The African adage it takes a village is poignant. The idea of community and doing things together places African communities in a unique position for effective human centered participatory design. It also places a special emphasis on context. Our various contextual deep dives into different communities have illuminated just how diverse the context in Africa are, and how these can influence the effectiveness of design.
The theory of change (in a nutshell) maps expected outcomes and the elements that need to be in place for these outcomes to be realized. Recently, we did a user experience deep dive in Kiltamani primary school, a school on the edge of the grid in Samburu county. We donated a Kio Kit to this school some months ago. Other that provide updates on new features we have since developed as a result of user experience research, we also wanted to reconnect with the community within which the Kio Kit was being used.
For this 5-night visit, I cast my user experience net wider than the Kio Kit classroom situation. We needed to understand what makes the ecosystem work or fail. What the perspective and attitudes of the community were towards education, what the socio-economic factors were at play and the key factors towards improving the education level of these students. I also was keen to learn how design and the Kio Kit fits into this equation.
To realize this, the details were important. From where we pitched our tents, how we interacted with community members, teachers and students.
The change agents that complement the technology we deploy included the following;
The community leadership
The community (parents, neighbors)
The Pastoralist Context
The Samburu people are nomadic; this means they move from place to place looking for pasture for their animals. The children are the main labor force when it comes to taking care of their livestock, primarily goats. This means for a boy or a girl to go to school, their parent has to really believe in education, because they have to take over and walk for kilometers into the mountainous terrain replacing their children in taking care of the animals.
It is not easy work, taking livestock far into the dry area seeking pasture. A case in point is when elders were suddenly called for an emergency meeting because Hyena had killed 30 goats. One day a child was fighting for their lives after being attacked by and elephant. It is a tough grind, especially in the desert landscape where the school exists. Going to school is a serious commitment both on the parent and the students, often walking 20-30 Kilometers just to get to school.
The school has been performing very poorly in national examinations, with hardly any students from the school qualifying for secondary education. We set up a meeting between the community leadership and teachers to discuss school performance and how to improve the education of their children.
There is a board of management for the school (formally school committee), that comprised elders from the community, primarily parents with their sons and daughters going to this school. Interestingly, for a patriarchal community, the leadership was mostly comprised of women, especially because they had their children in the school.
The community leadership’s role is to make sure the school is well run, the teachers are doing their work and any support that the school needs from the community is provided. The leadership is essentially the link between the community and the school.
The biggest challenge for the leadership is the fact that they are mostly illiterate. Therefore, it is hard for them to ascertain information coming from the school. Their biggest complaint is that the teachers often would say they children were doing well, only to realize they were not when national exams are held and their children don’t qualify for secondary education. This has greatly undermined the confidence in the teaching staff, with the community feeling that they are sacrificing their children’s time away from the livestock only to be let down by the teachers.
The school has 8 classrooms and only 7 teachers, some of whom suffer from alcoholism. This means absenteeism from class by the teachers and sometimes ill prepared delivery of content to the students. This is exacerbated by the fact that one class is always without a teacher since there is only 7 of them.
Teachers also feel demotivated by severe absenteeism by students. When it is dry, the family moves further from the school to find pasture, therefore an even longer walk to school or absenteeism to find pasture.
The Samburu also marry their girls off very young. There was only one girl in standard seven, with none in standard 8. This is a huge source of frustration for the teachers because sometimes their best students are girls.
Students who perform well are also often transferred to other schools for upper primary studies, meaning they are left with few well preforming students.
The school is also far away from social interaction, meaning the teachers are confined to a non existent social environment for months on end.
Teacher training, materials and compensation is also an issue, meaning they are often ill equipped and poorly prepared to deliver quality education to the students.
Parents are frustrated by the lack of good results from the school. Their lack of literacy and education means they also have limited commitment to education vis-à-vis their socio cultural practices of marrying their girls young. Some parents however demonstrate a real passion for education for their children, some even taking adult classes themselves to be able to cope.
