Regina Honu On Challenging Gender Norms & Using Social Enterprise To Tackle Complex Problems In Africa
Regina Honu is the CEO of Soronko Solutions, a technology company. She runs the first coding and human centred design school in West Africa for children and adults called Soronko Academy. The academy is part of Soronko Foundation which has trained over 6500 women & girls and has expanded to train boys, men, deaf and autistic children.
She was awarded the 2018 AFS Active Global Citizen Award for her contributions to global competence education and a winner of the Challenging Norms, Powering Economies initiative by Ashoka, UN Women and Open Society Foundations for work to challenge gender norms in women’s economic empowerment. She has also been ranked one of the top 50 CEO's in Ghana.
Regina recently spoke at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris on closing the gender gap in computer science. She also spoke at Brookings Institute in Washington DC on Advancing Female entrepreneurship in Africa and an ambassador and mentor for thecamp; the first European campus dedicated to emerging technology and social innovation.
Regina is listed as one of BBC 100 most inspirational and innovative women for 2017. She was awarded the 2017 Northwestern University Buffet Institute for Emerging Global Leaders Award and awarded by Coca Cola in the Coca Cola young achievers award as one of the big six and a leader in technology. She was also unveiled as the 2016 Vlisco Brand Ambassador. Regina won Startup Entrepreneur of the year and Soronko Solutions won Social Start-up of the year for 2016 at the Ghana Startup Awards. She was awarded Young Entrepreneur of the year by the GPA Awards from Africa 2.0 and JCI Ghana Outstanding Young Person award for scientific and technological advancement. Soronko Solutions was nominated for the editor’s choice award in the Women in IT award in the UK. Regina is an Ashoka Fellow, Aspen Institute New Voices Fellow, GOOD Fellow, Global Shaper of the World Economic Forum, Vital Voices Fellow and a Change Leader with Tigo Reach For Change. She belongs to the Africa Leadership Initiative, West Africa.
Regina shares a fascinating story of how she rose against the odds to start Soronko Solutions, the first coding and human-centred design school in West Africa, whilst providing insights into the growing social enterprise movement in Africa.
Highlights from the interview (listen to the podcast for full details)
[Tom Allen] - Could you please share a bit about your background and what led you to working in the social enterprise and tech sectors?
[Regina Honu] - I grew up in Accra, Ghana in West Africa, in a middle class family. My mother is a trader, so she sells things in Africa and my father is also an entrepreneur, but now he sells internet, so he's an internet service provider.
I was a very curious child, but growing up in Ghana at the time, the way girls were socialised is there's a program that ‘a child must be seen and not heard', so a good girl was one that did as she was told, she followed all of the instructions and we weren't even socialised to speak up about our opinions, to express ourselves, so you just had to be agreeable and likeable. And as a child, I remember there were several things that shaped the person that I am today. The first one, was I was very interested in science and technology, but I had never travelled. I watched a movie and a man was able to fly with a rocket strapped on his back, so I thought everything I saw on TV was real, so I thought I could design my own rocket. I drew it and I took it to my teacher who said, ‘it's impossible, girls don't build rockets'‘ and that, ‘I'll end up in the kitchen.’
Now, when he said that first, I thought, 'Okay, he doesn't know what he's talking about because I saw it on TV,' but he actually instead shelved my rocket-building aspirations. If he had nurtured me, I could've been a rocket scientist.
And then, based on what your interests were, there were the three premium careers that every Ghanian parent wanted their child to do at the time which were doctor, lawyer and I think pilot or engineer. And so, because I was good in science and maths, everyone thought, 'oh, you're going to be a doctor'. But my father brought home a computer and I played a game called Pac-Man. I fell in love with it, and I wanted to change Pac-Man. I learned that I had to learn how to code, but once again when I expressed interest in becoming a computer scientist I was told, "No, coding and technology is for boys. It's very difficult."
But after I had been told I couldn't become a rocket scientist, when I heard it the second time around I was like, I'm tired of being told as a woman, what I can and cannot do. I want to be able to do anything.
So I went on to university to study computer science. At university, there were three ladies in my computer science class, and my first programming language was called Visual Basics, and I failed that class. So I was on my way to change my course because I was thinking, ‘okay, everything everyone was saying must be true, I mean, I can't even take the first class.’
