In recent years, Nairobi has been branded as Africa’s “Silicon Savannah.” As one of the most stable nations in the turbulent East African region, Kenya has become a hub of technology and innovation. From numerous media accounts and the growing narrative of “Africa rising”, Kenya appears to be on track to replace South Africa as the center of investment on the continent.
The most recent World Bank Country Policy and Institutional Assessment (CPIA)report rated Kenya and Cape Verde highest on a list ranking the African nations according to their policies and institutions to support economic growth. However, despite this rosy picture of development and a thriving middle class, over 45% of the country continues to live at the national poverty line with high levels of unemployment across the country.
Notwithstanding this pervasive inequality, President Uhuru Kenyatta recently announced a plan to give away 400,000 free laptops to Kenyan first-graders in 6,000 primary schools. After phase one, the program will be expanded to other schools across the country. The project is partially sponsored by the Microsoft Corporation.
While praised by some as a key step towards reducing the digital divide between Kenya and the Western world, the Jubilee government’s $665 million initiative has been widely criticized by many Kenyans, particularly in the educational community.
Cabinet Secretary Henry Rotich claims that “when fully implemented the policy will reduce the cost of buying and replacing textbooks, and improve access to information, communication, and technology in schools and households.” However, widespread skepticism persists as the government has not made efforts to ensure quality provision of electricity and basic upkeep for school facilities. Moreover, the ongoing National Union of Teachers strike is highlighting the lack of funding for teachers’ training and salary.
Pictures like the one above (via Al-Jazeera Stream), from a strike last year, highlight the insufficient allowances that Kenya’s teachers currently receive. Not only are teachers underfunded, but schools are understaffed. The country is facing a shortage of 30,000 teachers at the primary and secondary school level.
Laptops won’t solve these problems. If students do not have teachers, they cannot gain a sufficient mastery of material that will allow them to engage in the globalizing world. Although technology may help people off the grid connect to networks elsewhere, the tool cannot surmount the need for human connections to start the learning process. Furthermore, many teachers not possess the computer literacy skills to help their students in the first place.
For the parents of students receiving laptops, security concerns will also be a source of stress. According to The Standard, in the event of theft, parents will be responsible for replacement costs - more than a month’s wages in some parts of the country. There is some fear the gangs may target children with laptops.
Despite the fact that he may want to establish an education legacy similar to that of predecessors Moi, who created a program to provide free milk to primary schoolchildren, and Kibaki, who introduced free primary school education, Kenyatta’s plan requires further evaluation prior to implementation. While the laptop project is no doubt a good idea, could resources have been allocated more efficiently and effectively?