Brenda Areto Okotkotber: I wanted to prove that I wasn’t finished

Brenda Areto Okotkotber

Let’s be real for a minute, we live in societies where single motherhood is seen as a almost a crime and disability, a limitation. Brenda Areto Okotkotber is a single mother and accident victim dispelling these stereotypes. In 2010, Brenda was involved in a motorcycle accident when a speeding car knocked her down from behind.  She sustained blunt injuries to her ribs and majorly on her spinal cord.

This brought her studies at Makerere University to a rude halt but Brenda is not one to lose a fight. Though Brenda has had to press pause on some of her dreams, she is determined to be independent even if it means having to lie on her side all day making beads.

Jessica Layado, our contributor got Brenda to share her story with us, get ready to be inspired.

Tell us about the things you’re passionate about

Oh my, I love music! You know, that combination of MDD (long ago it used to be called Musulu Dala Dala…it means “very stupid” in Luganda. It was believed that people who do Music, Dance and Drama as a course at university were too stupid to pursue anything meaningful).

I also love the arts with all my heart.

I’m passionate about helping the needy. Growing up, I always knew that when I started earning money, I’d build an orphanage, pick up every child in the streets and be a mother to them.

I don’t know about that anymore but right now, my desire is to help people like me.

Have you always been an artistic person?

As I mentioned earlier, art is a part of me. Right now, handmade craft is my passion and one that I wish to grow. I also desire to perfect my painting. Currently, though, I am more into women accessories.

Interestingly, in my school days, I used to be every art teacher’s prodigy. I was always the first to do my sketches and then shadings. It wasn’t just about the assignment but how great my work was done.

Only few students could beat me in the arts. I actually wanted to pursue Industrial Arts at the university but I wasn’t given that subject. I settled for IT which wasn’t my passion at all.

Let’s talk about the accident. How has it affected you, both physically and mentally?

As a result of this accident, my spinal cord was injured. It affected my limbs right from below my breasts. This has affected my ability to move or walk. This, in turn, has affected my productivity in most ways.

It’s also affected my social life. A woman of my age should be married and looking after a family. On the bright side, though, I have my son to look after.

I lost love from many people who I held so dear to my heart and this affected me greatly. I also lost my dignity as I had to live on charity. I am not one to enjoy lying on my bed and calling for help.

It was such a setback and a humiliating one and to some extent, still is. However, it’s different now. I am hopeful now, productive and doing something on my own.

brendaAre you still into the arts?

When I lost function of my limbs, I could not go back to school anymore. The first reason being my faculty at the college was not disability-friendly.

I also had no money to finish my degree. My son and I needed to survive and so, I just didn’t see getting an education as a priority.

I had dreams of singing after my degree and even approached Benon of Swangs Avenue, a very popular recording studio in Kampala. The injury affected my diaphragm and I could barely control my voice.

I also dreamed of working in the tourist industry (travelling, adventure). That too, I can’t do anymore.

It’s amazing that instead of self-destruction, you chose self-development. How did you do this?

My first inspiration is my little boy. I grew up in poverty and didn’t have much but I promised myself that no child of mine would suffer. I therefore started building my self-worth.

Like everyone, I desire the good things in life. With determination, I’m hopeful I’d be able to provide for my son and I.

I also wanted to prove that I wasn’t finished. I needed to prove that I was just getting started and wasn’t going down easy. I am a fighter and survivor. I couldn’t afford the luxury of depression. That, I always say is a disease for the rich.

However, in all, I can’t tell my story without mentioning the most important factor, God. He has been the ultimate, the most significant in all. He still stands by my side and says to me, “You can make it because I am with you” (Phill. 4:13).

He’s been true to His word that He won’t ever leave my side (Deut 31:6). I wait upon Him whenever I feel I can’t go on. I hang on His every word (Habbakuk 2:2). I am a child of God, I learnt who I am in Christ and held onto that. He will never put me to shame (Romans 10:11).

brenda-neck-pieceHow would you encourage that person who feels down and out right now?

It is not the end of the world. Put your trust in God and He sure will never let you down (Prov. 3:5). If you ever fall, get right up, dust yourself and move on. Do not allow a situation hold you down. When people see that even after a bad fall you’re still ready to fight on, they’ll be willing to lend a hand.

There are people who are just naturally kind. God will place such people in your path, if you’d trust Him. I met such people and till now, they still hold my hand through my journey. That they do it with pleasure is the most amazing part of it all.