Without education, we are blind. We are only seeing out of one eye, we want our children to go to school in order to lead us out of poverty and ignorance.
The community leadership passionately appealed for the teachers to work harder and produce results that made the future of their children brighter and the community proud of the school.
The teachers asked for more support in ensuring that students are available for class consistently including girls in upper primary. There was a memorandum of understanding signed between each stakeholder with specific commitments towards the success of the school. This was an incredible contextual journey that gave us amazing insights into how the Kio Kit and design can fit even better into this context. For example;
Designing automated attendance registers that send an SMS to the community leadership and the specific parent when a child is absent means the community is aware and is able to respond in a timely manner. This can be built into the Kio Kit.
In a context where there is shortage of teachers, more self-learning content for students in the class where there is not teacher would be helpful instead of leaving students completely on their own.
Materials to support the continuous education of teachers in their skill and practice in order to keep them motivated and progress in their own careers can help counteract the feeling of stagnation and perpetual routine methods.
Many have the mindset that illiterate communities would care less if their children performed poorly because the value of education is nascent. The contrary proved to be true.
I sacrifice the labour my child provides for him to go to school. I am 50 and have to go up the mountains in the heat to take care of our goats so that he gets an education. I have no other investments but my son. All my hope is in him. That he may do well and take us out of this extreme poverty we endure. With him, all my hope lies Samburu parent.
The stakes are in fact higher, and confirm what I have always said and used as my guiding ethos.
Africa cannot afford un-contextualized design; the stakes are simply too high. Mark Kamau
As we design for African context, I am glad a work with a company that understands this and is willing to invest in this kind of deep dive to better understand and design with people in their contexts.
A question we get asked often at BRCK Education is about data supporting the effectiveness of our work. Potential customers, donors and investors want to know what metrics we use and have to verify that the Kio Kit improves learning outcomes.
The truth is that the Kio Kit doesn’t have any impact on learning. The Kio Kit without education content is just really cool hardware. The metrics buck really stops with our digital content partners and teachers. Whether a school/teacher decides to use the Kio Kit to teach literacy using the Tusome, eLimu or Jolly Phonics content is what might determine the learning outcomes at that school.
The Kio Kit is not at all prescriptive in how we expect all teachers to use it in class. We believe that the Kio Kit is a toolbox with several tools inside it. Which tool is used, when it is used and how it is used should remain the decision of the person who knows the students best: their teacher. In some cases, we have curated a collection of standard content, but when we deploy Kio Kits to the Solomon Islands or Mexico, we have no say in what content the kids there will consume and interact with.
But metrics are important. It is important Kenyan primary schools talk about the KCPE results. It is important that we know literacy levels of students. They say numbers don’t lie, but we all know people who lie have used numbers. If there’s a measurable school reform intervention that worked in inner-city DC, it does not mean it will work in Samburu. This is where metis plays an important role.
It is not just children who go to the school
In Greek mythology, Metis was the personification of deep thinking, knowledge and wisdom. The Kiltamany expedition was 7 days without running water or electricity; a school in the middle of nowhere, forgotten by the government, politicians and most.
Some of the challenges we observed while we were there:
4 teachers and 1 headteacher were allocated by the Teacher Service Commission to this school with 8 classes.
Teachers were from Meru, Archer’s Post, Nairobi. Most were not happy about being posted to such a remote school, far from friends, family, amenities and a social life.
Teachers were not tied to the local people in any way.
Teachers were often absent and sometimes drunk during class.
Most classes we observed during our time there did not have a teacher present
Students were also often absent. Parents viewed school (especially with such teacher absenteeism) as a waste of time – taking care of the goats was a better alternative.
Teachers were demoralized by the absenteeism of students, especially the smart girls who were married early.
Teachers were demoralized by their low pay and were often seen taking calls during class to “side hustle.”
By 11am, it becomes unbearably hot, effective learning and concentration become near impossible.
If the borehole of the village dries up, children are sent to get water for lunch from elsewhere. One day, the children waited till 4pm for lunch – for many it was the only meal they would eat.
