Why Kenya’s school laptops program is not the answer

Education, batteries not included. By Phil Goodwin, Lifeline Energy. 

The Kenyan government is delivering on an election promise and has awarded a supply contract for 1.2 million laptops to be given to first year primary school students. In a country where 75 percent of the population lack reliable access to electricity, the laptop roll out, although media sexy, is completely out of touch with reality.

The government has acknowledged the problem, stating that “the physical infrastructure in most schools is undeveloped and dilapidated.” In fact only 2,037 of the targeted 20,368 schools that are to receive laptops are connected to the electrical grid. This means that 90 percent of the children receiving these laptops will have no reliable means to power them and might realistically never turn them on.

At the surface this bold project, which will cost the government $600 million, holds tremendous potential for the future of Kenyan education – a leapfrog into eLearning and access to almost unlimited resources. Scratch a little deeper and it becomes clear that potential is all that exists without the energy to unlock it.

I am reminded me of a story a few years ago in which two informal security guards in Cape Town who were given a $200,000 Audi R8 sports car by an anonymous donor on the condition it was used for charitable purposes. Unable to make use of the potential of this gift they simply carved a slit in the bonnet and invited contributions into this very expensive donations box. They eventually sold the car and were subsequently charged with fraud for contravening the conditions of the donation – a ruinous outcome for the men involved. The story serves as a powerful cautionary tale, reminding us to take more care in considering what we give and what the unintended consequences of that gift might be.

I’m not suggesting that these laptops are destined to become elaborate piggy banks for school children, but the consequence of implementing a fundamentally flawed roll out plan is the wholesale rejection of the project – and with it the loss of all that potential. Like the Audi sports car, the supply of laptops into ill-equipped Kenyan schools is wholly inappropriate.

Have we learned nothing from the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project? There are many articles describing various degrees of failure of OLPC, and there are many contributing factors to this failure – including access to power. The most glaring report, however, highlighting that while cognitive skills were improved, the laptop program had no effect on achievement in mathematics or languages, as it had no effect on attendance, time allocated to school activities or quality of instruction in class.

The One Laptop Per Child program’s success hinged on access to electricity – which many rural communities in developing countries do not have. 

I wrote previously that education advancements in sub-Saharan Africa are hindered by energy poverty.  Revisiting the statistics, 90 percent of children in sub-Saharan Africa go to primary schools that lack electricity. In Burundi and Guinea only 2 percent of schools are electrified, while the Democratic Republic of Congo has 30 million children attending school without power. In this environment there is little hope of a successful outcome for an eLearning platform reliant so completely on access to power.

The laptop initiative is part of a narrative of states and organisations framing technology as a way to combat social and economic problems. While the energy landscape in Africa remains sparse we must focus rather on utilizing and improving more appropriate low power ICTs for mass education, as well as investing in teachers, building functioning schools and connecting these schools to the grid.

As noble as this venture may be, each laptop should carry a bold label warning: “Education, Batteries not included!”

Congress has a bill that could provide 50 million people in Africa with reliable electricity. Sign the petition now and let them know it’s time to electrify Africa. 

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