The female Afghan tech entrepreneurs inspiring each other

The leader of the Afghan Dreamers robotics team and her mentor describe the challenge of building low-cost ventilators.

[Illustration by Jawahir Al-Naimi and Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]

As a child, Somaya Faruqi would watch her father fix cars in the motor repair shop that he owns in Herat city, in western Afghanistan.

“His work is what got me interested in mechanics and engineering,” says Somaya. “I am the eldest of four children so even though I am the only girl, I used to help him out in the shop after school, and I learned how things work in a very simple sense, but I always wanted to learn more, and have access to more knowledge in this area.”

The musty old shop is packed full of old tools and salvaged car parts. “When I was younger,” says Somaya, “I used to only fix car radios but now I help my father with big works also.”

Now 18, Somaya is the leader of the Afghan Girls Robotics Team – also known as the “Afghan Dreamers”, a name they gave themselves. All five girls in the team are aged between 14 and 18 and attend different high schools in Herat. Every day after school, they meet for an hour and a half to learn and practice programming and robotics.

“When I work in engineering I feel so proud of myself because in Afghanistan, there are not a lot of girls that work in this field and it can be a complex area but I’m good at it so I feel confident building and creating things,” Somaya says.

“There are a lot of people in our community and across Afghanistan that think that only boys should be mechanics, but I don’t know why because girls can be mechanics also. They just need their society to believe in them and have the support of their family and then they will prove it. It was always a goal of mine to prove it.”

Somaya’s mother had to leave school when she was 10. It was 1996 and the Taliban had come to power and banned education for girls. “I think this is why she supports me as much as she does because she can see that I’m doing what she never got to do,” says Somaya. “Now she tells me how much I inspire her.”

Designing and building a ventilator

Somaya and the team first made headlines in 2017 when, despite displaying their remarkable ingenuity in robotics, they were denied visas to the United States to attend a robotics tournament. (When their story got the attention of international media and some US politicians, then-US president Donald Trump eventually granted their visas.)

Then, in March 2020, Abdul Qayum Rahimi, the then-governor of Herat, put out a design challenge after doctors told him how few ventilators there were in the region, which at the time had the largest number of coronavirus cases in the country.

The Afghan Dreamers were one of six teams (and the only all-girls team) contacted to design a low-cost ventilator to help treat COVID-19 patients.

Somaya explains how the team looked online for open-source design ventilators and came across a low-cost, low-tech ventilator design called the MIT E-Vent, released by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US. Working around their classes, the girls spent months building an emergency ventilator prototype based on this design.

Components for the device were hard to come by, but undeterred, they made do with what they had. “We had never worked on ventilators or any medical devices before. It was completely new,” Somaya explains.

“I think our biggest challenge at the time was that we didn’t have the facilities to build some of the parts in, so my father would drive us to a workshop 20 minutes outside the city where we would work on the ventilator but we didn’t have access to a lot of resources and materials that we needed to build a ventilator, so we had to build the prototype out of spare parts from old Toyota Corollas.”

[Illustration of Somaya Faruqi by Jawahir Al-Naimi and Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]

Following feedback from doctors and the ministry of public health, the team members have continued to refine their design.

“We are trying to get the machine to be able to sense a patient’s breathing pattern and adjust the amount of air they get accordingly. We had to wait to receive the pressure sensors critical to the ventilators for this,” says Somaya, explaining that for the ventilator to do this, the team needs two parts: a “pressure transducer” – a sensor that converts pressure measurements from breath into electrical signals – and a microprocessor, neither of which they can source locally or ship into Afghanistan.

Last December, Minister of Industry and Commerce Nizar Ahmad Ghoryani donated $10,000 to the team and also secured land to build a factory where the ventilators will be produced in the near future.

“These girls shone a spotlight on the importance of girls’ education. And they put Afghanistan on the global stage – for all the right reasons,” said Mustapha Ben Messaoud, acting representative for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

Somaya says it is important for girls to have female role models to look up to and that one woman in particular has inspired her. Roya Mahboob is an Afghan tech entrepreneur and businesswoman who has supported the Afghan Dreamers since they formed and is always just a phone call away for Somaya.

The teenager says that seeing Roya, another Afghan woman from Herat, building a successful career in tech, shows her what she can achieve.

“For girls in Afghanistan, technology and engineering is so new and we don’t have enough information about it …. I feel that I should share my knowledge with other girls, just like Roya shared hers with me. Roya always told me not to give up on my goals, to keep going because it’s not only for me but for the women and girls in Afghanistan that follow also.”

Discovering computers

Roya Mahboob remembers the first time she discovered computers and the possibilities they offered.

“My family had just returned to Herat in Afghanistan from Iran in late 2003/early 2004,” she recalls. “I was 15 years old and at the time, there were no computers and just one old library that only had a few old books, and most of the information in them was out of date.”

Then, one day, she came across a computer shop in Herat.

“I went in and before I had even sat down, the owner told me to leave, saying it was a place for boys only.”

She returned a few days later and asked the owner to teach her how to use a computer. “He finally agreed to but only if there … [were] at least 20 of us in the class, so I asked all my relatives and friends to join me,” she says. “And that’s how I first learned to use a computer and that was really the moment that I was opened up to how big the world really was, and the wealth of information I could have access to.”

Today, Roya is the CEO of the Herat-based Afghan Citadel Software Company, which works to create jobs for recent university graduates – particularly women – in Afghanistan’s growing tech market. In 2012, Citadel of New York was founded to develop and promote Examer, an interactive and educational social networking platform with a Micro Scholarship Payment System, which Roya also helped to develop.

