How TechSharePro 2019 inspired the Inclusive Africa Conference Founder

Guest blog: Irene Mbari-Kirika, Founder and CEO of inABLE

Irene Mbari-Kirika is Founder and CEO of inABLE, a not-for-profit Colour headshot photo of Irene Mbari-Krikaorganisation working in Kenya to bring computer assistive technology to disabled students in Africa. A dynamic, global strategic leader and an executive-level innovator, she is a recipient of the Order of the 2016 Grand Warrior of Kenya (OGW) award and has been nominated for the National Diversity and Inclusion Awards & Recognition 2020 in the award category I7: Diversity and Inclusion Digital Inclusion Champion Award. 

In March this year, inABLE will be hosting the first ever Inclusive Africa Conference taking place in Nairobi – with the aim to raise awareness, educate and share best practice of how inclusive design can benefit Africa and the lives of disabled people living there. Transforming its place into a crucial component at the onset of any tech design, instead of a token afterthought. 

Irene attended TechShare Pro in November 2019 with a keen interest in discovering the hot topics and innovations facing the UK and European accessible tech sector. Here she shares her reflections on the event, and her objectives for the upcoming Inclusive Africa Conference. 

What motivated you to attend TechShare Pro? 

I wanted to attend to find out more about what is happening currently in the UK and European region in terms of accessible tech. I am based between the US and Kenya, so I know a lot about what’s happening here, but wanted to see what were the big topics and innovations in other regions. 

Which speakers at TechShare Pro 2019 had the biggest impact on you?

Haben Girma was important to see. Accessibility is at the heart Colour photo of Haben Girma on stage at TechShare Proof her communication – it is everything to her, and without it she would be shut out from the rest of the world. 

I’ve worked with blind students for over ten years, and I am constantly telling people that digital accessibility is not an option – it’s something we absolutely must do. When a product isn’t accessible you could be stopping a substantial number of the population from using it. Haben and her outstanding achievements exemplify just why all people, regardless of disability, need to be able to use digital products. 

Hearing from Malin Rygg in the Carrots and Sticks panelColour photo of Malin Rygg debate was also very eye-opening. Malin is the Head of Authority for Universal design of ICT in Norway, and spoke about their enforcement of the inclusive design – the challenges and successes they have experienced there. It was interesting because many regions create policies and a legal framework but they are often not monitored or enforced if not followed adequately. It’s really important for us to be aware of this in Africa, where we are at the outset of creating accessible ICT policies – if we have them, we need a framework, and perhaps most importantly, they need to be monitored and enforced. 

Seeing Samantha Soloway from Verizon Media speak Colour photo of Sam Soloway presenting at TechShare Pro was another ‘lightbulb’ moment for me. Their Accessibility Labs help to teach corporations what digital accessibility means on the ground and what they need to do to implement it across their own assets. For me, it’s affirming to know that this lab exists in New York, providing a service such as this to corporations. In Africa, it feels like the corporate sector are still slow to see the business case for digital inclusion, so this was a taster of what could is possible, and I’m interested to see how we could replicate in some way here. 

Which accessible products or innovations inspired you at the conference? 

I loved seeing the students from Digit Music perform their instrumental (video of their performance below). What inspired me about the tech they used is that it builds on to an already existing skill - using a similar controller to make music as they use already on their wheelchairs. It is absolutely meeting the user where the user is, and putting them at the centre of the design. Building on an existing skill to do something as fun as make music, with the whole audience able to participate.

One thing I am always trying to convey is that inclusive design doesn’t necessarily mean starting a whole new product or innovation from scratch.  For example, we are finding with the banking sector in Africa that many of the mobile apps are not accessible, excluding a substantial number of the potential client base they are trying to reach. It doesn’t take much to think ‘OK, so what can I do to make my app accessible for all users?’  This is a market that is really not being tapped in to.  

The inaugural Inclusive Africa Conference takes place this March 29th – 1st April. Are there any lessons learned from TechShare Pro that might help shape the conference?

One of the things I loved about TechShare Pro was how intimate it was, and the level of expertise in the room. That showed me that I didn’t need to have huge numbers of participants but rather focus on getting the right people there. 

The discussions were fantastic and I learnt how important it is to feature the relevant topics that will get people fired up, make connections, learn from each other and move towards change. The discussions at TechShare Pro were advanced, which was perfect for the audience there. In Africa, the same topics apply, but we really need to start from ground level, so people can understand the foundations that underpin it all.

Finally, what is the Inclusive Africa Conference and who is it for?

The Inclusive Africa Conference 2020 takes place in Nairobi, Kenya from 29 March – 01 April. 

The first-ever conference of this kind in Africa, it brings together tech giants from around the world to put digital inclusion firmly on the African agenda. 

My vision is that it will unite those working in government, the private sector and NGOS  - indeed, anyone who provides a digital product or service – around a common objective. A collaborative hub to start thinking about how to make their digital services more inclusive.

There are so many innovative solutions coming out of Africa but most are not accessible. With this conference we want to show the policy makers, private companies, NGOs and disabled people that there is a way and why it is essential we make it our focus. Because if they are inclusive they will serve every African.

For the international community, I invite you to join us. Instead of addressing the needs of Africa with outside solutions, come and work with us to create the change we all want to see. 

Related content:

Videos of the TechShare Pro 2019 sessions with transcripts plus interviews with panellists