NAIROBI // Thirty high school pupils quietly tapped away at computer terminals inside a dimly lit classroom at Kibra Academy. Two months ago, most of these pupils from Kibera, one of Kenya's most impoverished slums, had never used a computer. Now, thanks to an initiative to place computers in underprivileged schools, these 14-to 16-year-olds are learning how to arrange a spreadsheet, browse the internet and formulate a Microsoft Word document.
"This class was my first time using computers," said Naomi Bobosira, 14, looking up from typing in a Word document. "Computers are interesting. They can help me in my future and help me know more about the world." In the past six years, an organisation called Computers for Schools Kenya has placed more than 20,000 computers in institutions across the country, bringing disadvantaged youths into the information and communication technology (ICT) age.
"The philosophy behind what we are doing is that ICT is the greatest facility of development known to man," said Fredrick Okono, the deputy director of Computers for Schools. "We see computers as a tool that will help meet all needs." When the organisation started in 2003, it was difficult to convince Kenyans that computers were necessary. People thought technology was competing with other needs, such as food and clean water, Mr Okono said.
"It was a hard sell. There was a healthy dose of cynicism. The general idea was that computers were not necessary in schools. The general thought was that computers were some grand mythical thing, not something you take to the general population." Little by little, the organisation found donors from local businesses to international partners. The US and Canadian governments as well as Microsoft and Safaricom, a local mobile phone company, are some of the largest supporters. Computer Aid International, an IT charity, has contributed about half of the computers.
In Computers for Schools' vast warehouse in a Nairobi industrial park, hundreds of old Dells, Compaqs and Hewlett-Packards line the shelves. Technicians check the computers to make sure they function and install Windows XP and Microsoft Office 2003, which were donated by Microsoft. Computers for Schools will not accept computers that are broken. The standards allow the organisation to steer clear of being an outlet for e-waste dumping, a controversial practice whereby non-functioning technology is thrust on to developing countries. The e-waste is often improperly disposed of and causes health and environmental problems.
"To claim that to bring in a computer that is two generations old that is functioning and will access information resources, to call that e-waste dumping is insanity," Mr Okono said. "In a situation of very limited resources, using refurbished computers makes sense to me." Besides rebuilding old computers, the organisation also trains teachers to use the machines. It has technical support teams around the country to help keep its fleet of computers running. Once a computer finally gives out, the organisation recycles its parts appropriately.
"Not one bit of our computers ends up in a landfill," Mr Okono said. The initiative was the first of its kind in Africa and is now being replicated in Uganda, Sierra Leone and Botswana. Though reluctant at first, the Kenyan government now fully supports the project. The government is trying to promote e-learning, where every pupil has access to a computer and all textbooks are available on CD-ROM.
"We believe that ICT has a major role to play in terms of promoting both access to education as well as equality in education," said Kilemi Mwiria, the assistant minister of education. Still, Kenya has a long way to go before it has a computer in every classroom. Of the 1.2 million high school pupils in Kenya, less than one-quarter have access to computers. But that number is growing. In rural areas where schools do not even have electricity, Computers for Schools has found funding for diesel generators to power its computers.
The local school districts have to build the computer labs and provide a computer teacher. Andrew Sabwa, the head teacher at Kibra Academy, said his school's new computer lab is already giving pupils a leg up and boosting self-confidence. "It is important because the world is changing and we need to give them the skills that will enable them to function out there," he said. "We don't want them to be left behind."