“I pioneer things. That’s what I do.”

Mariéme Jamme is sitting in the lobby of the Sheraton Great Wall, making time to talk with me between a site visit at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)’s Beijing headquarters and drinks with local partners later in the evening. The next day she’ll kick off a two-day hackathon as the China launch for iamtheCODE, a global educational initiative aiming to teach one million girls and women to code by 2030. China is the 49th country iamtheCODE has visited in its 18 months of existence.

That’s only the latest movement that Jamme has pioneered. In 2007 she launched media platform Africa Gathering to change the overwhelmingly negative portrayal of the continent in Western media, which she felt had been reinforced by well-intentioned savior figures like Bono. In 2003, she created what remains her core business, SpotOne Global Solutions, which helps tech companies establish a footprint in “unfamiliar territories” like Africa, the Middle East and Asia. (“My company brought Google to Africa,” she mentions in passing during our talk.)

But iamtheCODE is where her heart is now, perhaps because it was by teaching herself software programming that she created an alternative future for herself. Born in Senegal, Jamme was trafficked to Paris as a young girl, and didn’t learn to read and write until she was 16. After relocating to the UK, she taught herself HTML (the language basic web pages are built in), later moving on to more involved programming languages like Java. Now, she wants to multiply her personal success story times a million.

Below is a transcript of our conversation, which touches on “tech colonialism,” China’s relationship with Africa (and the suspicions hanging around it in Western media), why women are “data,” and how to address the gender gap in tech to create a more equitable future. (Check back in later this week for a recap of Jamme’s inaugural iamtheCODE event in Beijing.)

Radii: Can you give a quick summary of your background? Where are you coming from and how did you get involved in this kind of work?

Mariéme Jamme: It’s quite complex, my background. My name is Mariéme Jamme, and I’m originally from Senegal. I’ve been working in tech for over 26 years now. But I started in a humbling background. I only started reading and writing when I was 16. I was a trafficked girl, from Senegal to Paris, very unfortunate conditions. I went to the UK, and started building my company and hiring people. I have 25 people working for me today, they’re all young people, between 22 to 35 years old.

I got into tech accidentally. I didn’t have an education, and I didn’t have any degree or all the conventional things people usually have. I just started teaching myself how to code, starting with my ex-husband’s books, in HTML. I started improving myself, going to libraries, doing Java, made my own website, and saw opportunities to improve the lives of others. My company [now] is very focused on helping tech companies, software editors and vendors, to set a foothold in China, in Africa, in the Middle East. That’s the core business. We do a lot of coaching and mentoring, a lot of capacity building.

In 2013, I got nominated by the World Economic Forum as a Young Global Leader, based on my work on empowering young women across the world. Prior to that, I did a lot of work with the White House, when Obama was president. I was one of ten Africans they called to ask about innovation and tech in Africa. I’ve been working ever since, really focusing on how to build my continent. I thought that at one stage my continent was under siege, I would say, by Westerners. Well-meaning people who want to make a difference, but they were doing it the wrong way. And someone has to say something. I just happened to be one of those vocally opinionated people who wanted to bring the balance of power, the balance of content, and just say, “Give us space, let us grow our continent.” And that’s where we are.

Is iamtheCODE a separate initiative or is it related to your business?

iamtheCODE is related to my work, because for the last 10 years I’ve been really involved in the tech sector in Africa, from creating tech hubs, to investing in businesses, to mentoring young women. I’m very focused on female talent, female capacity building. I call them “the forgotten,” just based on my background. When I was growing up I didn’t have the opportunity to have a say. I was in the hands of NGOs and the hands of the government. So I wanted to make a difference.

“When I was growing up I didn’t have the opportunity to have a say. I was in the hands of NGOs and the hands of the government.” — Mariéme Jamme

When we talk about tech and innovation, how can we involve women and girls? Today I call them a currency, because I think they are data. Women use mobile phones, they are consumers, they have lots of information, the information is everywhere but nobody cares about it. I thought that the only way I could educate women that their data is a currency, and they must have a say on who’s using it, was by teaching them how to code, going and finding the data scientists and just giving them the tools they need to be part of the whole conversation. So iamtheCODE is part of my work. It’s my day to day work.

When did you start it?

It’s been a year and a half. It’s been a global success. We didn’t knock on any doors, people came to us. That’s the beauty of it. I really didn’t think iamtheCODE would take off like this. I pioneer things. That’s what I do. I think about something that needs to be done, I start it. That’s my personality. It’s like when we created Africa Gathering in 2007, we just knew that at one stage, people will need a platform to share ideas about Africa. I believe in aggregation of data, and the more we write about Africa and the more we talk about Africa in a good way, the more our ranking goes up on Google. It’s just very AI-focused. And so I thought that, if you Google “Africa” — before Google came to Africa — if you Googled Africa in those times, all you saw was war, Mugabe, very negative narratives. It’s not because the Westerners were talking about Africa in a negative way, it was because Africans were not writing about Africa in a positive way.