Just when I thought I had lost it all —relatives, the ones who were so dear to me— God brought me such great and encouraging individuals. God will do it for you. Do not look at the situation you are faced with. Look up to the great God, who is above it all.

I am not there yet but I’m sure not where I was when I had the injuries.  And all glory goes back to the lord God almighty. Don’t ever allow depression rule over you. You have a life to fight for.

If you are to get out of that situation, then you would need positive thinkers around you, not sympathizers. Find the ones who will instill some tough love in you.

I hate poverty and this has served as my driving force. I dislike pity and that’s what keeps me on one side of my bed all day, beading. Yes, I work while lying down because of my body pain.

How can your prospective clients locate you?

Currently, I operate from my home in Nansana. I do deliveries in and around Kampala.

For those who won’t mind, they can pick up their products at my place.

Inspire us with your story. Let us know about the amazing women in your communities here.

Evelyn Namara: Don’t wait until you have the perfect product

Evelyn Namara is bomb-ass in just about every way. When she’s not breaking ground in tech innovation in Uganda, she’s helping women start successful businesses. We totally get why she was called a “fearless influencer of society”. 

 Evelyn is the founder of Vouch Digital, a technology start-up building a verified digital voucher
system that helps simplify the distribution of aid for international aid agencies as well as
government programs. Her system helps eliminate fraud and corruption in the distribution of
goods and services for cash-based programs, but before that, she worked for Beyonic Limited and Solar Sister.

She is an Acumen East Africa fellow and also an IDEX fellow (January 2015 class) where she spent six months in India as part of the fellowship program working for Wings Learning Centres.

Here, Evelyn shares her passion for tech and entrepreneurship with SLA and lets us know her top five tips for start-ups.

What is one thing about Evelyn Namara that the world should know?

I keep a counsel of close advisers who I go to when I need advice and guidance on anything.

It is important for everyone to have a counsel of trusted friends who can genuinely give you guidance and also truthfully rebuke you when make terrible decisions. I have found that these people have helped me stay focused on my goals and have encouraged me when I have felt like giving up.

Tell us about Vouch Digital

Vouch Digital was born out of a need to find a solution to fight fraud and corruption in the distribution sector.

After realizing that most systems that deliver aid to end users lack efficient systems to track transparency and efficacy, I started working on our product. Our product is a verified voucher system that simplifies the distribution of aid to different program beneficiaries.

Beyond distribution, we are working on mapping beneficiaries who receive aid and do not have an identity by giving them digital identities through our system. The digital identity system allows these beneficiaries to access other goods and services such as financial services.

@vouchdigital was born out of a need to find a solution to fight fraud and corruption in the distribution sector. Click To Tweet

What needs to be done to increase the number of women in IT?

STEM studies should be encouraged from the grassroots. Girls, as well as boys, should know that the choice exists for them to take up technology as a career from an early age.

I believe that once we introduce STEM studies early on and put gadgets in the hands of girls as they grow up, there will be no need to “increase women in IT”.

We have a problem now because some outdated education systems allow girls to believe that some courses are not meant for them. That there are some simpler and feminine courses that girls should take up and unfortunately technology is not one of them.

Let’s focus on building capacity for the younger generation and open up opportunities for girls to live up to their full potential.

Besides that, we need to encourage more forums that are building capacity for women in IT. One of such forums is AfCHIX which continues to impart skills development in young women in ICT.

AfCHIX gives girls an opportunity to be better at their skills and thus compete favorably for jobs. It also links them to opportunities to attend conferences such as the Grace Hopper Conference which is one of the biggest women in technology conference that brings together thousands of women from all walks of life in the technology sector.

As someone who helps women start businesses, what are your top five tips for start-ups?

I draw my lessons from my start-up and I will share those with other start-ups.

  1. Research the field you want to serve adequately. Carry out your baseline studies and understand your field. Know the other players in the field and find a way to make your start-up stand out in terms of product offering. It’s your uniqueness that will give you an edge.
  2. Don’t wait until you have the perfect product for you to hit the market.  Prototype early, test your prototype with potential customers and iterate. You learn a lot when your product is in the hands of customers and this allows you to work on early modifications before bringing out your final product.
  3. Have a target market and work closely with them. Most start-ups are not very clear on who their target market is and this creates ambiguity in building your solution. Work on knowing who your target customers are so that you build specifically for them.
  4. Build a pull of partnerships, these are key in giving you longevity. With the right partners, you can scale your start-up easily. Find those that complement your vision and work together to push your product or service.
  5. Build the right structures. This is key if you are looking to build your start-up to scale.

You were an IGF Internet Society Ambassador in 2015, tell us about that.