But then I decided, ‘no, that cannot be my attitude. I can't give up on my first try at something that I really wanted to do.’ So, I decided to go back and study harder, and that's what I did, until I fell in love with programming and computing.
But prior to then, when I was in high school, I got the opportunity to go on an exchange program in Norway with AFS, and while I was in Norway, I also took a science class because I love science and technology. But what was interesting was, back home in Ghana, we just memorised formulas and we memorised past questions. So, I can draw very advanced electrical circuits, but if you give me two wires and a bulb, I'll just be looking at you like, ‘what's happening here?’ So, everything was all theory and we laughed at our application of what was going on.
So, when I took my science class in Norway, I couldn't apply. I remember even the teacher then was asking me, whether I was really doing science back home in Ghana, because I was missing that part of the application, and that was what was required in my class. So, when I came back home, I started to ask more questions. I was like, ‘oh, when they say osmosis is the flow from an upward to a downward motion through a semipermeable membrane, what does that mean?’ And people would say, ‘oh no.’ I think I've travelled and I'm boring the class with my thousand and one questions, but I kind of kept wanting to not take things at face value and think deeper.
So when I went into corporate Ghana after University, I started working while I was in University, and when I got my first job in my third year in University, so I was financially independent. So I stopped taking out loans from my parents and I started being able to pay for things myself. When I graduated, I continued to work and I worked also in Cuba. So I felt that everything was going to be linear, like, hard work equals results.
But also the other thing was, while I was working in one of the plants, I got the opportunity to go to Microsoft to be interviewed in Redmond in Seattle. In that process, I was thinking, obviously, it would be amazing to work at Microsoft. It would be like a dream come true, but if I left and I went to Microsoft, I always wanted to stay in Ghana. I'm in love with Ghana. I want to make Ghana better and I had heard of this phenomenon called the ‘brain drain’ when the best and the brightest Ghanians were leaving.
So I thought, ‘no. Microsoft is amazing, but how would I be contributing to making big change?’ And I really wanted to fix my country. I wanted to make my country better and I wanted to make the situation for women and girls better in Ghana.
So even after I got experience, when I came back, I started to really think about what I could do toward social impact. But I didn't have any guidance, and even just based on my socialisation I was scared. I was scared to step out of my comfort zone, so I continued to work. But I always say that, you can put a snooze button on your alarm, but it's going to ring.
So I kept thinking, how can I really make a change? How can I really bring development?
I saw that from the way our educational system was so based on word memorisation, it was going to be so difficult for us to be able to solve our own problems if we didn't have that critical thinking and problem solving opportunities, which is essential. And if we didn't have the skill sets, then we would always either be dependent on government or aid.
And so people in Ghana for example, the rains always come, you oversleep, and then people lose lives, property, and every year it is the same thing because people are not thinking, ‘okay, what can we do differently this year? How can we prepare for example what we know is going to happen?’ And people just say ‘oh, we are expecting the government's going to do something,’ or people will say ‘oh we're expecting aid organisations to come and help us.’ But that mindset needs to change, and it needs to be, ‘how can I solve this problem? What are the resources that I have and how can I bring this and this together?’
It may sound a little cliché, but to just make Ghana better and to really push and change that narrative, because I was tired of that single story of Africa. You know the poverty.
We can also make amazing innovations for the rest of the world. We don't always have to rely on the developed nations. We as a developing nation are also creating innovation and we can use technology to really help us meet our infrastructure challenges.
It's a fascinating story, Regina.
In your role as CEO at Soronko Solutions, how are you using this organisation to create the change in Ghana that you're talking about?
I'm using Soronko in a different way, so the first one is advocacy. What we do is we a lot of changing narratives and then presenting the solutions. So our approach to advocacy is presenting to people what the solution is going to be. So before we start, we engage with different companies, we use social media and offline media, we use radio, we use face to face interaction all showing that, number one, it's possible to empower women and girls to use technology, and it's possible to showcase what they can do once they're empowered with technology skills.
The other thing is also training, so for us it’s developing that skill set and changing that mindset.
What have been some of your biggest challenges in leading Soronko and how have you navigated your way around them?