In 2013, Roya was named one of TIME Magazine’s “100 Most Influential People in the World” for her work in building internet classrooms in Afghan high schools through the Digital Citizen Fund (DCF), a non-profit she founded that helps girls and women around the world access technology. According to UNICEF, 3.7 million Afghan children are out of school, 60 percent of whom are girls. In the hardest-to-reach areas of Afghanistan, and conflict zones, around 85 percent of out-of-school children are girls.

“Our mission through internet classrooms and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education is to increase women’s participation and advancement in the workplace and [to help them] be ready for future jobs,” says Roya. “[We plan] to expand our internet classes programme in villages in the provinces. We are also working on our online education platform so that would help girls have access to our online education from everywhere.”

“I started the Digital Citizen Fund with a goal and a dream,” she explains. “That goal was to make technology an accessible option for everyone. The dream was that everyone, especially young women and girls even in conservative countries, would have the same opportunities and education available to them, regardless of gender or social status.”

Roya says she wants to see young women design and implement digital solutions to problems in their local communities, as the Afghan Dreamers are doing.

“I would tell young Afghan women who want to get into tech or robotics or engineering that in the new world young women will need to seek out opportunities for building individual wealth and, in the process, high-value economic models for their nations.”

[Illustration of Roya Mahboob by Jawahir Al-Naimi and Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]

She believes STEM education is the key to their futures in an increasingly globalised world.

“In the West, kids are having conversations about how robots are replacing people in the workforce,” she says. “[But] the problem is Afghanistan is so far behind. It is behind in the education system. What is the point in training girls for jobs that barely exist for women now and likely won’t exist when they finish their studies? I’m talking about preparing these girls for real opportunities in their futures. They have already been set back and now we need to catch them up, but we need to be realistic.”

After a meeting with the Afghan President in 2019, the Ministry of Education pledged to incorporate STEM into the national curriculum and Mahboob’s dream of building the country’s first STEM school is set to become a reality. The school is due to open in 2022 and will be named ‘The Dreamer Institute’ commemorating the Afghan Dreamers and their accomplishments.

Roya believes it was seeing her mother, who was a manager at the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs, “working and opening doors for herself so that she could be financially independent” that made her want to be independent and brought her “to that small computer shop … trying to learn, all those years ago”.

“After my studies [at the computer shop], opportunities started opening up for me and I realised I could have the career that I dreamt of as a girl but I knew that there were millions of girls just like me,” Roya says. “Girls who were curious, but given only a narrow world to explore.”

It was this that inspired her to launch the DCF. Today, the Afghan Dreamers hold weekly workshops with the DCF in Kabul and Herat to teach girls the basics of robotics.

‘Just kids working hard’

While the Afghan Dreamers have received nationwide praise, Roya believes they have also been placed under more pressure than the many other teams working on ventilators using the MIT design, including some in Afghanistan. They have been singled out by the media, she says, “because they were the only all-female team”.

“If the girls do great things they will be under the limelight, but if they do normal things they are under the limelight also,” she says. “But they are girls so if they fail they will be more criticised and if they do well it will be triumphed more. It’s the curse of being an Afghan woman working in any area. But the reality is they are just kids working hard to do something good. And that should be good enough in itself. It shouldn’t be amazing because they are girls but because of the skill the challenge takes itself. For example, the Afghan Dreamers were the first to figure out that windshield-wiper motors could be finagled into powering a working ventilator.”

Roya agrees with Somaya that it is important for young Afghan girls to have role models and mentors. “It’s important for any teenager, anywhere in the world. And it’s important to show young Afghan girls what is possible, and having more women in the tech and science industry will inspire them to be more ambitious and change the view of women’s ability in … [a] male-dominated industry,” she says.

“I have seen the incredible power of technology and education in my personal and professional life and I believe that the internet and technology is able to not only open new realities but also to break down barriers.”

She describes how by embracing the tools of the global information society, she has become something bigger than herself: a digital global citizen.

New projects

The Afghan Dreamers’ prototype ventilator is part of a series of projects organised by Roya.

“What we built was an automated add-on solution to a pre-existing bag; we call it the bag-valve-mask,” she explains. “This ventilator could reduce the load of existing ventilators, acting as a manual ventilator to help patients who are in respiratory difficulty, but it was never intended as one to replace ventilators in hospitals assisting patients in critical condition.”

She says that the team connected with many people around the world who were willing to help from afar, including an MIT professor and Harvard-educated surgeon.

A year on from the first prototype ventilator, the team have taken on two other projects that they designed. The UVC Robot is equipped with UV sterilisation lamps to fight against COVID-19 by sanitising indoor areas. The Spray Robot is a disinfection robot, which is able to sanitise indoor and outdoor areas.

“They were approved by the Ministry of Health and we are building a factory to produce them in now,” says Roya.

‘She is their role model now’

Roya remembers the first time she met Somaya in person. It was 2017, when the team arrived in Washington, DC to participate in the robotics tournament.

“She was really very shy and a bit nervous as it was her first time outside of her country. Of all the girls, Somaya was the most quiet,” she says. But her protege is no longer the quiet girl she first met.

“In the beginning, I was concerned how she would handle the pressure with her country and the West watching her. But although she was quiet, she was determined and I look at her now and she has grown up so much. She is patient and a good listener and these are great leadership qualities. Younger kids, both girls and boys, look up to her and she is their role model now.”

Roya believes that Afghanistan’s deteriorating security situation is now the biggest hurdle for the girls she aims to help. “I had a lot of challenges in my career, I mean, people will try to stop you in any way and it’s targeted. But I think the challenges for Somaya and other girls her age are security with the way things are in Afghanistan, lasting cultural issues and a lack of resources and access to good quality of education, but I see opportunities, adventures, and great success in all the girls’ futures.”

Source: Al Jazeera