Alvin Chitena is an ambitious 21-year-old Zimbabwean whose love for computers, which developed in his preteen years, saw him acquire skills like assembling a computer from scratch. He is currently enrolled at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, US, where he is pursuing a Bachelor of Arts, with Computer Science as his major and Data Analysis as his second subject. In 2016, his first year of study, he started an organisation that teaches young people to code. He called it Zim Code and it is based in his hometown, Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second largest city. Chitena says he did not want other kids to also have to wait 19 years of their life and a trip across the Atlantic just to learn coding.

A grant of US$10 000, awarded by the Davis Projects for Peace, funded the inception of Zim Code. The organisation provides Zimbabwean youth from low-income schools with affordable access to the resources they need – computers, Internet access and instruction – to learn computer programming and how to apply their new skills in their community. For the first two years, programme participants did not have to pay anything. While maintaining that model, however, participants will now be required to pay US$5, or less, as a subscription fee to cover expenses such as stationery, printing and to subsidise some of the tutors who cannot afford food and/or transport from their own pocket. Zim Code has 50 trained tutors, all of whom are either university students, recruited mostly by word of mouth, or recent high-school graduates who are alumni of the programme.

The organisation’s executive team consists of four people: a chief executive officer, a chief technology officer and a chief logistics officer, none of whom earn a salary. However, the CEO and CLO receive a small stipend to cover food and transport costs.

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Gender diversity in the tech space

Chitena says that at present the executive team is not representative of the gender diversity of Zim Code, where the current women-to-men ratio among the tutors is 48% to 52%. This ratio has consistently been improving since the first year of operations. It is Chitena’s hope that as time goes on, diversity across gender will cease to be an issue at all levels of Zim Code and that people will occupy any position based on interest and ability.

Various articles have been written to highlight the (unfair) discrimination in the tech space, and Chitena confirms that Zimbabwe is not exempt from this. According to their own analysis, the greatest disparities that exist in Zimbabwe’s tech space are across gender and socio-economic class/income. To address the former, Zim Code recruits students on a 3:2 girls-to-boys ratio to actively encourage more girls to participate in an industry where they are severely under-represented. To address the latter, the organisation offers its services at a very low cost, or at no cost at all, to its low-income students.

Facing the challenges

As with any other entity, Zim Code is not without its share of challenges to overcome in order to ensure its successful continuity. The organisation relies almost completely on US-based funding and that, Chitena says, comes with a lot of logistical and legal barriers. This means that it often does not have enough money to pay the workers and tutors and, sometimes, certain initiatives have to be placed on hold. Another challenge faced by Zim Code is bureaucracy, be it the Zimbabwe Revenue Authority (ZIMRA) creating difficulties when Zim Code tries to import equipment or officials at the Ministry of Education being so slack that they take more than six weeks just to issue one approval letter.

Chitena points out that Zimbabwe’s cyber laws make it difficult for the tech space to thrive. The young CEO believes that it is important for leaders involved in youth affairs, technology and education to fully appreciate the important role played by technology. Failure to do this, along with the centralisation of power around such leaders, he says, makes it difficult for young tech entrepreneurs to explain their ideas, let alone get funding or assistance to execute them. Instead, they are met with taxation and bureaucracy.

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Despite the challenges, and even if Zim Code still has a long way to go to fulfil his vision, Chitena says they continue to work diligently towards that future. They remain committed to introducing coding to young people who would otherwise never have the chance to try their hand at it.

“Everyone needs to possess a baseline level of understanding of coding, because, just like mathematics, coding is fast becoming an intrinsic component of our society,” Chitena says. “Classrooms are ‘getting smarter’, cars are driving themselves and grocery stores automatically check out your goods and charge you, without a cashier involved. Even though these technologies have not yet taken hold universally, they are the future and they all have one common backbone: code. That’s why I believe that coding should become a standard academic subject. This would ensure that even those people who do not necessarily work in the tech industry are fluent in code; that is, they understand the context of the technology that powers everyday life from the perspective of their own career, and that those who want to work in the tech industry and write the code for these technologies have a strong head-start in terms of tech education.”

Those who wish to support Zim Code can directly contact Alvin Chitena at e-mail address [email protected] or at Zim Code’s e-mail address [email protected] Alternatively, call Zimbabwe: +263 785 375 980 or USA: +1860 807 6290.

Follow Zim Code on social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn) on the handle @zimcodeorg or donate directly via http://zimcode.org/donate.htm