A strong woman starts a small revolution

Afghan entrepreneur Roya Mahboob has used information technology and triggered a wave of modernisation in her country.

picture-alliance/dpa - Afghanistan

Time Magazine has included Roya Mahboob on its list of the 100 most influential people in the world. In a country where many women are still confined to the home, the IT entrepreneur from Afghanistan is breaking cultural traditions. After completing her studies in 2010, she set up The Afghan Citadel Software Company (ACSC) in Herat, which develops software and databases for government institutions. It now has 25 employees, 18 of whom are women. However, for the 27 year old businesswoman, it is not just about economic success – she gives a voice to the women of her country. Roya Mahboob is building separate internet-enabled classrooms for female students. She founded the Women’s Annex, a bilingual public forum for the activities of female bloggers from Afghanistan and Central Asia, and she is currently setting up a television channel for women. “Her example shows the difference that information technology can make in Afghanistan”, says Dr. Nazir Peroz, Director of the Centre for International and Intercultural Communication (ZiiK), part of the Technical University of Berlin. After studying at Herat University, Roya Mahboob completed a six month course in 
IT administration there at the Faculty 
for Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. “Her goal is to actively involve women in expanding the IT industry which is growing quickly after years of devastation”, says Peroz. The computer scientist, who comes from Afghanistan himself, is working with Mahboob on various projects.

In 2007, the ZiiK introduced a six semester Master’s programme in Computer Science for lecturers from Afghanistan. Funding initially came from the World Bank and it is currently supported by the German Fed­eral Foreign Office using funds in the Stabili­ty Pact Afghanistan, by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) and in cooperation with the Ministry of Higher Education (MoHE) in Afghanistan. “Committed entrepreneurs like Roya Mahboob work together closely with universities in Afghanistan and need good people”, says project coordinator Daniel Tippmann. “We are providing further training for know­ledge multipliers who, after they return home, improve the teaching at the universities there.” Two intakes with a total of 48 students have already successfully completed the Master’s. The third round of the course begins in early 2014. Some of the graduates hold leading positions as dean, vice dean or IT director at their respective universities and are successfully helping to shape university life. Success is already evident in the training of the next generation of academics. “We are seeing that the Bachelor programmes at computer science faculties in Afghanistan are improving from one generation to the next”, note Peroz and his team in the selection interviews with Afghan applicants.

The English-language Master’s programme is tailored specifically to the requirements of Afghan universities. The challenges fa­cing the graduates after they return home range from inadequate technical equipment to non-secure and interference-prone internet connections. During the third semester of the Master’s programme, students work on theses at their home universities, and the topics are correspondingly practice-oriented. Saminullah Sameem from Shaikh Zayed University, for example, addressed the question of how a comprehensive network of WLAN access points could be created, which would give even mobile users internet access throughout the campus. Fellow student Foawziah Naseri carried out field research at Herat University and presented a management system for the halls of residence geared towards the specific needs there. The students research a great variety of topics, ranging from the online system for libraries to networking scientific institutions. A support grant already provided by the DAAD provides incentives and the financial flexibility to implement the good ideas as well.

A close network has developed over the years from the German-Afghan cooperation. “Apart from anything else, for many of the Afghan students, arriving in Germany is a step into a foreign world”, says project co­ordinator Daniel Tippmann. “For most of them, it is the first time they have been left to their own devices, and have to do their own shopping, washing and cooking.” Ad­ded to that, everything is unfamiliar – from the weather to the foreign language to the food. So as well as the faculty lecturers, there is a cultural advisor available to provide advice to students. He assists with 
bureaucratic issues, arranges visits to the theatre or to museums and helps the vis­itors from Afghanistan settle into their new surroundings. “The students enjoy life in Germany a great deal if this initial process goes well”, Tippmann finds. “We also see at our Alumni meetings how strongly they feel about developing something at their home universities, and how and motivated they are.” Highly qualified and confident role models such as entrepreneur Roya Mahboob or the Master’s graduates play a major part in developing sustainable structures in Afghanistan. “They establish a new culture of debate in which creativity can develop”, says ZiiK Director Nazir Peroz. What he is particularly pleased about is that women now account for up to 40% of the IT students at the partner universities in Afghanistan. Even in Germany he seldom sees this much female interest in technical subjects. ▪

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