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Toluyemi Nathaniel
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African Diaspora

13 mins

Choosing Home Series 2: Toluyemi talks about being a Woman in Tech


By Sanmi on Jul 02, 2018

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As the perception continues to change on Africa’s one-dimensional portrayal as a struggling continent, the tide of brain drain from developing to developed nations is reducing as a growing number of highly skilled and educated Nigerians, Ghanaians, Somalians etc. flock back to their countries of birth after some time away. They left, either as children with their immigrant parents or for study and early career opportunities. They return, in search of an identity, of bigger opportunities, to seek their roots, and determined to make a change. The countries they come back to are certainly the winners in this affair, as these are typically the very best and brightest.

A couple of people

Toluyemi Nathaniel remembers when she had the awakening moment of making the decision to return home to Nigeria. It was close to the end of her 2-year stay in China studying for a Master’s Degree in International Economics and Business.

“For me, I just had to come back. I love Nigeria and I can’t imagine being somewhere else for so long without itching to return”, started a sprightly Tolu.

“All I kept thinking of was how much can I change over there? I just feel sometimes, it’s more difficult to change things you haven’t experienced. Everyone that has made a change in this country are people that lived through the Nigerian story and made up their mind to change things when given the opportunity. I decided to join that group.”

In substantiating her refreshing sense of duty towards her country, Tolu reveals that she wasn’t forced to return because her program was over — a common occurrence in some cases — but that she actually did have the chance to further her education there but declined to. It’s an obligation to national service that’s established subtly in all of how she talks about her return, but that can be missed from the affectionate way with which she describes China and the period of her stay there. Curious to understand how she found herself in China in the first place, I asked about the reasoning behind the decision to leave for that particular country.

Q: Staying in a country with a different cultural background to what one is used to can be a bit tough, and while Nigerians travel to a lot of countries around the world, deciding to live in a country like China still sticks out as peculiar. Was it your choice to go to China or was it out of your control?

Tolu: Yes, deciding to go there was 100% my choice. It was actually my first time out of the country, but I didn’t want something familiar, which is what the UK or America would’ve been for me. In fact, immediately after I got there, there was this episode at the airport where there was a mix up with me reclaiming my luggage. Officials gathered trying to solve the problem, but they were all speaking Chinese, which I didn’t understand at the time. This didn’t frighten me, but instead did the opposite; I was, in fact, more interested to understand the language. In its own way for me, it was about fulfilling a sense of adventure I’d long craved. I’m a thrill seeker at heart, so China was a place I really looked forward to living in.

A couple of people

Her take on a seeming over-familiarization of foreigners with Western culture is valid in the growing sense that with its global connection, European culture has grown with an all-inclusive urge to adopt, adapt, and ultimately influence other cultural trends around the world. In comparison to a country with a rich cultural history and background still waiting to be explored by most, it’s understandable why the Asian country will be a better pick to experience an original cultural adventure. It’s all well and good, however, the intricacies of living as a minority in the most populated nation on earth remains a reality that can’t be written off. Last year, Quartz published a comprehensive report on a growing fear in some parts of China of a “black invasion bringing drugs and crime” due to the increasing number of African migrants. I talked to Tolu about what it’s like living as a black person in a foreign country, aware of recent victories for nationalist sentiments.

Q: Can you share with us what it’s like studying and living in China as a young black Nigerian woman?

Tolu: That can honestly be a bit tricky to navigate because the Chinese aren’t used to seeing black people. They are almost fascinated when they see one, and still do things like rubbing a black person’s skin, asking if it is ‘dirt’. I’ve had a few people do that to me. Sometimes, they just stare at you because they’ve never seen someone like that before. In my case I was fortunate because Tianjin (where she stayed) has one of the highest percentages when it comes to the number of different national ethnicities. I met other Africans, and some of my classmates were in fact black. There are blatant cases like when cars don’t wait to pick you up, or when I was told to “sound American” at an interview trying to get a job as an English tutor on campus. So living there as an African woman, there’s this contention of you constantly trying to decide if it’s racism or simply ignorance which I guess is the same for most black people there.

Overt displays of racism from locals can be too much to handle for some living in the diaspora. For these people, the danger of being targeted by racial violence can be the deal breaker between settling and returning home. Tolu, however, insists that she doesn’t regret her decision to move there, and says she’s gained a new perspective on some issues because of some of her encounters.

“There’s a lot of how things are done over there that will be strange to us. There are things we can copy and a couple of things we shouldn’t copy. It’s a fascinating array of differences in culture and practice that if a balance can be found, a lot of problems will be solved. But the process of finding that balance comes with a firsthand participation in a challenging change to one’s conventions and ideas of the world.”

The case for diaspora-return driven development in Nigeria is compelling, and the advantages cannot be denied. Returnees come to represent a bridge of the ever-widening knowledge gap, finding solutions to knotty problems with more sophisticated approaches due to an experience of both worlds. With Nigeria’s labour force on a perpetual rise — National Bureau of Statistics says it increased from 83.9m in Q2, 2017 to 85.1m in Q3, 2017 — the majority of the population being dominated by people who’ve gained some know-how in important areas of technology and systems will be key in furthering economic progress in the country.

