Yesterday afternoon, I conducted an experiment. I deliberately started a discussion with colleagues in the office on matters sex. Yes, stop rolling your eyes, we were talking sex. Specifically, we were discussing the creativity of the marketing team at Durex on how they coin their phrases, especially with their recent campaign christened #DurexTheBigO. We also delved into how the society treats matters relating to sex, and whether children are taught on the same. It was a deep, heated, and intense discussion, with one of my colleagues explaining specifics of the quality and advantages of a certain condom brands. At this point, another colleague, not participating in the discussion, fumbled for something in her bag, mined her earphones and tightly plugged them into hers ears, probably clicked play on her favorite song and hit maximum volume. She was free at last, from our ‘dirty’ and ‘immoral’ discussion. I remember one colleague later commenting, “Woi Tobias, I thought you were a Christian, I thought you don’t speak about such things,”
And that is the genesis of all our problems as a society. We have designated all topics relating to sex as taboo, as an abomination. Some parents do, but most no longer speak to their children on matters sex, and little is available in our education systems to address intricate matters relating to sexual health. Basically the society has designated the topic as a hot wire that should never be touched. Yet we are touched each and every day when we lose relatives and friends to HIV/AIDS and other Sexually Transmitted Diseases. We get touched each and every day, directly or indirectly, when someone aborts an innocent child, when a friend loses their life simply because they were misled or had no information on how they would have addressed a condition relating to sexual reproductive health or because they were too afraid or ashamed to speak about it or seek help. In deed we get touched every day when our sisters or friends drop out of school due to unplanned pregnancies, with the only remnant of their future and dreams being a bleak mirage of nothing but dust. And all these for lack of information. Credible, reliable and authentic information.
With the neglect of the society, the current generation has turned to the internet to source for information on basically everything, including matters sex. And the truth is, there’s more misleading information than there is constructive information in this area. Nonetheless, the reality is that the internet is not going away anytime soon, so where can the right information be sourced? How can technology work for us, and not against us in this crucial area?
Meet Mr. Irving Amukasa, Derrick Mureithi, Rashid Beduni, John Makau, Justice Nicholas and Ms. Beverly Mutindi, the JKUAT students who have risen above the societal silence and devised a system that would address Sexual Reproductive Health matters. The system, christened ‘Sophie Bot’, is an artificial intelligence system dedicated to answering questions on sexual reproductive health. The parent brainchild of the system, one Irving Amukasa, was moved to action by the awkwardness that is associated with conversations focusing on sex. This led to the timely birth of Sophie, an artificial intelligence persona who answers any questions or concerns and drives conversations on anything dealing with sexual reproductive health. He has been working on the system since 2013 before inducting other students to share in his dream.
The creative team that came up with the idea is led by Irving Amukasa, who serves as a Tech entrepreneur, bot developer and Android developer, Derrick Mureithi who is a web developer, Rashid Beduni, a software developer, John Makau, coming on board as a Digital Strategist, and Justice Nicholas and Beverly Mutindi who both bring on board expertise on business development. In the world of innovation, there’s only one distinguishing feature between one idea and the other, and that is the pathway to actualization of an idea or an innovation. The Sophie Bot team got this pathway through the I.AM Initiative, an initiative calling on young people to realize their desire to talk about, discuss, learn and understand their sexuality and sexual reproductive health by engaging with credible sources of information in safe and un-stigmatized environments. When the initiative came to JKUAT last month, seeking to sensitize students on sexual reproductive health and calling for innovations around the topic, the team knew it was the right platform to sell their vision.
On 4th August, 2016, their efforts bore fruits. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), in collaboration with Nailab, a technology driven business incubator, announced 4 winning innovations that will be kicking off the iAccelerator program. Sophie Bot was among the winning innovations. Having battled with other innovators across the country who had submitted their innovations through the I.AM Initiative, they cruised from among 92 successful applicants, all the way to a rigorous selection of 10 finalists and eventually to the wining team. The brilliant innovation by the JKUAT students was selected from ten finalists during a pitching event that was held at Nailab. The other three innovations that made the cut included Imara TV, Fluid and Deaf Elimu.
The 4 finalists will go through acceleration that will run up to the month of October where they will go through two months of business training, access to co-innovation partners, diverse markets- urban and Peri-urban, and access to the UNFPA network of partners. After which, 2 months in, they will receive seed-funding of 1M Kenya Shillings which will be availed based on progress evaluation and pre-agreed business milestones. The iAccelerator program has been part of a regional initiative of UNFPA East and Southern Africa Regional office funded by UKAID.
The team behind Sophie Bot are now focused on further expanding the system to enable it become a one-stop shop for all information relating to sexual reproductive health. The fact that Sophie will soon be a fully incorporated company means there’s a daunting task ahead for the team, but one they say they are ready to take head on. “The prospect of going out and building a business from scratch is daunting, exciting and also rewarding. We are really honored to start this journey,” quips Irving.
Irving Amukasa is a Degree student pursuing Actuarial Science, Beverly Mutindi studies a BSc. in Genomic Science whereas Derrick Mureithi, Rashid Beduni, John Makau and Justice Nicholas are both Information Technology students.
It’s imperative to point out, even as we commend these visionary individuals for their insightful thinking, that a lot still needs to be done when it comes to sexual education. The societal perceptions and stand when it comes to discussions regarding sex need a complete make over. Finally, and this I direct to the students out there, the youth out there like me. I know it would be futile to tell you, to tell us to abstain. I’m just being real. Therefore please note, there is absolutely no shame in queuing in a Supermarket or majestically walking to a Chemist to buy a packet of condoms for your protection. And this I address to not only the gents, but the ladies as well. I’m no philosopher, but this life we live is lived but once. There are no rehearsals. So let’s take care, aye? If you think in the contrary, then just pause for a minute and reflect on the amazing potential and crucial contribution humanity will lose if you were to exit God’s good green Earth pre-maturely just because of carelessness. And should you have any queries about sexual reproductive health, now sophie is here.