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Creating New Opportunities for African Women in Tech: An Interview with Mbali Hlongwane

Mbali Hlongwane is the founder and CEO of Pink Codrs Africa, which is an organization dedicated to advancing African women in the tech space. She shares her story with us about her background, the mission and importance of Pink Codrs Africa.

Mbali Hlongwane Pink Codrs Africa

Tell us your name and where are you from:

Mbali Hlongwane is from a township in Durban, South Africa and currently runs Pink Codrs full time as the founder and CEO in Johannesburg, Gauteng.

When did you develop an interest in STEM?

She mentioned that this is always an exciting and funny answer for her because she always believed that IT found her. Growing up as a young girl, she was always excited by tech and was one of those “weird” little girls that would watch TV and go behind the TV to find what produced the images on the TV.

She recalls the day her father bought her family's first computer and remembers that she was probably more excited than her brothers were! For her, the idea of this very powerful technical device people owned that did exciting things from playing games to writing documents, was extremely fascinating. Mbali says she had always been a curious child and in high school because of her love for tech, she decided to pursue IT, and was later on introduced to programming as a career option.

Mbali Hlongwane Pink Codrs Africa

What is Pink Codrs Africa and where does it operate? How did you come up with the name?

“Pink Codrs Africa is an organization set up in 2017 to address the current shortage of female software developers around the world (with specific focus on Africa) by empowering women to become digital technology experts and building a strong network of female software developers around Africa. I came up with the name because I had an initial idea of setting up an academy for women.” She identified the lack of female representation and she remembers participating in the Innovate Durban hackathon where she was the only female on her team of 5. She wanted to understand why there is such a lack of female representation in the tech space. When coming up with the name she thought of the color pink because it is traditionally used to represent women. She wanted it to feel very feminine to an extent and wanted it to be a powerful space for female coders and women who wanted to learn how to code. The idea has always been to build an African platform, and that is how she came up with the name Pink Codrs Africa.

(She does acknowledge that although it can be considered sexist to use the color pink to represent women, because a woman can love any color.)

Mbali Hlongwane Pink Codrs Africa

What are some programs that Pink Codrs Africa has implemented?

Pink Codrs Africa wants to ensure that women are not just taking up space in tech but have the relevant skills to allow them to compete globally. Additionally Pink Codrs allows women to be able to build their own business and be able to identify a problem and have the right technical skills to build solutions to th e identified problems.

Pink Codrs also wants to be able to ensure that women also grow in tech. Mbali found that women are able to obtain positions in tech but have difficulty growing in the positon. Pink Codrs develops programs to ensure that women graduate from college with the on demand skills that are required by industry. They want to ensure that women are not only taking up space in tech, but are also developing the right technical skills.

Pink Codrs also has community programs where like minded women can come together in the same place which ensures that women in tech do not feel isolated.

One of the exciting programs Pink Codrs is the Data Science Program that was birthed from a case study in collaboration with McKinsey South Africa. There was an open position for a woman and they had 100s of CVs submitted. However only one was selected to be looked at by McKinsey, which spoke volumes to the point of standards that industry require, but also to the point of the skillsets the applicants possessed. Pink Codrs was able to take 20 women from different backgrounds, institutes, skills sets etc, who knew basic IT, and had a matric certificate and they built a case study which showed that when people really want an open opportunity in tech and are given the proper skill sets, they will be able to walk into spaces they would not have been able to walk in because of where they went to school. This program was able to change lives. Due to the success of the program, it spread from South Africa to Zimbawabe and they have had numerous success stories from women who were able to obtain data science jobs because of the training they received from the program.

Mbali Hlongwane Pink Codrs Africa

What was the hardest part of starting Pink Codrs Africa?

“One of the hardest parts of starting Pink Codrs was having a vision but not having the skillset”. Mbali further explains that she was not a business student and there was so much she needed to learn about business. She was focused on the social impact aspect of Pink Codrs, but there was also the business side of the things that she was unfamiliar with and needed to learn to be able to grow Pink Codrs Africa.

We know that being a CEO and founder is extremely difficult, where do you draw inspiration and strength from when things get tough?

Mbali mentions that one thing that has kept her going is how many people believe in her vision. From family to friends and so many others, there have been so many people that constantly push her and keep her going whenever she is demotivated.

She also says that she feels inspired is by looking at the impact some people have made in the world and look at how that can be done for Africa. One of her biggest inspirations is Oprah Winfrey because of the impact Oprah has had on young girls lives. Mbali asks herself how can she become the Oprah Winfrey for young women in Africa, and how can she ensure that there is a generation of women that are actively participating in the tech world. Mbali says, “The systems that we put in place now are the systems thart generations to come will be following on”.

How do you manage all of your responsibilities?

“One of the key things is a great team.” Mbali ran Pink Codrs by herself for a long time and she has been fortunate enough to have a really great team. Her team assists her and ensures that everything is going smoothly. She also has awesome, active partners that assist in the work that is done by Pink Codrs on a daily basis.

What was your initial vision for Pink Codrs Africa and has it changed over the years?

“Over the years the initial vision has grown and will continue to grow into something that is so much bigger that what I initially thought of.” Pink Codrs also hopes to have input on the changes and the way forward regarding women in Africa in the tech space.

We found it interesting that the soccer team Kaizer Chiefs partnered with Pink Codrs Africa. Tell us about that partnership and how it came to be.

Mbali and her team met the Kaizer Chiefs at a gaming event. The Kaizer Chiefs are one of the biggest local soccer teams in South Africa. Mbali mentions that Kaizer Chiefs also believe in creating an impact. “The partnership was a really beautiful and natural thing.” Although the soccer team is all males, the team saw Pink Codrs as a way to give back to their female fans and to make sure that women are supported in their endeavors.

What overall impact do you want Pink Codrs Africa to have?

The overall impact for Pink Codrs Africa is, “to be able to bring 500,000 women into the tech space across Africa by 2030. Women who have been upskilled and reskilled to be positioned accordingly for the tech transformation...”

Can you give us any inside scoop on any of your personal future plans or future plans of Pink Codrs Africa?

Mbali mentions there are exciting plans in the works for Pink Codrs in 2021. They are going to be launching their community in 5 countries in Africa.

They are also securing some international partnerships which is also very exciting because they want to develop African women for international success.

Mbali Hlongwane Pink Codrs Africa

What do you want other girls to take away from your story and what you are doing with Pink Codrs Africa?

“Never be scared to takes risks, there were so many things that discouraged me….but being able to surround yourself with people that see the vision and believe in you as an individual, really that is the key to being able to do anything you want to do.” Mbali also says that you should also believe in yourself and the vision and idea that you have.

“Irregardless of who you are and where you come from, if you have a vision and you have a dream, it is valid enough for you to take the next step to wake up the next morning and ask yourself where do I start…Sometimes the best thing is to just start.” She also hopes that people will learn to live lives that are greater than theirs. “Believing in your vision enough will get you places that sometimes your skillset/ qualification might not have gotten you.”


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