Is helping revamp education in Kenya

Last Updated: Sat, Dec 22, 2012 05:05 hrs

Nivi Mookherjee is eagerly awaiting the results of the Kenyan primary school examinations. Mookherjee is neither a student nor the anxious parent of one. But she has something even bigger at stake.

This will be the first exam 55 students in two primary schools in Kenya have taken after having used Mookherjee’s innovation, the eLimu app and tablet, which presents content for the Kenyan Certificate of Primary Education through quizzes, 3D animation and exam tips, among others. The tablet is set to be rolled out in more schools from January 2013 and the pilot, launched in July, is crucial.

Deploying eLimu tablets is an important step in the innovations Kenya is making in its educational system, which the young social entrepreneur says badly needs an overhaul. “Just to give an example, our curriculum has not been revamped since 1968. So when students learn about forms of communication, for instance, they are learning about telegraphs,” says the 28-year-old founder and CEO of eLimu, who was born and brought up in Kenya, where her parents migrated from Mumbai, in an interview on Skype.

But it’s not just content that needs to be overhauled — schools in Kenya also have to deal with high dropout rates, absent teachers and poor infrastructure. In a previous interview she had said, “Our education system, schools, textbooks, and underpaid/under-trained teachers are stifling the spirit of enquiry in our children. What we end up with is generations who only know how to follow rote instructions and memorise facts — we will eventually lose innovation and independent thinking if we don’t intervene with something big and disruptive now.” A familiar story in Mukherjee’s country of origin as well.

Mukherjee hopes her application might be that “something”. eLimu, which means education in Swahili, is her attempt to make learning fun and engaging. It currently covers six core subjects in Kenyan primary education and also has a section outside the syllabus called extended learning, which covers topics like human rights and personal financial literacy. The latter, she says with a laugh, “deals with how to take care of your money now and when you grow up — which for some reason is not globally being taught to human beings”.

The application has been developed so that it can run on any tablet running on Android, but eLimu is currently selling tablets preloaded with the app. “The hardware is from China, so it’s inexpensive (around $100), and since it comes with the app, it would not require an internet connection.” For the pilot, Samsung has sponsored ten Galaxy tablets. The for-profit company is still in the start-up stage and looking for investors, and Mookherjee says she hopes to recover the cost of operations after the first year. Next year, the company will be focusing on developing the app so that, eventually, it can be replicated and franchised to any part of the world with content that has been localised.

eLimu was born out of the combination of Mookherjee’s two passions, technology and education. Previously, she worked in IT training in Nairobi for five years, after her degree in the United States. During this time, she was also running a community-based organisation for underprivileged children, observing and figuring out how learning could be made fun (what she calls “funucation”) and when children could best learn. The app was born out of these experiences.

Technology, she believes, can be the single biggest agent of change in education. But it would also depend on how it is deployed. “Just putting nice gadgets in the hands of poor children, whether in India or Africa, makes a good picture but doesn’t really have an impact. With eLimu, we want to try and change the statistics we are seeing in surveys about school education in Kenya,” she says. When the results of the primary school exam come out in January, Mookherjee and the eLimu team will know how close they are to that goal.

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