Africa’s Wild West of Educational Innovation
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because Kenya is boiling over with ideas on how to revolutionize the way we learn.
By Laura Secorun Palet
It’s 3 p.m., and 13-year-old Sam is happily flicking through the pages of a math course on the newest-generation Android tablet with the ease of a digital native. But Sam isn’t in a futuristic school in Silicon Valley or the Big Apple — he’s in Kibera, Nairobi’s largest slum. In fact, outside of the small library where he reads, surrounded by a handful of equally absorbed children, there are all the signs of unregulated housing and the urban sprawl of developing metropolises: houses built of corrugated metal, open sewers and makeshift electrical grids.
Welcome to Kenya, the Wild West of educational innovation, where 46 percent of people are under the age of 15. In the past few years the country has become a mecca for many who are trying to reinvent the way we learn and teach. The marriage of a thriving tech scene with a vast network of children-focused nonprofits is giving birth to educational solutions the West can only dream of, from pay-per-view textbooks to low-cost private schools and animated math classes. What’s more, last year the government said it would stop ranking schools according to test results and also announced an ambitious plan to put a tablet in the hands of every first-grader.
Kenya is a natural breeding ground for innovation, says Tonee Ndungu, founder of Kytabu, a pay-per-view tablet system that drastically reduces the price of textbooks. “Kenyans are not scared of technology,” he says. “We think everything is possible.” Sure, Nairobi is a tech hub, and widely successful solutions like mobile payments have bred a generation of tech optimists. But while Kenya’s young population is growing, its infrastructure — from the lack of schools to its poorly trained teachers — isn’t up to the task. So edupreneurs are being funded by a unique combination of eager venture capitalists and optimistic nongovernmental organizations interested in shaking up the traditional education model.
We need to have big dreams so that, even if we fall short, we will have gotten further.
Tonee Ndungu, founder of Kytabu
Some argue that the country should be prioritizing needs like electricity or water, but Ndungu says, “education is the one thing everyone agrees sucks.” New initiatives seem ubiquitous and include Masai warriors accessing Wikipedia in their informal schools as well as big panels on the side of Nairobi highways advertising “Bridge” schools, a company promising low-cost private education. Meanwhile, at iHub (Kenya’s biggest startup incubator), Sam Rich talks about the future of education over a lemon-and-poppy-seed muffin on a terrace packed with MacBooks. “It is a very exciting time to be in this space,” says the Brit. “You can see progress being made.”
The company Rich runs, eLimu, builds interactive educational software for tablets, and was started by two Kenyan women under the premise that their country could leapfrog education in the same way it has mobile banking. If their bet pays off, it would mean a much better chance of success and health for the next generation. According to UNESCO, every year of schooling increases a person’s lifetime earnings by 10 percent while drastically reducing the risk of infant mortality. And kids learning from computers at age 6 would grow up more tech-savvy than the so-called Facebook generation.
Indeed, just a floor below the iHub cafeteria is BRCK, one of the companies trying to build tablets for thousands of students. In a corner of its swanky office lies piles of big black boxes that look designed to hold ammunition, except each is a portable classroom containing 40 new tablets. BRCK is now trying to get a governmental contract that would not only help children learn but also make the startup extremely profitable. This sort of unique collaboration between sectors — for-profit, nonprofit and public — will lead to Kenya’s educational success, says James Otieno Jowi, executive director of the African Network for Internationalization of Education.
Yet heavy-handed private involvement has raised some concerns, too. After all, isn’t education too important to leave outside governmental control? The lack of a centralized system is also likely to lead to awkward overlaps — the U.S. Agency for International Development, for example, is now getting ready to roll out a service similar to what eLimu is doing, except its would be free. “Lack of adequate coordination can lead to the proliferation of several systems, and this will water down the quality of education,” says John Koskey Chang’ach, professor of education at Moi University, in Eldoret, Kenya. What’s more, there is a chance this will all turn out to be a pedagogical flop. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has actually said that, based on its data, school technology has raised too many false hopes and doesn’t improve pupil results.
To entrepreneurs like Ndungu, though, failure doesn’t matter much. “We need to have big dreams so that, even if we fall short, we will have gotten further,” he says. And yes, he admits that it’s hard to be competing with NGOs and fellow Kenyan startups. But it’s through competition that local children will end up with the best educational tools, he says. “May the best one win.”