GirlCode’s Zandile Mkwanazi discusses the inspiration behind the tech NPO


The CEO explains how an accidental interest in tech, a real-life tragedy and a desire to bring diversity to the tech space led to the creation of GirlCode.

With a knack for maths and science in high school, it was a no-brainer for Zandile Mkwanazi, the co-founder and CEO of GirlCode, to pursue her studies in the sciences. In fact, her teacher had encouraged her to study actuarial sciences. “You could make a lot of money in that field,” she was told, and that was all the motivation a young ambitious school-leaver needed.

“That was the plan,” she says. “But as you know, not all plans work out. The actuarial science course was full and the entry requirements were very high.”

As a result, Zandile was told to join the other registration line – the one for a computational and applied mathematics degree at Wits. She was advised that there were some modules that overlapped with actuarial science: economics and maths, so she would then be able to take those credits into her second year of studies and not stray too far from her original plan.

Zandile admits that although she fell in love with what she was studying, it was equally as challenging. She says she didn’t do that well in her first year because of the combination of a difficult course and freedom. “It was the first time in my life I’ve ever got 40 percent for any subject: a shock to the system, I tell you!” she jokes.

Zandile quickly adapted to her new environment, and a few years later, while pursuing her master’s degree, she discovered an internship advertisement on a notice board shared with the computer science class next door. “An internship opportunity came up for the computer science students, but I also wanted to apply for it. I had an idea of what computer science was all about, since some of the modules I did in my own course were computer science modules,” she explains.

The internship/learnership programme was led by Professor Barry Dwolatzky – an innovator, strategist, and the founder of the Wits Tshimologong Digital Innovation Precinct, the university’s digital innovation hub located in Braamfontein.

A tragedy that sparked innovation

Zandile was quite confident in her abilities: during an interview with Prof Dwolatzky, he asked why she wanted to apply, even though she wasn’t a computer science student. Her response was: “I can do what they can do.”

She notes that in her first year in the internship programme, she realised the power that technology has, and how it can change people’s lives in a profound way.

While juggling her master’s and the internship programme, Zandile was concurrently running her own NPO, teaching students in Soweto maths and science on Saturdays. Sadly, one of the maths teachers at the school was shot on her way home one day. She was rushed to the nearest clinic, and even in her critical condition, she was shockingly still asked to complete an admission form! It had devastating consequences because as she lay there, bleeding, while completing a form, the woman sadly passed away from her injuries.

This sad story inspired Zandile to develop a patients’ registry application. It didn’t get off the ground, but her thinking was in the right direction. Right there, Zandile traded an initial career as a quantitative analyst with the banks, for one in technology.

Where are all the women?

Zandile later joined a tech startup with the intention of working as software developer, but gravitated towards business analysis and project management. Gender equality was never really on her radar, but after attending a few tech conferences with her former boss, she realised how few women there were in the space.

She recalls asking her boss why there were so few women developers in the company, let alone in the industry, and was told that the applications just weren’t coming through. It was an ‘aha moment’ for Zandile and right there, the idea for GirlCode was born.

“I suggested we host a hackathon for only women from around the University of Pretoria and the city in general,” she says, “get them to build minimum viable products (MVPs), select the best from that pool and hire them as interns in the company.”

He was sold, and GirlCode had its first hackathon in August 2014. “We didn’t pull the biggest crowd – 20-odd women – but it gave me a great sense of pride. I identified a problem and found a solution – that was enough for me.”

It was a once-off event – or so Zandile thought – but demand started to grow. The company would regularly receive calls about when the next hackathon was. She hosted annual hackathons for the next five years, and demand grew even more, so she roped in her two best friends and suggested they turn this into a non-profit organisation. It picked up fast, to the extent that Zandile ultimately decided to quit her job and run GirlCode full time in 2019.

Coding, one city at a time

Zandile and her co-founder introduced more structured programmes and went into schools to teach coding to young girls as young as eight years old, as well as running a programme that targets matric students. “We actually have 15 students who just started in our learnership programme,” she says.

“The learnership is designed for young women who weren’t able to pursue their studies after matric. We upskill them and have companies absorb them into their graduate programmes,” she explains.

GirlCode is celebrating its 10th year and to make it a special occasion, Zandile and her team have an ambitious plan to host their annual hackathon in 10 cities simultaneously in August – not just in South Africa but in other major African countries.

In addition, through GirlCode’s career day, Zandile also goes into communities to talk to young girls about the multiple opportunities within tech. “Technology is vast: it’s not merely about being a software developer. There’s also the creative side of things like user experience (UX) and being a UI/UX designer, for example.

“We also run a mentorship programme for all our beneficiaries. It’s important to see and engage with someone who looks like you, who you feel represents where you come from, and who you can relate to. What we’re really trying to achieve through this mentorship programme is to instil the thinking of: ‘If this person became a CIO, then what’s really stopping me from doing the same thing?’” she explains.

However, there’s an even bigger goal: Zandile and her team hope to reach 10 million young girls by 2030 through their various programmes, to have more African women representation in the tech space.

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