Expert and African

Inside the life of Selina Onyando, an African lawyer and tech policy analyst

June 28, 2022 · 7 min read
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Expert and African

Expert and African is a weekly series where tech career specialists take us on their journey from newbie to expert, and how they became successful in the industry. For extras and other perks, subscribe for email updates.

On the 98th episode of the Techpoint Africa Podcast, Techpoint Africa’s reporters reacted to the news about Kenyan legislators silently passing a draft bill in the parliament to regulate the country’s tech practitioners. By the 99th episode, NITDA, Nigeria’s technology regulator, unveiled something similar — a Code of Practice for Online Platforms. 

Usually, such situations provoke reactions from stakeholders, especially in the law tech space, where policy experts attempt to make sense of these bills before speaking with lawmakers and citizens. These are the regular duties of Selina Onyando, a Kenyan lawyer and tech policy analyst.

“Most times in the work that I do, I see that there’s often an ecosystem disconnect, right? What the policymakers want to do is one thing, but what tech practitioners want to do is another. Often, when laws are being made, tech practitioners are left out of the process.”

Aside from a law degree, Selina also has a postgraduate diploma in law and recently completed the Harvard Law School’s CopyrightX programme. She’s also upskilling for her other interests.

“Learning, for me, is an endless journey. I started reading at quite a young age. In fact, as early as 12, I would get books as birthday gifts, books about everything, really. I think for my 12th birthday I got a book about dinosaurs, which was interesting. And then for my 13th, I got  Robinson Crusoe, which I really enjoyed.”

Selina is proud of her continuous improvement and says the various skills help her build physical, mental, and emotional strength.

“I have a passion for the arts. During my free time, I enjoy photography. [Growing up,] I enjoyed sports; I swam a bit and played football a lot in primary and high school. I’m not blowing my trumpet, but I was very good.”

Like football, Selina picked up photography early in life and was already taking shots of people and places when she was nine. Here’s a compilation of her artworks. Her decision to become a lawyer was influenced by her experiences growing up and her parents’ impact. 

“I wanted to be a change-maker, someone who makes a difference. The quest for justice has been in me from the values that have been imparted to me by my family and my friends.

“My parents have been a huge influence on me. The learnings they’ve shared and imparted to me are some of the values I uphold dearly and translate to my work. Things around equality, which are very foundational principles in the law or policy-making process.”

She is driven by a philosophy captured in a quote: “It’s one quote I always live by and I’ve really started to take it seriously this first half of the year, which is progress over perfection. Doing it is better than not doing it at all.”

A conviction for law tech

Photo by Tingey Injury Law Firm on Unsplash

Selina stumbled into the tech space when choosing an industry to focus on after her law degree. And, yes, one of her passions was instrumental in her choice. 

“Towards the end of 2018, I was doing a lot of photography work alongside my law degree, as I was coming to the end of my law degree. I met one of my friends in Egypt, who introduced me to a space he was at; it was an accelerator here in Nairobi, and they needed a photographer very urgently. He called me on Friday evening, and they needed a photographer for Saturday morning.”

In typical fashion, she seized the opportunity to show her skills. 

“I was there on Saturday morning for what was a hackathon. I’d never heard of hackathons and didn’t know how they worked. But I was there for two days documenting the process of building shelter tech solutions, and I was very intrigued.”

From the outset, Selina and the accelerator’s values aligned, with her consequent six-month stay at the organisation documenting their processes proving they were a good fit. 

She calls it an eye-opener; because it gave her access to a rich network of people in tech, a chance to attend more hackathons and popular tech events, and get familiar with the law tech space, especially with lawyers building tech solutions. But that was only the beginning.

“And I ended up stumbling in a hackathon myself. But the interesting part was that it was a legal tech hackathon. So, I thought that this would be perfect for me because then I could apply my legal skills as well as my creative and design thinking skills.”

At this point, Selina was sure where she belonged. In September 2019, she went for a new challenge in law tech, which she probably saw coming since her undergraduate days. 

“I honestly wasn’t always attracted to the traditional forms of law; I always thought that times were changing quickly. It was more than what we would learn in school or what people would do in the traditional space. In uni, I was more interested in courses not too many people were doing.”

“I work with a team of very talented professionals to support the law in the technology ecosystem by improving the capacity of policymakers, engaging in the policy-making process, improving the capacity of the public to challenge laws that are not beneficial, and supporting ecosystem players to disseminate laws and policies on a larger scale to ensure that the public can better engage.”

