By Staff Reporter

Ivorian Karine Oulaté is a former professional basketball player who in a second career, has become a most valuable player in West Africa’s digital scene. 

On Wednesday, the digital communication consultant, digital expert, social media manager, represents large companies and personalities, including running the social media accounts of numerous, highest-level politicians in Francophone Africa.Last November, the Government of Côte d’Ivoire named Oulaté as a ‘Honorary Citizen’ of the Primacy Ivory Coast, elevated to the rank of: ”Knight of the National Order of Merit of the Digital Economy of the Government of the Ivory Coast.”

African Development Bank Vice President for Agriculture, Human and Social Development, Dr. Beth Dunford, joined Karine on Zoom for a conversation about this year’s International Women’s Day theme “DigitALL.” Here are excerpts of their conversation,edited for clarity and space.

*** Recognized leader in West Africa’s digital and internet sectors, Karine Oulaté, right, and Bank Vice President Dr. Beth Dunford, left ***

VP Dunford: Many will be fascinated to learn about the Ivorian government honor bestowed upon you. Why do you think you were honored? Tell me more about that ceremony experience.

Oulaté: The Ivorian Ministry of Communication said I was the only woman in the digital field to have been decorated that day and also the youngest. So, for me it’s a double pride because we know that this field is very male-dominated. The exact phrase {for the honor] is that I was honored for my work, for my contributions to my community – not only technical support, but also for what I am teaching my community. The Government of Cote d’Ivoire realized that people from practically all across francophone Africa are coming out to me to learn [digital skills]. I teach in an altruistic, free and playful way.

VP Dunford: I understand that 30% of workers in sub-Saharan Africa’s tech industry are women. In your experience, to what degree are digital career spaces still largely occupied by men?

Oulaté: It’s true. I would have say( in my opinion) that women are only 10% because unfortunately, on the ground, we don’t really feel this higher percentage of women in this field. Women in [tech and digital fields], are relegated to the most basic career functions,  hidden behind the administration or the computer.

Let me share this anecdote: sometimes I get invited to conferences in other countries, where I am registered as a digital expert with my name. We write down “Mrs.” in front of my name [at registration] – yet several times when I arrive, there’s “Mr. Olaté” on the conference badge. I say to myself: at least my first name, “Karine,” could have made them think that I am a woman – but it is so anchored in their mentality that it is the men who are in the digital field, and it shows.

*** Last November, the Government of Côte d’Ivoire named Oulaté as a ‘Honorary Citizen’ of the Primacy Ivory Coast, elevated to the rank of: ”Knight of the National Order of Merit of the Digital Economy of the Government of the Ivory Coast.”***

VP Dunford: This year’s International Women’s Day theme is “DigitALL: Innovation and Technology for Gender Equality.” What does that mean to you? What needs to be done to level the digital playing field? 

Oulaté: The International Women’s Day theme this year is already a source of double pride for me. When I started my career digital, the industry was not well perceived, for example, especially for my parents. My parents told me it was not possible, that they never heard of that option at all. So today, the fact that the [United Nations] is putting this theme forward is a source of pride for me – I say to my parents, “Ah, well – now, you see!”

For women, as I said earlier, visibility around this [International Women’s Day theme] will actually help women. Gender equality in digital means we can develop, we can train, we can discover worlds, do business with the whole world, [if more of us can find the] means, learn the basics, the basics precisely that I try to teach within my community. With digital skills, women can get by without depending on someone.

For me, this theme helps to highlight women in the digital world. I have been offering digital skills training for young people for some time – to inform young people, especially young girls, about the basics of the Internet in a playful way accessible to youth and especially young women. Digital technology can help the women of Africa. For example, so our mothers in the village can calculate how many hectares of fields they have with a small mobile application that can also teach her how to track her crop yields, and more.

VP Dunford: This year’s International Women’s Day theme also touches the dark side of the digital world: the targeting of women for abuse and hatred online – some call it “digitally enabled gender-based violence.” What can women do to protect themselves online? Or, what institutional changes need to take place to reduce or eliminate this abuse?

Oulaté: In digital world, speech is free. In addition, digital [outlets] amplify our voices. Today, young girls on TikTok, etcetera, are more comfortable expressing themselves. However, for a certain generation of women, they are concerned about [online criticism], about what people will say. We have to create these spaces where women have freedom to express themselves and also to speak up against online harassment. Furthermore, we need the institutional support to have real consequences, because we have seen some stories where the victims have spoken up – but there were no consequences [against their harassers]. The Government must support us with policies to have real punishment. We can create support lines or telephone numbers for victims to report [for cyber-harassment].

VP Dunford: Lastly, to what degree are you optimistic about the future of digital and tech sector careers for women and girls?

Oulaté: I have a positive outlook. I’ve been in the digital field for almost 10 years and I realize that hard work pays off. Women are not always in the shadows. I receive messages from young girls who consider me as a role model, who are interested in a career they always liked but because [the sector is mostly male], they thought they could not go far.

*** Karine Oulaté, second left at an Ivorian Government medaling ceremony recognizing excellence in digital, was the only woman and youngest digital sector honoree.***