Kenyan wins Google 2010 award for phone app

Growing up Silvian Gitau thought of being a medical doctor as it would allow her to help people.
This was not meant to be as the sight of blood and people in pain made her sick.
Her need to impact people’s lives along with her math teacher Ms Loise Koile, who helped her exploit the love for the subject, saw her pursue a career in technology. 

She is constantly working at developing software applications that will have an impact in society.
This led her to being one of the recipients of the 2010 Google Anita Borg price in April this year.
“This actually did happen?” she says in an interview with Business Daily.
Her proposal for a phone application dubbed M-ganga that would record, catalogue and map out traditional medicine and knowledge for both archival purpose and everyday use led to the global recognition. 

Her M-ganga application aims at combining traditional healing, community health workers and doctors to provide healthcare.
The system looks at taking advantage of the knowledge by traditional healers by making it available.
“We aim at using mobile phones as the tool to collect the information, provide accessibility and disseminate it to villages,” she said, adding that there will also be a web portal that people practicing modern medicine can use.

Initially, this was just an idea and when Google asked what she would do with the money if she won it she came up with a full proposal that won the award.
Today, she is in discussions with various people who have bought into the idea and hopes it will become a product in the near future.
Ms Gitau is currently a PhD student at the University of Cape Town (UCT) where she is doing research on the semi-literate job seekers in Khayelitsha in Cape Town and the use of technology.
As part of the award she got to visit the Google offices in Zurich in June.
She did not have a list of who she wanted to meet there and was only keen to “demystify Google,” as the company is seen as the “it” working place for her field as they take the best.

“I wanted to see and interact with some of the engineers to make sure they were all human and not robots,” she said. “They were pleasant and was taken by the working environment, especially the massage chair with piped music to relieve stress.” 

In addition to the trip, Ms Gitau received an academic scholarship worth Sh714,000.
Most of the money will go towards her PhD programme with some going into the implementation and support of a new tool, which she refuses to disclose, she has been working with.
After her O’ level she joined the African Nazarene University in Nairobi where graduated in a Bachelor of Science in Computer Science, before moving to work for the Centre of Multiparty Democracy (CMD) as a Programmes Assistant.

It is at CMD she realised what she really wanted to do; use technology to inform and educate people.
Armed with this experience she set out to pursue her Masters at UCT in 2008 here she worked at merging her passion to help people and her IT skills by researching on how mobile phones can be used to support voter education in Africa.

Her research led her to work with a team that designed the system dubbed ‘Snap N Grab’, a Microsoft registered product that is a notice board mainly used by non-governmental organisations to distribute information.

Upon her graduation she opted to continue pursuing her education and hopes to finish her doctorate education by the end of this year.
Once her dissertation is approved for submission she plans to get onto the first flight into Kenya where she hopes to pursue non-academic research and be part of the development agenda especially pertaining to ICT.
“The government should help build the capacity for our graduates to create for our underlying needs and even to export,” she said.
She said the policies in the Kenya need to be updated and be more supportive of the current climate of young up coming innovators and innovations.
The accessibility of mobile phones to at least 60 per cent of Kenyans has helped a high uptake of technology. 
By Kui Kinyanjui

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