Some of the challenges were surprising, others are pervasive everywhere in Kenya. What learning from metrics can we apply in a school like this? What we saw working in the school were some excellent instances of local knowledge and community leadership: metis.
Meet Sylvester Lengamunyak, an amazing example of metis. If anyone knows what is needed to transform Kiltamany Primary School, Sylvester does. If anyone is able to connect the dots and make those things happen, he is. If anyone is able to bring all the right stakeholders together, he is.
Sylvester (L) is also a teacher!
While were there, we saw Sylvester:
Call a meeting of village elders, the school Board of Management and the teachers to agree on the way forward. Each group stood up and owned responsibility of what they needed to do. These agreements were written and signed by all.
Organize for water to be fetched from Intrepids Tented Camp when the borehole was dry. He had a good relationship with the kind manager there, they also sold us some diesel and checked our tires.
Organize for boda rides for teachers, volunteers, patients and visitors.
Organize for 40 women to have literacy and numeracy classes 3 times a week. This involved approval of the elders, their husbands and the school for the facilities.
Deep local knowledge, empathy, passion and purpose are the things that bring people like Sylvester, content like eLimu’s and hardware like the Kio Kit together. It takes a village to gather their collective strengths and knowledge, to strategize and work together to build a culture of genuine teaching and learning.
L-R: Sylvester, Nivi, Edoardo. An important lesson from Samburu: the best herders are at the rear of their flock.
We started early in the morning on the third day at Kiltamany and we were all late. As soon as we arrived at school, we started the meeting with the teachers and tried to get a picture of their challenges: what you do like, why you decided to be a teacher, what you don’t like, what are the problems you see.
After few hours we had a meeting with both the community council and the teachers: everything was entirely in Swahili and Samburu language, so I had hard time understanding what they were speaking about most of the time (my Swahili is far from good), but thanks to the patience of my colleagues, I managed to understand everything eventually.
Most of the discussion was almost a fight between community and teachers: each of one of them argued about the role and the other’s responsibilities because of the poor performance of their pupils and children. Long story short, we discovered that according to culture your child either goes to school and performs well, or there’s no need for the child to be in school, so he or she starts working very early in their childhood.
If their children don’t go to school, they will obviously perform badly. The teachers are not engaged because pupils perform badly, if they don’t attend class. If teachers perform badly, then the pupils can’t get a good education and, again, they will perform badly at KCPE. Here is the loop you can’t escape, unless everybody takes responsibility.
After few hours of discussion, we all agreed to write a list of things that have to be changed and what each of the actors (parents, teachers, community, government) has to do. This was the most difficult (but interesting) part of the day, because it is beyond technology.
You listen, you understand, you write a list of things together with all the stakeholders: the community, the parents and the teachers. You compromise and you build an initial framework you can use to make things work. There’s no technology involved, neither is there a product built. From this point you start to think how technology can improve and make things happen efficiently and faster.
What we realized eventually was the lack of framework that particular school has and the possible downsides of a product like the Kio Kit. If you deploy where there’s no framework, you need to build one together with the community before even thinking about starting a real pilot or thinking about making a difference. This was the most difficult part of the expedition: how can you convince the community to keep their children in the school? How can parents be sure that their children are not wasting time on a poor (and so useless for them) education?
These two questions made us start thinking how we can improve the user experience and the capacity of our Kio Kit to include what some parents want from the education of their children and how we can better track the results of the pupils learning, eventually sharing those with the parents themselves. We want to build a product that can adapt to every kind of situation, even when there’s no framework supporting the education system.
In technology projects you must not try to change your customer behaviors, not at the beginning at least, but you must try to properly understand your target before you design the product you want to build. Don’t just think about it, understand it, then design it, then test it and re-design if you haven’t included something. We never thought about an environment like this before, where, for example, the Kio Kit can be shared across multiple classes at the same time or it can be used with an autopilot system because of lack of teachers.
