Between developing an app that will identify health facilities which can deliver medicines and are not crowded at any given time, as well as an AI based robotic system for recycling plastic bottles, Shakila Mbaraka Mshana has big ideas that she hopes will solve some of the biggest issues facing Africa today.
As a second year Masters of Embedded and Mobile Systems through the Centre for ICT Excellence in East Africa (CENIT@EA), Shakila is an enthusiastic advocate of not just the course, but how it’s helped her stretch her skills and expand her visions for finding solutions. The course encourages students to work together and alone on finding solutions and innovating, and Shakila loves working with her fellow students. “We’ve got a great group, and we’ve even talked about in the future maybe going into business together to invent apps and use digital technology to fix problems.” As one of only six women studying on a scholarship, Shakila is already in a unique position in the ICT world. But add to that her solutions-based outlook and the projects she is already working on and this is a woman who is going to change the face of Tanzania, if not the world. “It’s definitely the biggest, best thing I have ever done.”
When she found out about the Masters program at the Nelson Mandela – Africa Institute for Science and Technology (NM-AIST), she knew she had to be part of it. Unlike many of her fellow students her passion is around environmental and climate change issues and health – and in particular finding ways to solve current problems in the world. Before even starting the study programme she had already been working on a robotic plastic sorting system which uses artificial intelligence (AI), finding local support and industry mentors. That has taken something of a backseat though with the global pandemic calling for immediate solutions in the health care industry, and for communities dealing with sick people. “I thought about the need to isolate, and how hard that is in African community settings. Not wanting to go to a crowded hospital or pharmacy. So the app I am developing will show which hospitals and clinics are not busy, and which pharmacies nearby will deliver medicine rather than people having to go there. It works outside of the COVID-19 situation too, involving health care providers signing on and sharing their information and the app making it accessible to communities.” A plastic recycling project has also now become part of her studies, and she hopes will eventually tackle the real world problem of plastic waste she sees around her by creating a life cycle for plastics – reusing, not producing more. Finding the technology in Africa however has proven a challenge- the right people and the right minds to envisage and construct the technology - and a recent chance to go to Amsterdam was delayed due to visa issues, which has also subsequently delayed the project. But networking and links were made which she hopes to capitalise on again.
“Whenever there is a huge issue in the world, my brain starts working and I investigate what people are doing and what I could be doing on this – to come up with something different, finding solutions. ICT is the future, but it is changing. Everything in the world revolves around ICT.” This wasn’t always her thinking. She admits that in secondary school she was terrified of the computers, scared to touch them in case she broke something. She was determined to overcome this so pursued her undergraduate degree at the Institute of Accountancy in Arusha in Computer Science and began a career as an ICT Officer with a large law firm in Dar es Salaam, handling all of their tech issues and IT infrastructure. Now focusing on mobile systems is allowing her to go more deeply into how things work and how they can be developed for good.
Studying at NM-AIST, she is enjoying the mix of fellow students from across East Africa. “Even if we are all from Africa, there are huge differences between all of us. Our education systems are different as a start. So meeting people from Kenya, and Uganda and elsewhere has been interesting.” Her advice to other women, (and men) who are considering the course. “The biggest reason for joining is not about just getting the degree, but about the opportunities and networking that the course gives you.” The connections are even more than she realised, the business and international links, the internships and the possibility of taking her ideas into the real world. “This course really is awesome.”