Neema Iyer on Why We Need To Interest Ourselves More in Research

“There are times I wake up feeling so demotivated to go to work again. On such days, I feel worn out and I think about going back to employment where I didn’t have to worry about a number of things…” confesses Neema halfway into our conversation before she pauses to sip on her drink. By now, we have disorganised the table from what the waitress had set it up to be. My cup is off the saucer, the napkins look unattended to. The cutlery has been dislodged from its wraps and it sits at loggerheads with each waiting for another call to action, to dismantle the once round shape that was the pie. But these can wait, the conversation is more urgent.

My eyes, searching, remain inquisitive to get to the details of this. She realises this and she continues, “…when you have your job, some things are not yours to be bothered. All you have to do is show up and play your role. When you’re the employer, you’ve to think ahead of everyone .i.e. accountability, salaries, rent, insurance! However, when I think of the work ahead, the gaps that need to be filled, and the jobs that can be created, I wake up to the challenge.”

It is this motivation that has kept her running her company, Pollicy, for now close to two years. In 2013, there were a number of conversations about Africa Rising and how Africans were standing up to champion African interests. At the time, Neema’s American visa was coming to an end and she thought this was the right time to return to Africa. “I told myself, I need to be part of this Africa Rising phenomenon.”

However, she needed to find an address. She needed something to do. That is when the door opened through a Dutch organisation running TEXT TO CHANGE. She was posted to a country she had no idea of, Uganda. But that did not matter. Finally, she was going to contribute to the global movement with this new job.

On getting to Uganda, the company was undergoing a lot of restructuring both internationally and locally.

Another window opened at VOTO Mobile, which came with a new challenge, to work across East Africa giving her a chance to meet new people every day. “This job exposed me to a number of things. I got to know the operations of different companies; their strengths and weaknesses. But the most interesting thing is that I got to realise the number of untapped opportunities in this country.  I decided to settle here and open up Pollicy.”

There was one constant thing among all the institutions she worked with both government and private, they lacked in research. Often times, they used outdated research made of half-baked data.   

“You’ll be heartbroken by what people call research, it’s so basic! We need to put in the work. Others depend on online research alone which is often times biased.”

Such are the challenges that Pollicy is here to address; to work with government and other institutions using the right data to build well researched programs. They are sure, with time, they will push for the appreciation of working with the right data and research. This is a sure way of creating realistic solutions for the problems at hand.

Neema believes this is not difficult to do. The need is there for research. Once the research has been done, it has to be shared, “Why hoard data? Some people say it’s donor funded and they can’t release it for these reasons. It’s a real shame.”

The energy and excitement with which she speaks about her work tells you how passionate she is willing to make things work.

She is building a workforce of young people that are so passionate about their work. She believes that the workplace can help people be more creative and productive if it puts necessary things in place.

The biggest challenge as of now is the need to generate internal funding. “If Ugandan start-ups are to take shape, they need to attract support from the organizations and individuals from within. This is the only way for them (start-ups) to push for business growth beyond survival,” she assures me with a straight face and a stern voice before she concludes, “We must make the environment work for everyone.”

She strongly believes that start-ups require support. The kind that leads to growth. There is need for more respect in the start-up culture.  

As a woman in the tech space, Iyer is convinced there is a lot of work to be done.  And that work is for everyone. Unfortunately there are not so many girls taking up these opportunities. “We need to break the silence and attract girls to STEM. There’s more work to be done to build the woman’s confidence at the work place.   We can’t sit back and feel sorry for ourselves. We need to create time to mentor the young ones other than watching telenovelas and attending weddings.”

As our conversation comes to an end, she leaves but not without a food for thought,

“If we do not read, we shall not be able to challenge ourselves to be better people. When we read, we learn. Uganda doesn’t seem fearful of the future. There’s no preparation for the future. There is a lot happening elsewhere, if we do not pull up our socks, we won’t be able to catch up.”


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