When she first heard that she had won the Google Anita Borg award, Shikoh Gitau was convinced that the email was from some cheeky con artist looking to reel her in on some scam. But as it turned out, this was no scam but the making of history as she became the first recipient of the prestigious award in Sub Saharan Africa. Shikoh's proposal titled M-Ganga is a cellphone based application aimed at facilitating the use of traditional medicine. It was impressive enough to win her the award that is granted to exceptional female students in the field of computing by the technology giant. With the award comes seven thousand euros and a field trip to Google's Zurich centre.
Shikoh is a PHD student at the University of Cape Town and says she plans to use the funds to put her thesis into practice.
"Most PHD's end up on a shelf somewhere. I plan to spend the money setting up my project as a fully implemented product and donate it to two NGOs in SA fully serviced to run for at least three years. That is of course after I have tithed a portion of it and spent some of it on myself and my family," she says.
Prior to joining UCT, Shikoh completed her undergraduate studies at the African Nazarene University (ANU) in Nairobi. Even there she was an achiever bagging the university's Merit award in 2003, its Leadership award in 2005 whilst appearing on the Deans Merit List and Honors Roll throughout her time there. After getting her degree, she worked briefly as a volunteer at UNICEF before getting a job as a programs assistant at the Centre for Multiparty Democracy (CMD). She says the two years spent at CMD culminating in the 2007 elections opened her eyes to what she wanted to do and made her conscious of her responsibility to her country.
"It amazed me that how politicians manage to act as though they hate each other and yet they are actually very good friends. What is killing us as Kenyans is the lack of information. Illiteracy is not an excuse. We see something on TV or hear some radio presenter say something and we take it as the gospel truth. I want to be part of the process of using technology to get the right information to virtually anyone," she asserts.
When Shikoh decided it was time to further her education to achieve her goals, she applied to various graduate schools including Oxford and was a top ten finalist for the Oxford Rhodes Memorial Scholarship.
Unfortunately she wasn't successful but took an interest in the name Rhodes Memorial. She searched for the name on the net and discovered that UCT had a place named exactly that. And that is how she ended up at the institution in 2008.
"When I got here, my studies took me to the most poverty stricken parts of SA. I cried the first few weeks of my research because I could not understand how such a rich country let people live like that. In Kenya we are poor but people hustle small businesses rather than wait for government incentives, " she argues.
For her masters, Shikoh aimed at reconciling her passion to save Africa and her computer science background. She pursued a thesis titled "ICT Aided Citizenry Participation:A pragmatic adoption of mobile phones to support voter education in Africa" and subsequently graduated with an Msc. She says that beyond her PhD she has plans to return to Kenya and use her talents in building the nation.
"I want to work in research and development, to influence policy and its implementation in all things concerning technology and socio-economic development. I have also toyed around with the idea of getting into politics, mainly because i totally loath the current crop."
Shikoh's parents are both pastors and she attributes her success at the age of 29 to her faith in God.
"My mother always drummed Jeremiah 29.11 into us, that God has a plan for us. I grew up a very determined girl. I remember watching that programme called Dunia Wiki Hii and telling her "Mum, hata mimi siku moja nitawekwa kofia na Moi" (one day the President will put a PHD graduands hat on my head). Well it will not be former president Moi who will be at my graduation but hopefully Graca Machel who like Wangari Maathai is a strong African woman who inspires me. Besides them, I also look up to Prof. Marangu, first African woman to get a PhD in Kenya and Prof. Getao, first woman Computer Science PhD in the country. And of course I cannot forget my high school Maths teacher Mrs Loise Koile who challenged me to be the best me I can ever be."
Suprisingly, Shikoh is not just the ultimate bookworm. Former classmate at UCT Edwin Maitho says that she was notorious for organising barbeques when he was in college with her.
"I like the Kenyans at UCT; they are a really cool bunch. Most of them are research students who are really doing some good work. But still we find time to have fun," she says.
Shikoh has a twin sister who is married and lives in Malawi as well as two brothers, Keem who is a student at Kenya Methodist University and Joe who is a recording artist and a student at ANU.