No Child Left Offline


Originally posted on Developed Africa

In his successful run for the presidency of Kenya earlier this year, Uhuru Kenyatta has promised to deliver one laptop per child to those attending primary schools from January 2014. This scheme has been met with some scepticism, not least for the potential cost as this article from one of Kenya’s largest daily newspapers put it,

However, given the cost implications, the ministry has proposed to roll out the project in three phases. According to the estimates tabled by [Education Secretary] Kaimenyi, each laptop will cost Sh28,000, a sum that may be out of reach of many parents in public schools whose children are covered by the project.

There are other criticisms out there. A recent excellent blog post by Will Mutua (co-founder for Nairobi’s Open Academy) summed up the main areas of concern for such a scheme very succinctly,

Lack of Supporting Infrastructure: Many schools in rural areas have no access to electricity, some have dilapidated classrooms and other amenities, not to mention some extreme cases where learning does not even happen inside a classroom. What’s the point of giving these students laptops? Their schools have other more pressing needs.

Lack of Capacity: There are teachers who are computer-illiterate. What happens when computers break down, who will have the technical skills to troubleshoot these laptops?

Timing: It’s just not the right time for such an initiative. There are other pressing matters that can be dealt with instead of ‘throwing away’ money in an impractical project. How about jobs, healthcare etc.? And even if it is a matter of enhancing education – why not first hire more teachers, there’s clearly a shortage of them, or pay teachers better?

It is interesting that such problems have been highlighted for a government project – if you didn’t know what they were about you would be forgiven for guessing that Mutua was criticising a poorly planned charitable project. It lacks sustainability, it lacks a proper appreciation of local context, and seems to seek headlines more than anything else. These are all classic complaints of donor-driven development models.

Promoting computer literacy is a great project, particularly for Kenya as it looks to become the tech hub of Africa. Giving a laptop to every child is something that has been attempted before (see Mutua’s article for some good examples of similar schemes in East Africa in recent years) but often falls on the tertiary aspects of promoting computer literacy – you can’t just give the equipment, you have to support that equipment and its users as well. Governments and NGOs can start projects like this but it is through commercial partnerships that African nations can really build a lasting, economically functioning tech sector. The talent is there, schemes something like Kenyatta’s one laptop per child can open up the opportunity – now it is up to business investors to bring those things together.

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