Katherine Getao – ICT educationist with a passion for writing

In interest in writing manuals for various pieces of equipment her father had, developed into a stellar career in ICT for Dr Katherine W. Getao. She has spearheaded the ICT strategy in Kenya, and was part of the team that created undergraduate and postgraduate programmes in computer science at the University of Nairobi, making it the first institution in East Africa to graduate doctoral students in computer science. She is also a writer and had the second longest running weekly column in the Saturday Nation. She has received various awards for her contribution to ICT education.

Dr Katherine W. Getao discovered her love for computing and computer science during her first year at a polytechnic in the UK. Although she was better at the arts, she had studied science in high school because her father encouraged his children to become scientists, reiterating that science was the future of the world.

Looking back, she notes that she always had a passion for computer science from as early as her teenage years when she used to create detailed instruction manuals for her father’s newest gadgets – a skill that is similar to computer programming

The college offered ‘alternative education’ which allowed first-year students to do various courses from any department. She did everything including film editing, computer studies, cosmetics technology, French and linguistics.

After an introductory course in computer science, Getao wanted to change her major. She requested her sponsors, the British Council, to allow her to change to computer science. “They allowed me to change courses on condition that I did exceedingly well in the computer science exam,” she recalls. Getao emerged third in her class. The only people better than her were two male students who had studied computer science in high school.

Looking back, she notes that she always had a passion for computer science from as early as her teenage years when she used to create detailed instruction manuals for her father’s newest gadgets — a skill that is similar to computer programming.

It was while studying abroad that Getao came to appreciate her parents’ form of discipline. They would sit her down to discuss an issue logically, showing her what was right and wrong.

This method of solving issues would in future help her to consider a situation’s pros and cons before eventually making a decision.

When she finished her first degree, a Bachelor of Science in Combined Sciences, Getao returned to Kenya where she worked for the International Centre for Research in Agroforestry (ICRAF; now called the World Agroforestry Centre) as an analyst/programmer.

At ICRAF, she enjoyed the working environment and the social interaction with young scientists from all over the world. After her term at ICRAF ended, Getao joined Kenya’s Shell Global. The new position required much adjustment because of the increased work demands, which lead to lack of a social life. However, the organisation trained her and taught her how to function in a structured environment.

Getao moved to the University of Nairobi (UoN), where she worked for over 20 years. It was here that she discovered her passion for teaching.

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She began her career at UoN as a tutorial fellow, steadily rising to become Director, School of Computing and Informatics, a position she held for six years between 2001 and 2007.

During her time at the university, Getao helped develop computer science programmes in East Africa through external examination and as a reviewer for Kenya’s university education regulator and accreditor — the Commission for Higher Education, now the Commission for University Education.

It was while teaching at UoN that she completed a Master of Science in Intelligent Knowledge-based Systems from the University of Essex and a PhD in Computing from Lancaster University.

Getao’s mentor, Professor Anthony Hendricks, was a big proponent of the efficiency of teamwork. Through him she learnt that allowing team members to reach their potential would create a win-win situation, making employees more productive.

Getao implemented this in the computing department at UoN. The department was able to create transformative projects and systems which were later used by the whole university to improve efficiency at the institution.

The department also created undergraduate and postgraduate programmes in computer science, making UoN the first East African university to graduate doctoral students in this field.

She then left UoN. “I wanted to apply the ideas I had which I believed would transform Kenya and Africa as a whole,” she says, adding that she also wanted to help improve the poor communication situation between the government, universities and private institutions.

In 2007, she joined NEPAD’s e-schools project, which aimed to combine education and ICT. NEPAD is the African Union’s planning and coordinating agency. The initiative faced various challenges and was ultimately unsuccessful.

Getao she was appointed ICT Secretary-Directorate of e-Government in the office of the Presidency and Cabinet Affairs in 2010. While there, she spearheaded development of the ICT strategy in Kenya. She played the same role at the Ministry of Information Technology and Communications.

This position allowed the team under her guidance to establish various ICT projects successfully.

The projects include the connectivity and revival of the Government’s data centre, the Government core common network, the electronic mail and messaging systems, the county connectivity project, using e-learning as part of capacity building, and the launch of Huduma Kenya.

In October 2018, Getao was appointed as the Chief Executive Officer of ICT Authority for a term of three years.

Getao also has an interest in financial matters. While looking for a mortgage, she had a hard time finding quality information to guide her decision.

She resorted to reading books and consulting people who were knowledgeable in financial management.

Getao ended up deciding, with the help of a friend, to start the Kenya Women Investment Company, whose aim is to educate its members on financial matters.

The company brings together women who trade in stocks, bonds and land, allowing them to double their investments and incomes/dividends.

Getao is also an acclaimed columnist who authored ‘Flakes’, a weekly column featured in the Saturday Nation. She began writing the column in July 1999. It is the second longest running column after Dr Yusuf Dawood’s ‘Surgeon’s Diary’ that runs in the Sunday Nation. The column ran until June 2016.

She has also written academic papers on ICT, computing and programming, which have been used as references by many students. In her free time, she loves writing dramatic plays, singing and playing the piano.

“Getting my PhD in computing from Lancaster University and having the second longest running column in the papers are some of my proudest accomplishments,” says Getao.

Her other proud accomplishments include the work she has done while in the government, for example, the revival of the government data centre which connects the counties.

She has been bestowed honours and awards including the University of Nairobi Staff Merit Award 2001, the University of Nairobi College of Biological and Physical Sciences Certificate of Recognition 2007, ICT Hall of Fame Inductee (Education) 2007, Computer Society of Kenya Hall of Fame Inductee 2011, CIO 100 Honoree 2011 and Elder of the Burning Spear Award (EBS) in 2012. She has also been awarded a Commonwealth Research Fellow.

Getao’s quest for knowledge has not only allowed her to travel and experience different cultures, but also to take up various short courses that have increased her professional qualifications and knowledge. They include Certified Trainer for Corporate Governance 2003, and the CISSP Examination in 2011, a computer security exam which less than 20% of candidates pass.

Regarding her dreams for Kenya’s future Getao says: “I wake up desiring that Kenyans realise that the potential in us has nothing to do with others and that we would be wealthier and more content in having a just society.”

She is encouraged by people who are not in the public eye but are addressing critical issue, and by the youth of our nation, who have great ideas that can transform Kenya.

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