Kiltamany is composed of 10 villages surrounding the Samburu National Park. They are far away from the city, in some kind of deserted landscape, with no piped water and no electricity. Kiltamany Primary School is the only school for the whole community, with around 200 students, scarce chalk and studying materials. Sylvester, a Samburu Junaenda (in his 30s) believes the school is the hope to Samburu people live their lives better, change the way the community think about marrying early age girls and their practice of genital mutilation. In all, offer future generation broader possibilities.
In the Expedition BRCK Team came to Samburu, it was a week of a thousand learnings. I was there just for the last 3 days, and it was already special: feet on the ground, thoughts on the rising possibilities, hope for the future, hands-on, lots of work to be done.
For the three days I was in Kiltamany, there were only 3 out of the 7 teachers present. The School has 8 classes, meaning that on a normal day there is always one class without teacher, and during our time there 5 of the classrooms had no teacher. In spite this, children came every day and were seated in their desks, eager to learn something. Some of them reading or writing, or just doing nothing, until the bell for break ring.
This gave our BRCK team an extra job as we were taking turns to be teachers. It was good in one sense, as it put us in the shoes of the teachers (not exactly of course, as I do not have the training nor the content nor speak their languages). I felt the difference of giving one class with the kids holding the Kio Tablets, and another class with no such resources. On the other hand, it was not ideal, as it was important to see how the teachers behave with the tablets, if they find it useful, handy, and simple and if it helps in class.
Gordon, from eLimu, was showing the kids their new Swahili literacy app, Hadithi! Hadithi!. Bobo, the app character, was created to do a lot of success among the kids. He tells them story, ask them questions, say enthusiastically his Well done!!! The kids, on the other side, were sited on their desks trying very curiously to get near Bobo, as he was in Gordon’s laptop (as the app is still not in the tablets). They were very excited to participate. Each time one kid went to interact with the screen was the most amazing part. There was a suspense in the air about knowing what response Bobo would give.
I went to teach in Class 4 without the tablets and it was a hard job. First my absence of Swahili and the kids’ English. I used a lot of body language and made them come to the board to draw some animals they could see around. They drew lions, sheep, goats, elephants, cows, camels, and snakes. Then, I moved to the body parts vocabulary: heads, shoulders knees and toes. They showed to me that they were learning, and that they knew all the words. However, when I asked some other types of questions, the only possible answer could be YES! YES! YES! They didn’t want to get me sad.
When in class 5, now with the Tablets, it was was amazingly simpler. In this class, the children were calling me all the time to teach them something, and they were really excited to get a mzungu teacher. Their English was a lot better so I decided to read with them some English Story Books from the app. Each of them read one paragraph, just as I did in school. I made some questions about the story and asked them to draw what they remembered.
What I saw the teachers normally doing, is ask the students to repeat the words in the story. They can do this well. That’s the way the teachers usually gets feedback if the kids are learning or not. It’s definitely a harder job to check their comprehension of what was said or read, or if they can put it in other words, but to develop this skill is the first step to build a critical mind. I suppose once there is this feature on the app, with proposed questions for each exercise, or the possibility of the teacher to develop their own questions, students will learn better and teacher will find their job easier.
During this expedition, I realized something I already knew but wanted some proof. The impact the Kio Kits are bringing to this community is hard to be measured, but is huge. All the content inside one small tablet, the opening of possibilities in the children’s minds, interactivity, learning by playing games, curiosity, all this with no connectivity needed. Each time, we are learn of our capability to improve society.
Day 0 comes before Day 1, and what a Day 0, traveling to the Kiltamany!
The original plan was to leave for Kiltamany at noon, but that was not to happen. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, passed by BRCK office much later than expected and got the whole building excited. In the process, he took a great photo of himself and our Mark Kamau, with the PayGo/PicoBRCK project, which he posted on Facebook. Of course, BRCK’s Mark suddenly regained numerous Facebook friends, tags, posts and likes – rising to celebrity status. But this meant that by the time Jeremiah, the BRCK Intern, Mark and myself finally rode out of the office, it was 4:45pm! Trying to negotiate the fastest route outside Nairobi, BRCK’s newly, freshly minted ‘celeb’ aka Mark got a thousand times humbled by a no-nonsense traffic cop.
