Internet Geographer


Kenya's laptops for schools dream fails to address reality

The text below is a pre-publication version of the article that I published in the Guardian’s Development section: 

Graham, M. (2013). Kenya’s laptops for schools dream fails to address reality. Guardian. June 27, 2013. 

Kenya has recently announced an ambitious plan to deliver 1.3 million laptops to schoolchildren. The project will cost over 600 million dollars (53 billion Kenyan Shillings) and will begin to be implemented this year. 

This is not simply a procurement issue or a small part of a larger educational strategy. It is the strategy. The budget, released yesterday, claims that the government “has prioritized transforming the educational system to e-teaching and e-Learning.” By contrast, the same budget contained only 34.7 billion shillings for healthcare, and 67 billion for the police force. In a country faced with an extremely limited amount of financial resources, this is a very bold move to be making.

In some ways, the strategy appears to be an attempt to reinforce Kenya’s status as Africa’s digital heart. The country has embedded digital services into its national development plan, is building a ‘techno city’ dubbed ‘Silicon Savannah’, is a pioneer in creating new digital services and software (such as the M-Pesa mobile money transfer system or the Ushahidi crisis reporting platform), and has one of the highest internet penetration rates on the continent. 

But this is also a country characterised by deep economic inequalities. In the shadow of Nairobi’s gleaming skyscrapers are millions of people that live in poverty. About half of the country’s 41 million people live below the poverty line, and statistics like the GINI coefficient show huge gaps between the rich and the poor in Kenya.

The country itself remains amongst the world’s 30 poorest states, and over 15 million Kenyans still don’t have access to safe water or sanitation. Furthermore, despite free primary education in the country, only about 4 out of every 5 children ends up going to school: meaning that over a million Kenyan children of school-going age aren’t attending classes

Having a well-educated citizenry is without a doubt a way for the country to help itself out of poverty. But is betting the farm on e-teaching and e-learning a sensible strategy? More important, is it an equitable or just development strategy?  

Many of the specifics of the project have yet to emerge, but there are still a few important things that need to be said. 

First, laptops alone won’t solve any of the structural and social issues facing Kenya and the nation’s children: a lack of trained teachers, intermittent power supplies, and thousands of malnourished children.

Irrespective of how many stories we hear about the effectiveness of laptops being dropped into rural Africa by people like One Laptop Per Child’s Nicholas Negroponte, technology alone cannot provide an education. Amongst other things, children still need functioning schools, electricity, and of course trained teachers (according to the Kenya National Union of Teachers there is a pressing shortage of tens of thousands of teachers in the country). 

Second, information and communication technologies are an amplifier of capabilities, skills, and social and economic positions. This is important because boosters of 'one laptop per child’ projects will often point to the great success stories that can be attributed to connecting the previously disconnected.

That argument misses the point. It remains that information technologies and the communication networks that link them together are fantastic tools for people with the existing knowledge, skills, and social networks to take advantage of them. But they remain less useful for people starting from a less privileged position. It is therefore hard to see how the programme could do anything to address inequality without tackling its deeper symptoms. 

Third, Kenya’s embracing of e-learning is not happening in a vacuum. There is a long history of people and states framing information and communication technologies as a solution to economic, social, political, and even environmental problems.

Information technologies become intertwined with notions of modernity and progress. They are seen not just as a tool, but as a panacea for development. Kenya’s laptop project therefore shows us the power such visions, discourses, and hopes can have. Why get involved in the messy business of hiring tens of thousands of teachers, building functioning schools, creating a stable electricity supply, and ensuring that all children are well-nourished, when laptops and e-learning will thrust the country into the digital economy? 

Increased access to information technologies undoubtedly holds a lot of promise for some of Kenya’s youth. But the worry is that the resources invested into this project could have been better spent. Policy-makers in other low-income countries will undoubtedly be watching closely, and we need to ask who will ultimately benefit from the project and who might get left behind.

As this debate unfolds, let’s not forget that information technologies are a necessary, but unfortunately not a sufficient condition for many of the hopes that are wrapped up into Kenya’s digital dreams.