

More and more women in Africa are gradually rising to the higher echelons of science and technology in Africa. A good number of institutions and corporations are now employing more women to head critical technology sections which were traditionally held by men. The women are taking up the spaces and delivering too just as well as their male counterparts, challenges notwithstanding.

Faustine Ngila spoke to Catherine Muraga, the Head of Engineering Department at the Stanbic Bank Kenya.  She shares her experience, the hurdles facing women in tech and opportunities therein for female led departments.

  1. Who is Catherine Muraga?

I studied Computer Science at Africa Nazarene University. I got my first job before graduation at System Integrators where I was connecting staff institutions to the network. I moved to a local internet service provider where I continued with networking but on a wide area perspective connecting either homes or offices to the internet. Two years later I moved to corporate Kenya and joined the East Africa breweries where I served for six years. I served in various capacities including database administration, desktop support, server administration and leading the team offering the same services. I later joined Kenya Airways in the technology department where I served as the Head of Office Automation. I moved to service delivery while at KQ to understand what services we were giving our customers and how to better it. I later joined Stanbic at a leadership position where I oversaw IT operations, cyber security and running of projects. During my stay I ensured that we had all systems working and a disaster recovery mechanism just in case of failure. 2 years later I joined Sidian bank formerly known as K-Rep Bank at a higher role in regard to leadership where I was in charge of operations and technology, this is when I joined the C suite. I then rejoined Stanbic bank 4 years later to serve from April 2020 still under tech.

2. What impact do women have in the Kenyan technology ecosystem?

The landscape has changed a lot over the years and women have come out more visible in the space. We have seen women lead teams that develop, implement, and take to market products that change lives. Looking at my current and previous role, I lead teams that brought to market the capabilities of mobile banking and internet banking which contributed to bank service and commission. Looking at it from the corporate space, I know a few ladies who lead teams on the various technology units that they run, similarly bringing opportunity, introducing a new way to look at issues and creating a dynamic approach into the IT space. I have 20 years’ experience.

3. Are there specific projects/products you have been involved directly in?

I have been involved in developing mobile banking and internet banking and taking them to the market space in the two banks I have served. This has translated to facilitating payments. I have also been involved in rebranding and leadership positions. This is because the Kenyan market is keen in offering mergers and acquisitions and tech comes to play because the issue of compatibility comes to play. I have also been involved in migration from premise data centers to cloud where we migrate most workloads to AJA and AWS, all in a view to position Stanbic Bank as a future ready bank.

4. What challenges do you go through as a woman in the tech space?

Self-doubt. It affects both men and women but women a bit more. This comes into play where regardless of the qualification and experience, one question that lingers in the back of one’s mind is, ‘Am I good enough?’ The element of self-doubt comes up, that even when one has an innovative idea, they will still wonder if their ideas will carry the day. 

Secondly, we need more sponsors who will champion women in technology in rooms that the women are not there.  However, there must be work put in by the lady in order to network and put her skills out there for her to be noticed. Taking a notch higher is knowing how to access proper funding especially for women who have decided to run their own enterprises.

5. Are you a family woman? If yes, do you feel that aspect in a sense holds you back from achieving what you could if you were a man?

Yes, I am a family woman with children, and yes, some jobs are demanding. In our market especially at the onset where you really don’t have a choice it might affect you. Some get lucky to get jobs where they can take care of the family needs and still be productive at the workspace, but most get to suffer the turmoil of the job especially those who have to work on night shifts and other very demanding spaces and travel. That said, there is more variety now than back in the day where one can choose where to serve and the intricacies of availability. Covid-19 has also shown us that emergence of new technologies has enabled creating harmony with the demands of life. 

6. Apart from new technology, what other solutions can be used to remedy the challenges mentioned earlier?

With the new technologies coming up, one needs to read broadly to get opportunities that will ease the burden to commute. The proliferation of social media can be used widely to network professionally, this also goes hand in hand on mentorship whereby we have moved from a traditional approach where one must sit down over coffee. For mentorship, it can now be done online just as I have done before. Also being confident enough to raise your hand for sponsorship.

7. Do you think there is a bias in funding men-lead start-ups vis-à-vis women-lead start-ups?

The dynamics are changing. Recently, Hilda Moraa of Pezesha was featured in the Business Daily where she secured funding for her Fintech. This is just to show that it is possible. I agree it is not as much as we would like to see, but even at the university level, some of the projects students are working on can solve real problems. The question then should be, how the academia world connects these bright students, especially ladies who have fantastic solutions, and put them in an audience where they can access financial institutions that can provide funding or incubation or get in-touch with investors. I believe they should be encouraged more and told that employment is not always the solution.

8. What is your advice to women starting up with interest in the tech space, especially those in campus?

The same way we pay a lot to gain hard skills, they should also focus the energy to gain soft skills, they are soft but very necessary. Case in point, Communications skills is a common unit always overlooked in campus, but leaving campus, you realize you have a fantastic idea, but you cannot articulate it when put in front of potential investors. Another skill of importance is Finance. Monetizing an idea or concept is critical because anyone investing in your idea, be it career or solution you intend to bring, they must know how they get their return on their money. Financial skills trickle down to how one apportions the value they bring and translating to the salary you demands

9. What is your take on the current cyber security and what’s the role of women in the field?

Let me respond to this question from a broad view, and I will approach this in two ways- one of them is the Regulators. When talking about regulators, I am referring to regulating entities for saccos and banks who have been on the forefront of printing and creating awareness around their guidelines and policies or framework entities. They have narrowed down the roles from the board, senior management and so forth to have ensured roles are filled to ensure this culture goes on with time, so in a sense they have set the pace. 

The second approach I’ll respond to your question is via the private sector. One thing I have seen is the awareness for the users. Let me give an example to make my point clearer, when you look at the emergency social engineering crime, fraud related crime in 2020-2021, we saw a lot of banks communicating to their customers via SMS, memos, letters, emails or even billboard saying that they should be careful, or don’t give out your pin, password and so forth. These have created a customer centric approach to cyber security, for example ‘Pin Yako Siri Yako’, a catch phrase used by Safaricom. Private sector partnering with regulated entities and security enforcement entities also goes a long way. This can be done by publishing or sharing information breaches through a secure channel to ensure trust is upheld. There is more to be done in between players in the academia, NGOs and ICT Ministry. 

10. What is the future of women in the tech space?

The ratios are changing in the space. Let me give you an immediate example to relate with, myself and a lady who runs tech for StanChat Kenya, we are the only women in a space that has close to 40 banks. Agnes Gathaiya Heads Google in the region. That wasn’t the case a few years ago. This shows that if we have someone who seats at topmost positions, give other women the encouragement that it’s possible.  

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