For some time now we have turned our attention in this column away from startups, business models and other topics of a granular nature. Lately we have been considering the question: How does Africa become more innovative and entrepreneurial?
That topic is worth discussing because Africa as a whole must move from being an exporter of raw materials[iii] to being an exporter of value added products and services. One way to accomplish this is to harness the power of software and internet technology as a catalyst for development and innovation. African entrepreneurs can use that technology to build startups that make money by solving problems for local and international markets. African governments also can utilize that same technology to accelerate the progress that individual African nations make towards their development goals.
One theme that has been a consistent thread in the research we have read on how one makes a region or a country more innovative and entrepreneurial is that of people, educating people, and specifically educating people in the areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. India, China and Brazil are powerful and recent examples of how economic advancement is catalyzed by the availability of technically trained people. John Dewey put it quite nicely when he said “If we teach our children today, like we taught them yesterday, we rob them of tomorrow”.
The proliferation of mobile phones provides an opportunity to tap their potential in fostering progress in improving the outcomes of elementary and secondary level education initiatives in African countries. So how might this happen? How could mobile technology help engage the illiterate parents of school children in Africa’s rural communities[iv] in the education of their children?
Here is a discussion of some fundamental questions and related ideas.
How would one go about designing such a system? An attempt to implement any technology should be geared towards involving the user. User-centered design is at the core of use of information and communication technology (ICT) to bring about development. Any technology that would help engage illiterate parents of school children must be designed with the involvement of these parents and their children.
How do we nurture parental engagement? Mobile phones can be tapped to initially help the parents understand the usefulness of education, and the importance of their getting involved and fully engaged in their children’s education. The goal would be to assist parents in encouraging and supporting their children as they progress through school and make them aware of the challenges that their children are going through. This points to an “education mobile awareness app” that brings together the parent and the child in a collaborative scenario. As an example a database of voice prompts could be developed that suggests questions illiterate parents might ask their school going children in order to encourage the child to apply knowledge acquired in school to home life, or to explain natural phenomena to the parent. I remember discussing the solar system with my illiterate grandfather as a teenage secondary school student in Ghana. I have no recollection why the topic arose, but I remember that he asked me many more questions than I expected. Some of which sent me scurrying back to my geography textbook.
Mobile phones can also be used to enable parents monitor a child’s progress. In the event that the parent is unable to travel to the child’s school either due to distance or responsibilities at home (which is the case in most rural homes), the mobile phone can be used to enable the parent monitor the progress in such things as school results or important notices and announcements. For example, a voice prompt could be delivered at a certain time every day to remind parents to carve out some time during which they encourage their children to study. As another example, teachers can alert parents about upcoming tests and exams and suggest how parents might contribute in helping their children prepare via a mobile app. Of course test results and other progress reports could also be delivered in similar fashion. School authorities can also deliver context appropriate ideas through such an app about how parents might deal with the practical challenges that will inevitably arise if they choose to participate actively in the education of their children. For example, a peasant farmer who counts on the child to help on the farm after school might need encouragement to allow that child to be excused from household chores when the family returns home from the farm in order to do some studying and homework using light from a kerosene lantern.
In the rare situations where the parents can be able to help out with the child’s homework, mobile phones can be used to create applications tailored for the parents considering that most parents in rural areas are illiterate.
MPrep[v] Kenya is alreadyworking with primary schools in Kenya to foster education. Using their SMS application teachers can get data about students, they can also share some of this information with parents and guardians. Quoting from their website, with MPrep one can be able to “ . . . view data for your child and monitor his or her progress! For a low termly rate, get to know your child’s strengths and weaknesses and gain clear insight into what they might need to improve in their studies.”
The work that MPrep and other companies like it are doing is an important first step. But, to be frank it is simply not enough. We must be more ambitious. Why? Another theme that has been a constant in the research we have read about how to make countries and regions more innovative and entrepreneurial is that certain investments need to be made at “massive scale.” This is an initiative that needs to happen at “leviathan scale.” Governments are best positioned to make such investments. The initiative we imagine is not one that should be left in the hands of a single company for implementation at the local level. No. We are thinking of a scenario in which every parent or guardian of any child that is enrolled in elementary or secondary school automatically becomes part of such a program – in every African country!
So, how would such a program be transformed from mere fantasy to reality? If we were in charge of “something somewhere” this is what we would do. Our ideas are broadly outlined, deliberately lacking in specificity and not necessarily listed in any order of priority.
First, develop broad agreement amongst African national governments that educational outcomes across the continent need to improve, and obtain consensus at the level of ministers of education that a mobile learning and mobile education initiative like we have described is a matter of urgent economic priority. Obtain commitments to open national markets to competition. For example a Ghanaian app development company should be able to bid for a contract with the Federal Ministry of Education in Nigeria, or a Kenyan app development company with Ghana’s Ministry of Education and Nigeria’s Federal Ministry of Education too, for that matter.
Second, partner with newly formed companies, like MPrep, from various African countries in order to learn from their experience and begin the process of developing an outline of the functionality and features that such a system needs to have in order to accomplish the intended goals.
Finally, partner with investors, African universities, entities like AfriLabs[vi] – a newly formed network of African ICT hubs, and software startups like Ghana’s Nandimobile[vii] to get working on apps and software that deliver a solution or a set of solutions that works in a manner that yields results. For example iHub[viii]in Kenya, an open space for technologists, investors, tech companies and hackers, is already doing a lot of work to enable developers produce useful solutions to problems in Kenya.
Notice that we do not call for a massive investment in new schools or educational infrastructure. We do not call for a massive overhaul of any African country’s elementary or secondary curriculum. We do not call for a massive effort to make “free” education available to every child of school going age. All of those things would be nice. However, they are expensive and implementing any one of them would probably create a bottleneck, or worse. The initiative we suggest takes current constraints on Africa’s educational infrastructure as given. We then ask the question; given that reality, how can we improve the results African nations see for the resources they expend on education, at relatively modest cost? Fortunately the conditions now exist for a robust and effective answer to that question to be found.
In addition to addressing constraints to Africa’s educational infrastructure, mobile technology can be harnessed for other related purposes such as educating and mentoring the girl child and fostering performance in science subjects. The former is highlighted in the UNDP’s Millennium Development Goals[ix]. Technology’s ubiquity and flexibility can be tapped to foster these two initiatives. Indeed, the second author is currently working in the area of supporting students in the process of learning computer programming. It has been one of the most challenging areas of study for students of computer science, and students of programming perform poorly in general.
As evidence of the potential of mobile technology to affect change in Africa[x] consider this:
In certain countries, more citizens now have access to mobile phones than to clean water, a bank account, or electricity, and for these individuals, the cell phone means a lot more than ease of contact. Africa’s technology revolution means access to data and to financial services. For governments, it means a new way to overcome bottlenecks, roll out services and achieve development targets.[xi]
Businesses in African countries are already exploiting mobile technology to facilitate transactions[xii], gather data, and distribute and disperse information in areas like microfinance, healthcare and agriculture. Mobile app developers are proliferating across the continent. Foreign broadcasters are using SMS technology to broadcast[xiii] radio shows. Google has developed and released Gmail SMS[xiv] in Ghana, Nigeria and Kenya. To sustain Africa’s progress African governments need to wring more out of their investments in educating Africa’s people. By some reports Africa’s mobile connections number more than 500 million. That is a formidable army. It is time to mobilize it for the task of educating Africa’s future.
[i] Any mistakes are mine.
[vi] Neither author has a direct connection to AfriLabs.