So I started writing about Africa. I started writing the first open letter to Bob Geldof and Bono. I started creating these conversations, and I thought the only way we can have a conversation about Africa is to create a platform where people actually meet and talk about Africa. Westerners, non-Westerners, everybody. Friends of Africa. And that led to all this creation of content about Africa. So iamtheCODE is also about creating the content, aggregating the data. I feel that in about 10 years time, you’re gonna ask me again how Africa is doing around STEM, and nobody is actually writing about this or creating a platform around it. So I decided to create something. Build it, and they will come.

You talk about people from the West coming into Africa, and even if they’re well-intentioned, they might create some negative effects. What about in tech? Google is one example, which you just mentioned. Facebook is another. I don’t know what they’re doing in Africa but in India they’ve  tried to make a kind of walled garden, providing free internet access, but you can only access the internet through Facebook. What is your feeling about this?

It’s the same in Africa. I call it tech colonialism. Again, I think this is why it’s very important we educate our people, we give them the skills they’re looking for, because most of them might not know what Facebook is trying to do — “free internet.” In Africa people don’t need free internet, they need skills. And Africans think Facebook is internet. I sit on the board of the Web Foundation, I speak to Tim Berners-Lee, so I understand the problem we have today. How do we create a more digital and equal world?

“In Africa people don’t need free internet, they need skills” — Mariéme Jamme

A guy sitting in Mombasa today, or sitting in Guangzhou, doesn’t have access to the internet, doesn’t know what a VPN is. It’s not informed, someone is making a decision for them. And then you have a Senegalese guy, or the same guy from Mombasa, putting pictures on Facebook. You may say that is educational, but no. I don’t agree with Facebook going into Africa and giving free internet. I would like to see tech companies go into Africa and give skills to people. That is more interesting for us. Many companies are going into Africa. It’s a new market. The technology’s very exciting, there’s lots of data, a lot of people. Africa is home to one billion people. And you have all this data sitting on Facebook. It’s very important we educate Africans that spending time on Facebook is just making Mark Zuckerberg rich. Not Africa.

So my job is to make sure that I talk about this, I write about it. At the same time, I bring in this new population, this new demographic, which is women and girls, who have no idea what is being done to them. Facebook is being used for human trafficking, it’s being used for rape, it’s being used for violence, it’s being used for so many things. And people are not even aware of that. But if we educate our people about technological innovation and social networks, at least they can have an understanding. That’s why iamtheCODE is so important. We can educate people, advise governments and the private sector and investors, and multiple stakeholders can get involved in building capacity, in really empowering the marginalized communities.

What is your target age range with iamtheCODE?

From 6-10, 11-15, 15-25 years old. But we have another really crucial age, which I’m really excited about, which is the 18-25 years old. They’re the millennials, the new generation who were born in the era of the internet. The reason why I’m interested in that generation is that tomorrow, if we’re gonna hire people, those are the people we’re gonna be hiring. It’s very important that we build curriculum and content that reach out to those people.

Many people in the West are accusing China now of being an aspiring colonial power in Africa. Of course there’s a lot of infrastructure being built by China in Africa now. What is your view on that? Whether it’s infrastructure or even tech — Jack Ma was just in Africa — do you think it’s the same process from a different side? Or is there a difference in the relationship between China and Africa, and Africa with the West?

I don’t totally agree with what China does in Africa, to be honest with you. That’s my personal view. But I don’t think China means harm to Africa. China has seen an opportunity in Africa. China needs Africa. There’s more poverty in China than in Africa. And this is very important to emphasize. China needs Africa’s water, China needs Africa’s air, China needs our food, China needs our milk, China needs our cows, our land, our natural minerals.

But I think the difference between what China is trying to do in Africa and what the Western colonialists did in Africa, Britain, France, Germany, all of them — when they came to Africa they didn’t establish a framework for a relationship. I’m not saying China has, but I know that when I go to Senegal, if I ask one of my members of Parliament, “Do you want China to build a road for your people to be able to travel,” they will say yes. If you go to Tanzania, or if you go to Zambia, which has 80,000 Chinese people living there, and say China is coming to build hospitals and roads, the things Africa needs, they’ll say yes.

It’s not always straightforward, it’s not always what Africa should be doing, but again, this is why it’s important that we educate our government, our private sector, our people, to understand what sort of relationship they want.

