She made it into New African Magazine‘s Top 100 Most Influential Africans in 2016. Three years later, in 2019, she was one of BBC’s 100 Inspiring and Influential Women. Meet Nanjira.

Africa isn’t poor, it’s mismanaged. Africa’s storytellers, scholars, denizens and netizens are connecting with/educating the world on the vast wonder that makes up this continent,” states Nanjira Sambuli‘s website. Africa is filled to the brim with people who work hard to uplift the continent and get the world to listen.

And that is exactly what the rest of us is supposed to do: listen. Learn. And most importantly, unlearn everything we’ve been taught about Africa. Researcher, policy analyst and advocacy strategist Nanjira is the only right choice as our second role model in Pioneers, a series that shines a light on key people from the realm of digital democracy. (Missed the last one? Read the first edition of #Pioneers with Taiwanese Digital Minister Audrey Tang).

Nanjira’s work focuses on the impact of tech and ICT on governance, media, entrepreneurship, culture, and gender, specifically in her native Kenya and the wider region of East Africa. She keeps an eye on the future as well, attempting to spot new digital technologies or emerging dynamics on the horizon. Nanjira has both feet rooted firmly on the intersection of tech, policy and global governance, and believes that this space deserves more attention: “Policy is a put off for many. It’s that space for the old men and government types that we love to hate. Bears repeating, however, that failing to engage – worse, ignoring- the unfolding ICT policy space is myopic for all ye techpreneurs. I bet you it will only come back to bite you in the derrière.”

A busy bee, a multi-talent

Over the last few years, Nanjira has donned many different hats for a multitude of organisations. She took her first steps in the field of Civic Tech as the Head of Research at iHub in Nairobi, a support community for ICT-focused entrepreneurs. She provided strategic guidance for growth and tech innovation research in East Africa, and helped to research and develop knowledge to build the African technology ecosystem. This led to the development of a framework to access the viability and verification of online crowdsourcing, and the launch of Umati, a pioneering platform that detects hate speech through NLP. Besides wide-spread media coverage and academic attention, the Umati project “developed the largest database of hate speech from one country to date (6,600+ incidents).”

Then, Nanjira went on to promote digital equality in internet access and use at the World Wide Web Foundation, focusing on the Foundation’s work on Women’s Right’s Online. This project aims to empower women in the digital realm by reforming policies and regulations and closing the digital gender gap.

Titles, anyone? Nanjira can call herself Commissioner on the Lancet and Financial Times Global Commission on Governing Health Futures 2030  and a member of DFID’s Digital Advisory Panel. Besides, she also advises the Triple A Affirmative Action for Algorithms initiative by Women@TheTable and the World Economic Forum’s project on Preparing Civil Society for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Recently, she also served as a panel member on the UN’s Secretary General’s High-Level Panel on Digital Cooperation (2018-19).

A radical change-maker

Besides researching and sharing her knowledge with the world any way she knows how, Nanjira is also a fervent activist. In the #SayNoToManelsKE campaign, she condemned the overwhelming majority of all-male panels, or “manels”. Because “the fallacious arguments that there aren’t women qualified or willing to show up are often used to perpetuate and justify manels,” Nanjira joined forces with fellow Kenyan activist Ory Okolloh to build a database of female experts across different industries. This database is open and accessible to everyone, and continues to challenge the pervasiveness of manels across the country. Among other projects, Nanjira is also involved in Mzalendo, an entity that keeps an eye on the Kenyan parliament and aims to facilitate participation in Parliamentary processes.

Africa isn’t poor, it’s mismanaged. Africa’s storytellers, scholars, denizens and netizens are connecting with/educating the world on the vast wonder that makes up this continent.

Nanjira Sambuli

Nanjira is an inexhaustible force for equality and justice. Her work has far-reaching and positive implications for her native Kenya, the region of East Africa, and the entire Twitterverse. Because every day, Nanjira doesn’t just demand a seat at the table — she ensures that new tables are built, ensuring a more equal world for all.

This article is part of Pioneers, a series that highlights key figures in the fields of Civic Tech, GovTech and digital democracy.