Questions abound over the realisation of a promise by the government to provide a solar-powered laptop to every Kenyan child joining Standard One next year.
As one of its key campaign promises, the Jubilee Coalition headed by President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy, Mr William Ruto, pledged to give free solar-powered laptops to each of the 800,000 children joining Class One in 2014 with a view to raising a tech-savvy generation that would fit better in the modern world.
If this happens, Kenya will have edged closer to realising its dream of being a regional tech hub, joining the leagues of a few other countries in the world which have made deliberate efforts to expose pupils to technology early in their lives.
But it is an uphill task that faces the new government as it seeks to implement this particular project alongside other promises it made as it sought votes in the past several months.
“It is a good idea but it will require too much to actualise, given the challenges facing the country’s education system,” former Education minister Mutula Kilonzo said.
A significant portion of Kenya’s public schools, especially those in the rural areas, have teachers who are barely conversant with computers and how they work.
For the project to succeed, the government will have to conduct thorough training of teachers before they can manage to instruct the children on how to use the machines.
However, it is the cost of implementing the project, along with others, that poses the greatest challenge, given the current budgetary constraints.
The Treasury is currently reworking the 2013/14 national budget to re-align it with the Jubilee Coalition promises and a devolved system of governance that has literally bloated government expenses.
Analysts have conservatively estimated that the new government would require at least Sh100 billion each year to ensure delivery of the promises it made to the citizenry, including the laptop project, free maternity health services, free milk for primary school children, and free access to public health services.
Former Finance minister Njeru Gitahe said the laptop project would initially be done on a pilot bases and would cost not less than Sh14 billion annually.
Inheriting huge financial burdens from the former regime in terms of budget deficits, Mr Kenyatta’s government faces a herculean task in its attempt to implement its promises.
Critics of the laptop project believe that the government is better off first ensuring that every child has access to food and shelter before committing over Sh14 billion to laptops.
The rationale for the laptop project is also being put to question, with early childhood educationists saying the computers will not be of much use to pupils at that level.
“Most children in Class One are still too young to understand some concepts. The best they will do with the machine is play with them and not do anything productive. The best stage to introduce the laptops would have been Class Four, when the child has matured a little and his or her understanding has improved so that they can comprehend complex concepts,” Ms Wangui Mathu, an early childhood teacher in Nairobi, told Smart Company.
There have also been concerns that the implementation of the project will provide fodder for mismanagement and embezzlement of tax payer’s money, as has happened to many state projects before.
Despite an assurance by the Education permanent secretary, Prof George Godia, that the ministry is prepared to implement the pledge, concerns remain that some school heads may want to take advantage of loopholes in the system for selfish personal gain, as happened with the Free Primary Education scheme.
A forensic audit released by the government in June 2011 unveiled devious schemes used by a network of civil servants to steal Sh4.2 billion meant to fund free primary education.
The audit, released by President Kenyatta, who was the then Finance minister, noted that infrastructure projects targeting schools are the avenues that provide the conduit for tax payers’ money to be funnelled into the pockets of a few corrupt officials.
In order to avert a crisis, clear regulations on the administration and management of the project will need to be put in place and made public to seal some of the loopholes which would-be project managers could be looking to exploit.
Prof Godia said the laptop project fits perfectly with the ministry’s ambition to fully integrate information and communication technology in the country’s education system to make the Kenyan child competitive in the global job market.
However, he cautioned that people should stop looking at the system only from the perspective of hardware but also concentrate on software and the digitisation of the syllabus.
Over the past few years, the government has put in high gear efforts to digitise learning materials from the Kenya Institute of Education, a process that is still ongoing and has been partially blamed for the slow adoption of e-learning despite the availability of many applications to support it.
This will be the other headache that the new government will grapple with before it starts dishing out the laptops next year, as demand rises for digitised learning material, including illustrations and pictures that can appeal to Class One pupils.
“We must start looking at this project from a broader perspective. It is not just a laptop but also the software it will carry, the content, and so on. It will ultimately improve the quality of our education,” Prof Godia said.
Information and Communications permanent secretary Bitange Ndemo said the one-laptop-per-child project will end up creating employment for inventive Kenyans who can make interesting educational digital content.
“The laptop project is very useful for this country, regardless of the time it takes to actualise. It creates a large market for local developers making educational apps and content developers,” Dr Ndemo said.
The government will also have to make sure the computers it gives to school children do not expose them to immorality through unlimited access to the Internet, especially in places where children can access unfettered connectivity.
Rwanda is the only country in the East African region with such a programme. It deploys at least 100,000 laptops to school-going children across the country every year.