Another big challenge we had to deal with was mindset and convincing parents that women and girls could learn how to code, could learn how to create technology and convince them that we're quite important. So we do end up on that side and that's one of the big challenges. What we're doing now is we're actually working on a radio program about technology and local outreach, because we realise that the majority of the parents and the community find it complicated to understand why it's important. They don't really understand all this technology and digital innovation once it is presented in English. So if we break it down in local language and help them to really understand what's going on, then it would be better for them and it will help change mindsets.
Another challenge that we have is finding trainers. We would like to expand in terms of the range of classes we apply at the academy, bringing things like AI, data science, IOT, and all the basic technology. But the challenge we have sometimes is it's difficult to find somebody who is skilled in the subjects that they teach. Teaching is an art form, maybe not a general art, but being able to transfer that knowledge is something that they should be able to do well. So finding that balance can also be a challenge for us.
Finally, I think the other challenge is trying to connect with more opportunities. So for us, we need to build up the confidence.
The soft skills are very important.
We don't only teach digital and technical classes, but a lot of soft skills; confidence, leadership, how to take an interview, how to start a business, all those essential skills that are needed once you've gotten the digital and technical how-to to be able to support you, to realise or achieve any dream opportunity that comes your way.
So as a speaker then at this year's Social Enterprise World Forum, which is going to be held in Ethiopia in October, what are you most looking forward to about the event?
I'm looking forward to a couple of things. First, I'm looking forward to the conversations and the panels and the discussions with all the like-minded people within the space and I'm looking forward also to the next steps and the engagement. I'm hoping that after all the different conversations that we'll have, the next actionable steps will be how can we come together and collaborate? Because I know there are several organisations doing amazing things. Some have similar leagues. So the question is, how do we come together and build a bigger spot? How do we bring our resources and work together? I'm looking to be able to learn new things but also meet people within the space and then talk about collaborations and how we can work together.
It's going to be such an exciting experience and so many great people in the one place.
How have you seen the social enterprise sector transform and change over the last five years or so in Africa?
In Ghana we are seeing a rise in social enterprises and especially with young people who are looking to do well and also do good. So young people are driven by not just turning a profit but understanding how they can solve a problem.
And on the continent, since we have many different problems, it's refreshing and exciting to see different people within the continent, and others coming to the continent, to bring a twist and try and solve these problems, which is great. Others too are focused on doing a deeper dive and really getting to the root cause.
Another interesting trend is that we have organisations that are doing corporate social responsibility differently. They are looking for partner social enterprises on the ground who are making progress and making impact. I think finally, we are seeing government and policy makers also tuning in and plugging in to understand, ‘okay, what do they need to change on the policy side? How can they compliment the influx of social enterprise organisations?’ So I think generally it's an upward motion. We're seeing more numbers of social enterprises starting up, but also more collaboration between governments and bigger international organisations and also more discussions on policy change.
It sounds like a really exciting time. So what advice would you give to the aspiring social entrepreneurs out there who are doing their absolute best to create positive impact?
My first advice is don't give up, because when you're working in the social enterprise space, it can be a challenge as with any other space. And sometimes there may be things that you will encounter challenges that will come in different shapes and forms, so keep going.
The other advice is to track your impact and your progress. Things that show the speed and the impact of the work that you're doing. So don't just say oh, ‘I can make this work,’ but make sure that you're intentional. Have written dates out and tracking your impact and sustaining that impact. Also make sure that you follow up is key. And finally, collaborate and work together.
You're not on an island, you have similar people and organisations who want to help, so don't try to do too much by yourself, but look at how you can bring different people on board so that you can go far.
What inspiring projects or initiatives have you come across that are creating some big positive social change?
There are several. There's one lady that is working with autistic children and she's created an app, it's called the Autism App and the organisation is called Autism Ambassadors and she's really making an impact within the autism space in Ghana. There's another organisation in Nigeria, (called eTrash2Cash), that converts trash to cash. And there are several organisations across the continent that are really deep diving into problems and coming up with basic ways of solving them and tracking that impact and then having that transparency. So, I'm very excited each time I hear people across the continent doing amazing things in the social enterprise space.
Yeah, so there's a tonne of examples there. It will be great to explore some of them at the world forum. So to finish off then, what books would you recommend to our listeners?
Books, that's a good question…
What I do recommend is that you set up Google Alerts for areas of interest and each time this is something trending, or an important discussion, or an article you get that in your alerts.