Hital Muraj is CISCO’s Nairobi Manager for Corporate Affairs and an Acumen Foundation - East Africa Fellow. Hital is a recognized industry leader and has spoken at many UN and Government conferences in Africa on engaging youth in technology and eradicating poverty using technology. Her hard work and dedication have earned her awards such as Global Ambassador for Youth from Usher's New Look Foundation, Inclusion and Diversity Ambassador for Middle East and Africa for Cisco, Catalyst Award from Cisco, Champion Award from Cisco, as well as many others. She has also received recognition from Microsoft for advancing technology for developing communities. She has been nominated as one of Kenya's Top 40 Most Powerful Women Under 40 for two consecutive years.
Q: You have helped many different people: criminals in Kibera, women, the hearing impaired... How do you choose the projects you work on?
There is a common theme to all my work, which is using technology to fight poverty, regardless of the subgroup of people.
Q: How do you “eradicate poverty using tech”?
Simply by helping teach IT skills to the poor. And it works. One of the young men I worked with from Kibera aspired to be a Matatu driver, which is fine but today, thanks to IT training he has left the slums, has started several companies in the slums, works for an IT company today and is doing really well.
Q: What’s your perspective on Africa Rising?
Part of it is amazing. The most important aspect I find is the change in people themselves. Before there were no activists but today many are demanding accountability and are bringing about ideas to improve things.
In Africa, there is a lot of leapfrogging in technology, but I can’t say unfortunately there is no leapfrogging when it comes to infrastructure. There are a few examples in the civic arena though. I can think of a USAID funded project called Bunge la Mwananchi (The People’s Parliament), which is a youth-based parliamentary structure. In general, the change is really to do with activism.
Ten years ago, there was virtually no freedom of speech. Today, there are many Activist groups. Recently, the President asked the people for help to fight corruption. Boniface Mwangi - one of these new activists in Kenya - created a list of actions for transparency which he publicized and sent to the Government. He also recently shone light on Members of Parliament who were asking for an increase in their salary by bringing pigs, “M-Pigs”(a play on the word MP) in front of the parliament to show their greed.
On the other hand, corruption is rampant and it is everywhere. Take Kibera for example. There is such a huge amount of aid being given there but there hasn’t been any real change for years. It is actually getting worse because the mindset of people there is becoming used to and dependant on the system of aid put in place. I find there is very little courage in people to fight back.
The corruption and how the aid system works there has stopped me from creating an NGO. If I did, I would have to compromise my values, the system would swallow me up.
I’ll give you an example. I wanted to create a youth centre un Kibera and I looked for a space for four years. One day, I learned that a world-famous celebrity had given $1M to create a talent hub, which from what I heard, wasn’t used much. I went in search of this place to see if it could house my programs. The building didn’t exist. I stood in the spot where it was supposed to be, where the celebrity had been during an inauguration ceremony and there was nothing there. After that, I started getting death threats because I was digging for information. I have been mugged at gun point before and I know it is for similar reasons.
Another example is a well-known Non-Profit with Board members in the USA, whose name I won’t mention. At one point in his life, the founder of this Non-Profit decided to leave his life of crime in Kibera and created a movement to empower urban youth, women, and girls. Because of this work he was given a change to study in the U.S.. There he met his wife and she returned with him to continue his work together. This is a very well-known and respected NGO. However, even these people have been corrupter by the system. Both are quoted to take large sums of money from the funds they receive which should be going to the programs.
There are just so many cases like these. That is why, I just continue to do what I have been doing. I am not an NGO but a Youth Movement and that allows me to act without the system changing me, though of course it also limits the impact I can have.
Unfortunately, this system that opposes change not only in the NGO world but of course also in politics. Before this current government – as it is in Britain - the Government Ministers could only be chosen among elected officials. This has completely changed. Today, the President can only choose his cabinet from non-elected officials, vetted by Parliament. The idea is to have real experts in the field.
We were very excited by this idea. This is how the head of Google in Kenya became the Minister of IT and the head of Nairobi hospital became the Minister of Health. Unfortunately, the system has gotten to them too and they are doing very little. The system is sucking them dry.
Q: What’s your perspective on development?
I am very optimistic for cities but rural Kenya hasn’t changed at all in years.
To be frank I am scared, scared of the optimism bubble of the Africa Rising narrative when there is still such corruption. There will come a day when we will have to pay the country’s debts and I do not see how that is possible at the moment or even to prepare for that time.
There is this “Opportunity, Grab, Opportunity, Grab” mindset which is a real problem. It is as if we had lost our value system. I am scared for this upcoming generation does not seem to have had an education fostering strong values.
Q: Who should I meet?
I would recommend going to talk to other Kenyan entrepreneurs. There are several good incubators in Nairobi: I-hub, NaiLab, M-Lab and I-lab, the two first are in the same building, which may make things easier.