Internet Society invests in Next Generation of Internet leaders. Through its Next Generation Leaders (NGL) programme, Internet Society helps Internet professionals between the ages of 20 and 40 develop their leadership potential in technology, business, policy, and education.

NGL participants gain a unique opportunity to advance their professional growth and build the experience and confidence they need to drive development in their own local communities and the larger Internet ecosystem.

The Internet Governance Forum Ambassadorship Programme lies under the NGL curriculum and gives an opportunity for Internet professionals to attend the IGF and participate in the dialogue that shapes the Internet ecosystem.

I applied and was accepted as a 2015 ambassador and the experience was enriching. Stand out topics for the 2015 IGF were Connecting the next billion, Net Neutrality and Zero Rating, topics that are relevant to the African continent. My interest as a member of civil society was on following and contributing to the discussions on connecting the next billion because we still face a challenge of connectivity which is hindering Innovation.

What is the best compliment you’ve received?

I was once called a “fearless influencer of society”. That’s the best compliment I can ever think of.

Service for society means a lot to me.

 We want to know about women in your communities doing amazing things! Tell us about them here.

Lillian Achom: Using technology to revolutionise report cards in Uganda

Say yes if you recall the days of paper report cards in primary and secondary school. It may not have been a big deal to some, but to Lillian Achom the inadequate procedures of schools cost her to enter university a year late.

Information Systems was a new one for us. Yet there are even brilliant entrepreneurial ideas in the education sector. Lillian is one woman tapping into this is. Lillian is an Information Systems Professional that provides university information to students in and out of Uganda.

Tell us about your startup. What societal challenges do you hope to address with it?

Throughout my primary and high school, we used to be given hard-copy, class results to take to our parents. However, by end of the year two or even year one, there would be no records of all the previous results for comparisons with current results. As a result, it was difficult to rule out where my strengths and weaknesses were in the different subjects.

When I joined Advanced Level, at the time for applying to join university, we were given information about the available universities courses, their entry requirements among others. I was seeing these for the first time so everything looked new to me.

Besides, my performance in my subject combination at A level was way below the entry requirements I was seeing. The lack of prior knowledge of university entry requirements and poor choices I made affected my studies. I never got admitted in any university that year. However, I managed to join a tertiary institution one year later.

What I experienced years back in my high school are what the majority of students are still experiencing today.

  1. Schools use manual systems to provide information about public universities to students.
  2. Students receive hard-copy performance results. Some students make changes and provide wrong results to their parents.
  3. Very few parents are able to keep track of the student’s results slips from previous years and monitor the child’s performance as the paper reports get misplaced.
  4. Some students or parents have to travel long distances to respective universities in order to access information on admissions to universities.

After graduating with a Bachelor of Science in Computer Information System, I had the passion to startup something and put it out there for people. The above was what motivated me to focus on building an Information and Students Performance Evaluation Tool, GradeScore.


What does GradeScore do?

GradeScore is an online platform for evaluating high school students’ performance as they work towards joining university courses of their choice. It allows easy access to crucial information about all universities in one portal. Information such as minimum entry points for each course at university and subject requirements for each course at respective university.

The platform is also aimed at providing an electronic version of students’ performance records. This is accessible privately by the student or his/her parent/guardian.

Would you say you’re fulfilling your passion?

Yes I am. To me, the input from users (teachers, students and parents) and the subscriptions are some of the indicators that there was indeed a gap and the product is much needed.

How do you go about achieving your business goals?

We involve the users, students, teachers and parents, who have greatly contributed to what the system is to-date. Also, we are in partnership with Education Secretariats who recommend our product to the schools.

One of the challenges we have experienced in schools is where the teachers in charge of career guidance feel that the project will render them jobless. We managed to bring them on board when we explained that the system is for them to use. It actually simplifies the work guidance counsellors do, the existing manual system is tedious and time consuming.

What has been the best moment of your career so far?

When I got a scholarship to upgrade my Diploma in Information Technology to BSc Computer Information Systems at Africa University, Zimbabwe.2

You mentioned you volunteer. As a volunteer, what advice will you give other young women looking to start volunteering?

Volunteering is not for people who place importance on financial gains. There are lots of passive benefits attached to it.

It should not been seen or treated as if you are doing the organization a favor. Once you commit to volunteering your service somewhere, put in your whole because you just never know who is watching.

What is your favourite life quote?

This is one of them, “Keep away from people who try to belittle your dreams. Small people always do that, but the really great ones make you feel that you, too, can be great”. It’s from Mark Twain.

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