Our surprise guest 😉
Google maps said it would take 7 hours to reach Kiltamany, Samburu County. However, there is a 20km section between Archer’s Post and Kiltamany that weaves through a conservancy full of acacia, lost trails and dry river-beds – an impossible feat in the dark. So we set our goal lower for that day: to reach Bryan’s place in Nanyuki, and proceed to Kiltamany the following morning.
Brian’s Place in Nanyuki
Mark’s hard-driving and google-map-defying navigation, consistently interrupted by homage from Facebook fans, got us to Nanyuki by 9pm. After a night at Bryan’s excellent house in the middle of another conservancy among zebras, warthogs, bushbucks and other wild game, we set off for Kiltamany in the morning just after 7am. The ride to Kiltamany would have been smoother if we had not argued about google maps correctness. Ultimately, there was nothing to argue about once we went beyond existing, data-rich, cell towers!
Inside Kalama Conservancy
We reached Kiltamany Primary school a few minutes after 10pm, and went directly to join Nivi, Edoardo,Elimu’s Francesca. Initially, we distributed ourselves among the 5 teachers classes. Afterwards, Nivi and Jeremiah volunteered to teach some classes, with and without the Kio Kit.
(From Left) Amit, Edoardo, Mark, Nivi and Francesca
My Standard 8 math class was taught by the head-teacher, Mr Elijah. It was a normal well-taught class, to an attentive 12-some boys. The class was quite interactive. It reminded me so much of my primary school days. However, they appeared way behind in the syllabus, for a class sitting the KCPE in a month. My other class was a group of Std. 3, girls, more in the group than boys. It was passionately taught by a Ms Elizabeth.
Teacher Elizabeth’s English Class
With only 5 teachers, it means that the other 3 classes go un-taught at any given time. Kiltamany is about 20kms from Archer’s Post deep, inside Kalama Conservancy, very far from Nairobi. As you can imagine, not many teachers posted there take up their appointments. I can foresee the Kios playing a major role in complementing the work that the teachers do.
Nevertheless, Edoardo and I were delighted by the Kio Kit’s WiFi performance. The almost zero WiFi interference meant that the Kios could be used upto 50m away from the Kio Kit! Streaming on the Kios worked so well from the neighbouring classrooms, giving flame to Edoardo’s ideas of broadcasting to groups, registration of students and the sessions. There is also decent 3G signal at some points of the school, which will ease the task of remote updates. It’s day one, but I think it has been worth it, at a technical level.
We spent the evening sprucing up the camp, taking showers (for some), and helping prepare dinner. Amit wowed us with burgers, fries potatoes and most delicious fried onions – that everyone agrees – belongs to the best Nairobi restaurants, not a camp in Kiltamany. At some time, the Samburu elder guarding our camp left to attend a meeting to discuss a hyena attack, that had claimed the lives of 90 goats just the previous night. They are now back, but there was also a hyena scare near the camp last night, so here’s to hoping that this hyena business has been laid to rest.
This past weekend, we were invited by the Africa Cancer Foundation for a health camp at Sinai in Viwandani, near Doonholm Estate.
Unlike the last screening, this one was more holistic, incorporating dental and blood-sugar, weight and height checkups and HIV tests, all for free!
BRCK provided the connectivity to transmit patient data to their cloud database, just like the last time. It is a very simple thing – being able to get online, access, and transfer data (and update social media pages) – but technology does not have to be complicated.
Pictures tell a better story, so here you go!
Weight and height measurements
Blood-Sugar Test Station
BRCK co-founder Juliana Rotich taking one of the volunteers through the connection process
And we have lift-off! Data sent!
