When Kelechi Udoagwu, a communications consultant for tech startups, shared her story of being sexually harassed by a leader in Nigeria’s budding tech industry, she was prompted by the gruesome murder of a university undergraduate who was raped in a church.
Udoagwu’s allegations, shared in a series of tweets on June 2, are serving as an industry wake-up call, and could yet evolve into a #MeToo moment, for Nigeria’s fledgling billion-dollar tech ecosystem.
In the tweets, which immediately went viral on Nigerian Twitter, she alleged that during a 2018 meeting with a mentor, Kendall Ananyi, chief executive of Tizeti, an internet service provider, he solicited sexual acts after exposing his penis. The allegations have predictably sparked widespread conversations about the realities of sexual harassment and assault in Nigeria’s tech space, often perceived as a young and progressive sector that had probably done away with the bad habits of the traditional Nigerian workplace.
Tizeti has since announced Ananyi will step down as CEO while an investigation is carried out in the wake of the allegation. For his part, Ananyi turned down Quartz Africa’s request for comment, citing the investigation.
Udoagwu’s allegations did not come as a surprise to young women in the industry. “I’ve heard stories, I’ve heard rumors and I’ve had a couple of experiences that fall in that line myself, so there was no surprise,” says Odunayo Eweniyi, co-founder of savings and investment fintech, PiggyVest and one of the few high-profile, young female tech leaders in the country. “Women [in the industry] have always spoken about these things, just not publicly. We know that this happens because it’s our reality,” Eweniyi, 26, adds.
Amid the ongoing investigation, Udoagwu’s allegation is providing a platform for a reckoning about the realities of sexual harassment in an industry that has long been dominated—and led—by men.
A culture of silence
While Udoagwu’s allegation has been widely reported and amplified within Nigeria’s tech space, it has not yet led to a deluge of similar publicly shared stories of harassment—but it’s not because they don’t exist.
With a culture of silence fostered by the fear of career derailment, women who speak up run the risk of becoming an “unwilling face of sexual harassment in the tech ecosystem,” Eweniyi says. It’s a sentiment echoed by ‘Lade Tawak, a 23 year old Lagos-based user experience researcher. “There is fear of retaliation, especially if you still want to work in the industry. You’re going to be seen as a “troublemaker” that nobody wants to hire.”
In a competitive, fast-growing and fast-paced industry that’s increasingly subject to global interest from investors, the possibility of being ostracized for reporting abuse represents a significant barrier for harassment victims.
For her part, Udoagwu admits that being self-employed was a factor in her ability to speak out. “I’m not scared of losing my job or not being able to feed so I’m able to share this story. Independence makes it easier to speak out,” she tells Quartz Africa. But the more likely tendency, she acknowledges, is for most to “stay quiet and keep their head down” in a bid to retain their jobs and keep their reputations unsullied. Indeed, one person who was sexually harassed at a Nigerian startup says she has chosen to remain silent about her experience specifically because her employers have not yet made any public statements on sexual harassment and assault in the wake of the recent allegation.
“There has to be safety from shaming and repercussions, career-wise, financial and reputational,” says Adia Sowho, vice president of growth at credit rating startup, Migo and a veteran of Nigeria’s tech and telecoms industry. But an even further step, she says, is ensuring a clear path to consequences for abusers. “In the absence of real consequences, it is very difficult to change behavior,” she says.
“When something like that happens to you, you feel exposed—you feel like it could potentially happen again.”
The lack of consequences in the local tech scene is captured in one incident. A former employee at one of Nigeria’s biggest fintech startups, who spoke to Quartz Africa on the condition on anonymity, tells the story of a male co-worker who was initially fired for sexual misconduct after forcibly kissing her, but was secretly kept on by the company as a contractor.
“The message that sends to other people is that if you’re a hard worker and you’re very talented, you have nothing to worry about,” she says. The handling of the incident contributed to her decision to quit the company months later. “When something like that happens to you, you feel exposed—you feel like it could potentially happen again.”
To be clear, harassment culture within the tech industry does not exist in a vacuum. Nigeria’s corporate workplace has long been replete with tales of harassment from oil companies to local banks which are renown for employing young female college graduates as marketing associates who are then required to meet difficult financial targets. It’s a situation that has seen solicitations and expectations of sex with potential clients become commonplace and viewed as a corollary of the job.