For her own part, Tolu works as an Admin and Procurement Associate at Softcom Ltd, a company which has the pungent line of “Engineering to enhance the way we live, learn and work in Africa” as part of its Solutions Portfolio. While the parallels are present, the difference in her educational background in Economics and Business and her current job role is still conspicuous. I tried to find out about how she found herself in this line of work, what the role entails, and what a typical day at work is like for her.

Q: Can you explain a bit more about your role? What does working in Procurement/Operations mean in the tech world?

A: Like I said earlier, I had the opportunity to start my PhD even after getting back to Nigeria but I declined because I wanted to work. When job opportunities in Business weren’t forthcoming, I took on the challenge of working in Admin & Procurement, a role I wasn’t so familiar with prior to that point. But it’s been amazing because I have learnt so much on the job and now I’m just working towards being the best I can be at it. In Admin, the objective is to ensure there is a smooth operation of activities in the office. Responsibilities can range from automating the monitoring of various activities and contracts to coordination and management of administrative issues like hygiene & welfare. Generally, admin is more concerned with making the work environment much more conducive to boost productivity levels. As a Procurement Associate, I’m equally tasked with being responsible for all the purchases at Softcom. In a tech company, this includes project-specific materials which involves negotiating with external vendors to secure advantageous terms. So in a way, my background in business has come in handy in executing some of my current job requirements.

While trying to understand the complicated landscape of Nigeria’s job market, a bit of background context is required. The country is included among the 10 fastest growing markets in the world, but still faces the problem of an overcrowded labour market that’s made gainful employment a premium in recent years. Tech companies like Softcom meanwhile have taken advantage of the explosion of Nigeria’s digital economy, seeing the sector as an avenue to tap into a rapidly urbanizing population of about 80 million people, whilst providing solutions to issues and sustainable employment to citizens.

An important point of note is that Tolu talks about how the Nigerian job market remains a slippery slope to navigate for women, especially in tech. Despite extolling Softcom’svalue of commitment to diversity, she is under no illusions and is affirmatory when she answers “I honestly don’t think we are that much” to my question about how many women she thinks exists in tech spaces these days.

Gender disparity isn’t peculiar to the tech sector, but stats point to a decline in the percentage of women in computing-related occupations since 1991. It’s a problem felt across board, as women in tech still face significant barriers in the workplace; from a shortage of women role models to inequitable pay gap, to persistent gender bias that nearly 90% of them say they have experienced. I got a few of Tolu’s thoughts on what she thinks the future holds for women in tech.

Q: How do you think we as a country can ensure there is more equitable pay across the board, how we get more women into senior level and executive positions, how we fight unconscious bias at all levels of a tech organization?

Tolu: I think we first of all need to create a nationwide awareness to change some long-held backward cultural beliefs about women, including that men are naturally more talented than women when it comes to tech. It starts when we are kids; I’d love to see more little girls in computer classes. They don’t have to all be doctors, lawyers, and engineers. An emphasis should also be placed on merit-based appointments. At Softcom, it doesn’t matter if you are male or female, if you bring value to the company, you’ll sit at the table. So it should be that it is one’s substance — not gender — that’s considered when deciding on delegating executive roles. The promotion of and donations to organizations dedicated to the cause of making workplaces as diverse as possible is also important in solving bias issues.

Tolu imagines a bright future for women in tech and even for the industry at large. There’s a confidence in the idea that with the advancement of technology in coming years, there will be more job openings in tech. However, such is the optimism from new returnees that it can sometimes almost be misconstrued as wishful thinking. When asked about her message for those still struggling with the decision to come back home, she talks about “sobering realities” but insists there are revolutionary solutions waiting to be applied in several spaces.

“I can’t lie, it’s a bit tough. You can never be prepared for some things. The heat was almost unbearable for me initially. I also had a bad bout with cholera off the first glass of water I drank. So yes it can be rough but being strong and focusing on the motive for coming back keeps me going. For me, that is contributing daily towards being an agent of positive change in my country. I also have to add that for a young black woman, it can be extra difficult. The career ladder doesn’t favour us already but what I see it as are that these are the very dynamics that make the prospect of change appealing.”

There’s no doubting the impact of diaspora returnees like Tolu and their contributions to the national effort of growth and development. The Nigerian government must develop credible strategies for progress in many of the areas that lead these people to leave their home countries in the first place. For those who have not decided to return home, they will never be motivated to contribute their energies to a national cause unless the government makes an effort at creating the type of country they would like to return to.

Returning to the country with a strategic approach should also be encouraged among the returnees. Appreciating that there are visceral realities that come with living in Nigeria is key, but balancing that with the right, tolerant and optimistic attitude is important for their relocation to be successful.

Above all, there should be a general understanding that there’s never been a better time than now for the application of great and progressive ideas in the country. In an emerging economy with strong numbers, opportunities abound that can shift the course of the nation onto a progressive path. Tolu recognizes the importance of opportunities when she talked about lessons she’s learnt over the past 5 years.

Toluyemi Nathaniel

“If I was to write a letter to my younger self, it will be to take opportunities as they come. A Colombian friend in China used to tell me that “If you don’t taste the food, how do you know if you’ll like it?” A life lesson for me has really been that taking advantage of opportunities can unexpectedly change a lot in a short space of time.”