eLearning: Ethiopia, Kenya & Beyond

We catch up with Irish charity Camara to discover more about eLearning in Ethiopia, Kenya and beyond.

Governments across the African continent are increasingly turning to ICT to educate and upskill a massive, young future workforce. We catch up with Irish charity Camara to discover more about eLearning in Ethiopia, Kenya and beyond.

The exterior of Camara’s new processing and refurbishment centre in the Borough area of South London is an inauspicious affair. There is garage door bearing the logo, then on the left, heavily barred gates. Inside the cavernous space is set to become a thriving hub of activity with computers to be cleaned, loaded with new Open Source software, then packaged for distribution, 1,000 units at a time.

“In a few months this room should be full of computers and mice and keyboards and ready to be shipped out to an education hub, this isn’t what it should look like… but this is what it does look like at the moment,” says Sam’s Lehane, who moved over from Dublin and has been working to get the new London facility ready for action.

The idea is itself simple: Camara takes second hand computers, refurbishes them at the plant, loads them with eLearning materials and sends them out to education hubs in eight African countries, as well as Jamaica and Haiti.  James Hanaway, Camara’s Head of Development, is keen to stress however: “We’re not a computers for schools charity, we’re an eLearning charity. The education hubs are [each] an independent body on their own in that country. They employ local people and act as a social enterprise in their own right.”

Camara has been running for seven years and its most established centres are in Ethiopia, Kenya and Zambia where they are currently supplying computers to around 3,000 schools. “We can only be successful if we’re working as part of the curriculum in the country,” explains Hanaway. “The one off interventions into village life are probably better for farmers where you can give them the technology to work with for their own businesses. When you work in a school you’ve really got to work with what the education establishments are trying to achieve.”

This is extremely clear from all the failed technology projects which are littered across South Africa. As Adrian Schofield, Vice Chairman, Africa ICT Alliance explained to us last year: “Very often, technology in schools fails because there is no (reliable) electricity or network. The teachers are not sufficiently skilled, the equipment is kept locked away (or is stolen if not locked away). Companies and NGOs continue to seek opportunities to make technology and training available to communities, but it is more scratching the surface than building a foundation.”

Technology in schools projects have tended to do extremely well in Kenya. This is partly because the Kenyan government has placed ICT at the forefront of all its on-going initiatives, but it also boils down to a strong spirit of commercialism. This means that the government tends to leap on any available opportunities and promote competition to make them work.

“There is a real ambition to be in school across [all] the countries, [we work in]” says Hanaway. “This is the pathway to bettering yourself and there is hunger for education that is a lot more apparent within the kids in the school [than you ever see here in the UK]. They want to absorb everything. This differs from country to country in terms of the reason why.”

“In Ethiopia there is a lot more pride, it is a lot less commercial,” he continues. “It is a lot more centred to the individual, or that is how it comes across to me. Ethiopia wants [everything] to be very equitable. It wants every child to learn and that is very rare in Africa. Kenya is more money orientated.” It is a about getting people to maximise their economic potential, for example everyone is streamed.

Ethiopia prides itself on never having been colonised and is the seat of the African Union and political capital of the continent. This, coupled with the communist legacy and on-going state interventionist policies [pdf], has seen huge amounts of money thrown into public services, which results in a markedly different approach education.

Yet across the board, one of the core difficulties in promoting eLearning in schools is not really about equipment, or even the lack of electricity. It often springs from people’s normal human fears about their own future. “A lot of people talk about the digital divide in various different forms,” says Hanaway, “but there is probably [a significant] one between a generation of African children coming through who have probably had some contact with technology and the teacher who probably has less experience than the children. There is a barrier there.”

“[We noticed] a bit of reluctance from teachers at the start,” adds Lehane, “because they were worried about not being able to use it and it might take their job.”

“You have teachers in schools in their 40s who are of a different generation and don’t necessarily want to have a classroom full of children who know how to use a computer when they don’t,” says Hanaway. “The primary point of contact [for us] is the head and the ICT teacher, but the real progress will be to enable the biology teacher, or English teacher, or Maths teacher to use that [equipment] as an education tool in school. You can pile all the educational software into a classroom that we want, but getting a teacher to use it is another thing.”

As a charity Camara is looking to monitor the whole eLearning process from training teachers, to supplying and maintaining equipment to recycling it at the end. “eWaste is a contentious issue for big companies [we deal with],” says Hanaway. “They want to be sure that if they donate a computer to us that there will be a system to recapture that computer at the end of it. I think that is where people are reluctant to get into that market because they cannot be sure what is happening to that computer at the end of it.”

“In a lot of African countries there isn’t the infrastructure and the investment in the technology that you need to do the recycling,” he continues, “If you take a computer and burn it and melt it down you get the precious metal in it and that is valuable. You get a lot of independent people [doing this] but the people who are employed to melt the things down are working in noxious fume [ridden] environments. You need to invest to extract the metal properly, but the problem in Africa and in other countries, is the easiest way to do it is to smelt it.”

Camara has started an eWaste recycling plant in Mombasa with HP which has now turned into an independent entity in its own right. This can handle eWaste from across Kenya and aims to eradicate some of the difficulties associated with this problem.

“There is a backlash that people have had enough of white middle class do-gooders coming in and telling people how to do things,” says Hanaway. “Our ethos is about empowering Africans to build their own future and career using their own skills.”

The next step will be to try and track the children who use the equipment to see if it really does enable them to get better jobs in the future. “We took a [big publicity] trek through Ethiopia,” concludes Hanaway “and a girl from the Afar region said in front of [all the] rich and famous people [who were there]: ‘I need a computer because my favourite subject is physics and I need physics because I want to be the next prime minister of Ethiopia…’ she is the sort of person we want to keep in touch with.”


Kathryn Cave is Editor at IDG Connect