Perhaps, the disappointment comes from the hope that a young industry sector, dominated by a new generation of well-educated and well-traveled young, male leaders, would be different.
Instead for female insiders in Nigeria’s tech space, the fear is that a lack of tough policies and actions could see a similar culture of the acceptance of harassment and gender-based discrimination take root. Indeed, there are already worrying signs: in a report by TechCabal and the UK-Nigeria Tech Hub, 56% of female founders and C-suite executives in Nigeria’s tech industry said they had faced “gender-based challenges” in the course of their work.
Some Nigerian companies might yet learn the lesson of reputational damage that comes with publicly shared cases and allegations of sexual harassment. One prominent example in Kenya three years ago saw Daudi Were, former executive director of software company Ushahidi, fired by the board following an investigation into sexual harassment claims by a former employee of the company. Once widely lauded as a star Kenyan startup following its use of geo-location software during post-election violence in 2007, Ushahidi faced backlash from the local tech community—including one of its founders—for an initial lukewarm response.
Across the continent, there’s also the reality of the power dynamics and gender demographics which mean women are a minority in leadership and high-level investment circles. Between January 2019 and April 2020, only 13.4% of African tech companies that received funding had at least one female co-founder while only 5% were entirely female founded, data from research firm Briter Bridges show.
The African Development Bank also estimates a $42 billion financing gap between male and female entrepreneurs in Africa. While top-level executives and founders may be somewhat insulated from the crudest forms of sexual harassment, female employees lower down the career rungs are at a much higher risk, and are often unable to handle these incidents. “They don’t have the strength and maturity, or even know how to marshal support or identify who can help,” Sowho says.
Checks and balances
While an investigation persists, Udoagwu’s allegations are already resulting in some changes within the Nigerian tech ecosystem. Ventures Platform, a prominent early-stage investment firm says it is updating its sexual harassment policies and will now assess startups’ policies on sexual harassment as part of its criteria for investment decisions. Payments company Paga has also committed to retraining staff on sexual harassment.
Sowho admits the anti-harassment policies being announced are “a good signal,” but she remains wary that it is unlikely to be effective unless such policies are pervasive across the ecosystem. To that end, Sowho and Eweniyi, in concert with a group of women in the industry, are working on an independent anti-sexual harassment charter that startups can adopt to ensure a uniform level of clarity and intolerance across board. While still in its early stages, there’s hope of incorporating an independent reporting system “so that those at risk can know that there’s somewhere else outside companies where they can get objective listening,” Eweniyi says.
Getting mass adoption for the charter will represent a crucial starting point in fighting workplace harassment, Sowho says. “The community must band together to a common agenda to start,” she tells Quartz Africa. “Leaders in this ecosystem have to agree that we are not going to allow this.”
Some change has happened at Tizeti too. 4DX Ventures, the investment firm which led the company’s $3 million Series A round in 2018, has resigned from Tizeti’s board, citing its haphazard response to the allegation which saw a “board-approved statement” deleted after being published on the company’s social media accounts, TechCabal reports. Deleting previously published statements, 4DX Ventures says, “highlights the lack of commitment from company leadership to handle this matter with the seriousness it deserves to allow for a transparent and independent investigation.”
While it is likely even more companies will tread the path of creating or updating anti-sexual harassment policies, female industry insiders say a crucial starting point is ensuring there is more clarity on what constitutes sexual harassment and assault in the first place.
“A lot of these tech companies first need to do a very deep audit of the practices that go on in their companies,” says Koromone Koroye, corporate communications manager at a Lagos technology company. That process, she argues, should include organizations allowing employees speak to and share their experiences with qualified personnel to capture the realities within the organization. “With the information they get, then they can then rewrite their policy, if not, everything ends up being generic,” she adds.
Emphasizing the need for education and defining what constitutes harassment is also critical to removing the existing veneer of ignorance. “The problem with a lot of people isn’t that they don’t take it seriously, it’s that some things don’t even register as sexual harassment to them,” Eweniyi says.
The long-term potential of a uniform anti-harassment policy includes seeding specific organizational culture with regard to harassment, not just within existing startups but also as a guide for future companies that may initially struggle with manpower and capacity deficiencies to create and implement such policies.
By doing so, there might yet be a reversal of a culture which has kept victims silent, and abuse rampant. “What a lot of women are looking for, is to feel as if what we say will be heard,” Koromone says. “If we don’t feel that way, we’re never going to speak up.”
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