“I’m here as a Senegalese woman coming to China, teaching girls how to code. Jack Ma is going to Africa and doing the same. It’s globalization.” — Mariéme Jamme

I don’t agree with the Western media all the time focusing on the negatives. I think it’s insulting to Africa sometimes. They think that we are stupid, that we let China abuse us. It’s a bit insulting. They should trust our instinct, they should trust that we’re not stupid, that we know how to establish a relationship with China. And at the moment, the relationship is working fine. I don’t think we should dramatize it that much, we should just let Africans make the decision, and don’t assume that China is abusing us. I’m here as a Senegalese woman coming to China, teaching girls how to code. Jack Ma is going to Africa and doing the same. It’s globalization. He’s got skills he’s going to bring to Africa, I’ve got skills I’m going to bring to China. We just should respect the relationships.

How did you select the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) as your partner for your first iamtheCODE hackathon in China?

I just asked if we could launch iamtheCODE here. I felt very bad that the African girls were doing amazing work, but China was behind. I felt that UNDP was the right partner for us, because they are doing a lot of work on data, which I work on, and I think that I can bring a lot to UNDP, but also they can give us the platform as an organization. They seem to be very serious, compared to other organizations. We could have come here and done it at one of my company’s tech partners here, or Accenture or UBS, but I don’t think it would have the same effect [as it does] with UNDP. Launching iamtheCODE here for the first time, with an endorsement of UNDP, a good partner to us, means a lot. And there’ll be a cross-learning this weekend. They’re very very focused on the UN development goals, which is one of the themes of the hackathon. iamtheCODE is very good now at organizing hackathons, bringing tech to the UN’s development goals and building solutions.

Setting aside for now the issue of development and focusing on gender equality — even in the developed world or Western world this is a huge issue today, recently brought to mainstream attention by that Google memo. Do you think your approach with iamtheCODE could also help address gender inequality in STEM in the West?

Yeah. We could have just come here and just focused on girls. But I think, what I’ve noticed in China and many other countries, also in Japan, is that if you want to have a gender equality conversation, you have to get men involved. Especially in countries like this, where men have their voice and they don’t like people like me, because I’m very vocal about men. [laughs] Where every meeting you go to, the men are the ones taking over.

“If you want to have a gender equality conversation, you have to get men involved” — Mariéme Jamme

It’s a big problem in the West [as well], but the difference is we have rules and frameworks and liberties and freedoms to express it openly. Google is the same. You always have unconscious biases in the US, and in the UK where I am, and in Africa, in my own continent, it’s very rare to see people like us. There are very few Africans at this level.

But [this project is about] coming to China and showcasing that a woman can have a voice. I’ve seen a lot of talented women in China, super talented, highly educated and hardworking. Because they dedicate themselves to their work. It’s the same in Japan. But there is no conversation. And what I’m trying to bring here is conversation. If you want to improve gender equality in this country, we need to have conversations, or at least platforms. That’s what iamtheCODE is trying to do. It’s so crucial, I can’t emphasize it enough. There’s no need to have all these useless development goals with 15-year targets and indicators if the marginalized girls are not even part of the conversation. It doesn’t make any sense.

“There’s no need to have all these useless development goals with 15-year targets and indicators if the marginalized girls are not even part of the conversation” — Mariéme Jamme

But if you have events like the hackathons we’re organizing here, big events like this, getting the UNDP or big companies to say they’d like to get more girls involved, and by the way men can come too… If you do this you are starting to have conversations openly. This is why it’s important to have these sorts of events. Get the men involved, get the girls involved, and then once you have this platform set up, we start focusing more on girls.

I think it’s really important that we talk about gender equality here, because there’s a lot of violence against women in this country, there’s a lot of human trafficking going on, a lot of bad stuff happening. We need to talk openly, freely, without prejudice.

This is your eighth time in China, and your first time to do iamtheCODE here. Why did you come here initially? How do you plan to stay involved in China after this event wraps?

I started coming to China in 2009. The first [few] years I came to learn about the country, I was very confused. When I realized the poverty level is so high here compared to Africa, I was very worried. I was compelled to change narratives, especially for women and girls, to show that we need to do something. If I can plant the seeds this weekend, young Chinese women can take over.

“I don’t think my data would be accurate if China is not part of it”

My mission in life is to come and plant the seed and leave. That’s what I do globally. iamtheCODE is now in 49 countries. I feel that if you come and plant the seeds, and mentor 100 women, 22-year-olds, in the next 5, 10 years they’ll take over. This is the launch of iamtheCODE in China, and the idea is we do more hackathons with UNDP offices in Africa, and hopefully more here, and target around 200 or 300 girls coding by 2018, 2019. I’ve got a very solid target of one million women and girl coders by 2030, and I want to have a Chinese number in that. Because I think China deserves to be a number in my data. I don’t think my data would be accurate if China is not part of it.

So that’s what I’m trying to do. I hope that by having this event, I will get that number, and at the same time create a visibility for the country.

Learn more about iamtheCODE here, and check back in to Radii later this week for a recap of their inaugural Beijing event.

Photos courtesy Mariéme Jamme/World Affairs Council/UNDP