We also had BRCKs in the screening areas
A mobile ODT (optical detection technology) machine using a BRCK to send images and other screening information
If you would like to become a volunteer for the Africa Cancer Foundation, go to this page. To keep up-to-date with the organization, follow them on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
On a chilly but warm Monday morning of June 20th 2016, Rene John Dierkx and I embarked on a 4 hour road trip from Lilongwe to Blantyre to deploy a Kio Kit purchased for Noacha Full Primary school by UNICEF.
Rene is an Education specialist and Architect at UNICEF who has worked in Africa for many years. As we chatted away during our journey I was amazed by the well maintained tarmacked roads, the warmness of the country and the lack of crazy traffic on a Monday morning! To me, Malawi was living up to its nickname – the warm heart of Africa.
Malawi is a landlocked country in the Southern African region and is among the world’s least developed countries. About 85% of the population lives in rural areas and the economy is driven by agriculture.
At around noon, we arrived at Noacha Primary School which is located in the outskirts of Blantyre. The school has over 5000 primary school pupils. Although the school has about 90 teachers, it does not have enough classrooms and learning resources. Each class has an average of about 100 students and there is a severe shortage of textbooks, exercise books, and even furniture leading to some classes being held out in the open.
Rene, being an architect, is monitoring a pavilion for the school which will serve as a learning and social resource centre. He has initiated a project called Living Schools that seeks to empower children to become thinkers, designers, and makers. Through this initiative, the school has implemented some fantastic projects such as tree planting and helping out in the construction of the pavilion. These activities will enable the children to reach their full potential, and I’m proud that the Kio Kit is a part of the project as a learning resource.
When we arrived at the school, we found the morning teachers winding up their shifts. About 10 teachers agreed to remain behind so that we can train them on the Kio Kit – our fully integrated education solution that turns every classroom into a digital classroom.
The reaction was amazing! The teachers were all excited. All the hunger pangs were gone and we ended up having a full afternoon training session. Due to time, we agreed that we’d continue the training the next day to include the other teachers as well as utilize the Kio Kit to teach a class.
On day two, teacher Gertrude was well prepared to teach her class 6 class science. Her topic for the day was living plants and with my help we selected appropriate topics from the Kio Kit. She selected a topic on plants from eLimu and was very excited that it had the exact illustrations and explanations that she had in mind.
In class she introduced the topic using chalk and a blackboard and then gave step by step instructions to the class on how to find the topic in the tablets. Due to the large number of students, they had to sit in groups of 4.
After about 10 minutes of working in groups, the picture below speaks a thousand words on what happened when she asked questions. Everyone raised their hands ready to answer questions. The only other resource that she had apart from the chalk and blackboard was the Kio Kit.
After class, some of the feedback I got from the students were, “it makes learning fun, I understood the subject more” etc.
Feedback from the teachers were, “it made teaching easy and fun, they were happy that they were the first school in the region to access digital technology, it helped them solve the issue of lack of textbooks” etc.
At BRCK, we do not just create technology but we design and engineer solutions that make a positive impact in the society we live in. Over 400 million children around the world do not have access to basic education. Our vision is to enable millions of children in schools across emerging markets to access digital education tools for better learning. Schools like Noacha and partners like UNICEF only help us reiterate our mission of providing quality education to all children around the world.
Last Friday we were in Mlango Kubwa in Mathare to give a demo on the Kio Kit at the Mathare Environmental Conservation Group (Facebook page), a UN Habitat and Samsung C&T-funded youth self-help organisation. Doug Regan, one of the directors of the program, invited us and the reception was warm. Mathare is an informal settlement located on the eastern side of Nairobi and has a population of at least 500,000 people.
The Kio Kit is designed to be intuitive and easy to use, a fact that was proven again when the youth at the centre took to it fast. It is a wonderful tool for learning and outreach programs. Isaac Mwasa, the chairman of the centre, was especially excited about its potential for civic education. There are plenty of pre-loaded materials about this and other subjects on the Kit.
In addition to being a place where young women and men can learn marketable skills, the centre runs a National Youth Service (NYS) feeding program, which is an important aspect of community outreach programs, and has a program for recycling plastic, which generates income and keeps the neighbourhood clean.