Selina adds how her travelling experiences as an undergraduate helped her understand policy-making processes and the uniqueness of different climes.

Acknowledging how the environment and schools she grew up in have inspired her to think beyond what is currently attainable, Nairobi-born and raised Selina says everything she has learnt is useful in her job as a tech policy analyst. She boasts of having an eye for detecting even the most easy-to-miss details when going through a document. But she did not always have this ‘superpower’. 

Policy reviews and analyses can be overwhelming, and that was what Selina initially felt. However, a supportive team gave her the freedom to learn from her mistakes and improve. Of course, her willingness to seek help played a part in her growth. 

Understanding tech policy and regulations

For starters, Selina explains the forms that law tech can take — advisory, litigation, policy, and building products for legal purposes — and defends her strong conviction for policy.

“I’d argue that the policy space is the most foundational space because you cannot exist in a vacuum as a technology practitioner. You need to have rules and regulations that guide your dealings. Away from you as a technology practitioner, tech is now coming to a lot of the things that we do daily, so we need to have checks and balances that regulate how this tech is used so as not to abuse the rights of individuals. Preparing laws and policies that support the ability to set up tech businesses and run in a country; that is what the policy landscape looks like.”

Ideally, policymakers should engage technology stakeholders to understand what the tech entails before developing laws and policies. Additionally, these stakeholders should review the drafted policies and advise on their practicability.

Selina specialises in reviewing policy drafts to spot loopholes and researching what is suitable for particular societies per time since laws are sometimes imported from places with different legal landscapes.

She agrees that African regulators seldom interact with tech players in ways one could consider ideal.

“For me, it’s more about, ‘Do policymakers understand what the problem is?’ Once they understand the problem, you have to ask, ‘Is this the right solution?’ That’s why ecosystem engagement is very important.”

Life outside lawyering and policy

Selina Onyando smiling
Selina Onyando: Lawyer, Tech policy analyst

A typical day for Selina involves a lot of reading, research, and keeping up with trends in the tech space. She optimises her day by religiously using her calendar, Slack for personal and official purposes, Zoom video conferencing tools, and her mobile phone.

She often starts with coffee and breakfast, after which she reviews her calendar to know what’s scheduled. She then attends team meetings before tackling other assignments. When reviewing a draft law, Selina reads it and draws up a plan to disseminate information to the relevant stakeholders. She takes other meetings and assigns responsibilities to different teams. Selina goes for a 20-minute lunch and takes walks in the evenings.

Her biggest win is belonging to a team that gives her room to learn.

“One of the draft laws that I worked on, that I really was able to see the impact full circle was the Central bank of Kenya Amendment Bill 2021. That was the law that regulated digital lending in Kenya. When I first saw that law, I had never interacted as much with the digital lending space on the regulatory side. I’d understood that there were challenges in the space, but I’d never seen what regulation looks like. And it piqued my interest. 

“I started reading about it more and more, and it allowed me to work closely with people in the space and see it through up until we had the Digital Credit Providers Regulations 2022. So being able to work on that all the way and actually see Parliament consider those suggestions, I’d say, was my biggest win. Also because it influenced a huge chunk of some of the topics that interest me today in the law and tech space, which are  around financial regulation in emerging markets.”

The idea of work-life balance is not lost on Selina, as she does her best to own her weekends.

“I enjoy being alone on the weekends much more than I admit, but I also enjoy spending time with my family. I enjoy going out, hanging out with friends and watching football.”

Despite her current schedule, she does not want to give up on photography. Although she’s on a brief break, she’s taking short courses and joining communities to help her improve her skills and package her art properly. In 2021, she took a class with Canon on the Art of Storytelling, joined a community of African Women in photography, and exhibited her art at the 59th Venice Biennale earlier in the year.

Selina’s drive to achieve as much as possible as quickly as possible stems from her fear of not having enough impact, so she contributes and volunteers at every opportunity. And she’s excited about the future.

“The next five years offer me the opportunity to scale my networks across the region and meet different people across the continent doing what I’m doing and different things that impact my work. I also want to build networks for other people.”

Oluwanifemi Kolawole

Oluwanifemi Kolawole

Author

Human enthusiast | Writer | Senior reporter | Podcaster. Find me on Twitter @Nifemeah.

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