When parents in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, found out that two schools in the vicinity had “special” new computers, they started signing their children up to attend.
Such was the level of interest that Amaf Primary and Elim Academy in Kawangware, a low-income settlement in Nairobi, now both have waiting lists, and eager children already attending flock through the school gates each morning, keen to get their hands on the devices.
The popularity of the two schools stemmed from being selected for the eLimu project, which takes interactive tablets into the classroom.
The project is a very Kenyan contribution to the growing trend of using technology to address the education divide in African schools.
Projects such as Worldreader, which provided Kindles to schools in Africa, have existed for some time now, but eLimu has been running for just a year.
|The pupils quickly lost any apprehension [eLimu]
Conceived by two Kenyan women after seeing that there was very little engaging digital content aimed specifically at Kenyan children and based on the Kenyan curriculum, eLimu was originally based in the iHub, a space where people wanting to start technology ventures in Kenya can work and collaborate without laying down the costs for office space.
“We didn’t just want to use technology for technology’s sake. We wanted there to be a purpose and a real benefit,” said Nivi Mukherjee, co-founder of eLimu, which means education in Swahili.
“When you’re showing children examples that they can’t easily relate to, part of their brain is distracted.
“So when we’re talking about fractions, we don’t use a pizza as an example, we use a chapatti. We also follow the national curriculum, so this content is specifically geared towards Kenyan youth.”
The curriculum texts are supplemented with videos, games and quizzes that are designed to get the pupils to engage with the material.
Mukherjee and her business partner, Marie Githinji, were inspired by Kenya’s National Vision 2030, which is working towards the economic sustainability of the country.
“We’re not just going to wake up in 2031 and be a developed country,” Mukherjee said.
“We have to work at this, and the people who will be contributing to the economy by then are in school today.”
An unexpected bonus to the project was that all the pupils involved improved their computer literacy almost immediately.
“The main thing was that they weren’t intimidated by technology any more,” Mukherjee said.
“When we brought in different devices with different operating systems and asked them to do something, they were able to work out because they weren’t intimidated by having a go.
“Getting rid of that fear early will make all the children better contributors to the economy.”
This year’s pilot yielded positive results, but with such a small test sample eLimu is now keen to widen the field and get some statistically relevant results.
At the start of this academic year, eLimu will be providing one tablet per child in a variety of schools across Kenya, from the suburbs of Nairobi, to small rural schools.
The organisation also wants to teach children about social responsibility, health, and the environment - additional subjects that would not have had any resources to back them up without.
“It is difficult: You’re teaching these kids that they should help people, even if they originate from a different area or group, but it is easier to get them singing along to a catchy tune,” said Mukherjee.
“We even have lessons from the rest of the world, that the arguments they have with their parents are not so different from the ones other children are having the world over.”
That there are problems with Africa’s education system is not disputed.
UNESCO cites a 38 percent illiteracy rating among adults and with between just eight to nine years, depending on gender spent in school on average, the continent needs to embrace every available resource if it is to bridge the global education gap.
Kenya’s infrastructure poses more problems when it comes to delivering advanced technology to schools.
Lack of access to electricity is one hurdle, while regular maintenance of the device once it is in the hands of children is another.
Read and Prosper, a Washington-based project working with schools in Kenya, not only provides e-readers, but is also developing solar panel systems that can keep the books charged.
Kauti Primary School in Kathiani, Kenya is the site of Read and Prosper’s pilot programme, where the children have already been given solar-charged lanterns by GIVEWATTS to replace expensive kerosene lamps, allowing them to continue studying at home after sun set.
The aim of Read and Prosper is to complement this scheme with 25 e-books loaded with the national curriculum and a custom-made steel safe to keep the e-readers safe at night, which has a recharging system inside.
President and founder Evan Colton said that the initial idea grew after the first pilot, and the organisation wanted to make the case for technology to be used in schools across Africa.
“After singling out the broad mission of using technology to improve access to education in the developing world, we recruited a group of our friends to work on the project,” he said.
“E-readers have many crucial advantages in Africa - low power consumption, low cost, simple to use, built in dictionary, and they fit directly into the educational model already practiced in Kenyan schools.
“One of the key difficulties we wanted to address is lack of access to the information world that we now take for granted in developed countries. Speaking from my experience in Kenya, many schools lack basic educational materials, like books.
“My hope is that the Kenyan government will adopt education technology in a deliberate and careful way. Technology in schools is no panacea, and if implemented poorly, it could backfire. [But] I think that mass adoption of e-readers is a great place to start, because it is minimally disruptive to the schooling model.”
Love of learning
There is more, however, to improving literacy and education than providing the materials. A culture of reading needs to be created.
One of the issues in getting children interested in reading in the first place was a lack of high quality local content, written with them in mind.
That problem is now being addressed by eKitabu, Kenya’s first e-book store and a rich resource of locally-written fiction content.
CEO Will Clurman said that the demand for local content became obvious during the company’s pilot programme in four schools.
EKitabu made all the government-approved text books digital, not only addressing the need to local content, but also taking away the dilemma faced by head teachers as to which books they could afford to buy.
“Educational publishing is the majority of local content development in Kenya and throughout Africa, and one of our first priorities was to engage directly with schools to see firsthand how they would use e-books and what good might come of it,” he said.
“The next phase we are undertaking is to engage on a sustained basis with schools, teachers and students to develop what we are calling ‘Lab Schools’ where we can support teachers and ‘IT champions’ with training.”
Clurman told Al Jazeera that with the right digital content, technology would help Africa “leapfrog” the education divide.
Follow Philippa on Twitter: @Flip_Stewart