Are laptops more important than desks in Kenya’s schools?

In theory, six-year-old Kenyan pupil Kizito Wafula could soon be using a government-funded laptop, but his school in the west of the country has no desks or chairs – and, crucially, no electricity to power it.

As Kenya’s government tries to fulfil its 2013 election pledge to give first year primary school students access to laptops, Kizito will not be able to benefit from the ambitious $600m (£425m) Digischool scheme.

Instead he will continue to use scraps of paper to write down his notes, keeping them bundled in a small black plastic bag.

“He doesn’t have proper books so he borrows paper plucked from other pupils books,” says Florence Misiko, the head teacher at St Jude Nabuyeywe in Bungoma, a poor farming area.

Kizito and his six siblings live with their grandmother, who cannot afford to buy exercise books.

_88544038_20160302111911-1Image caption Kizito keeps notes from his school lessons in a black plastic bag

At school, he sits on the dusty floor with his 90 classmates, using torn cardboard boxes and worn out sacks as mats.

“It is really hard for these pupils to learn like this,” says Mrs Misiko.

“But we are doing everything we can even with little resources. We have actually just received several bags of cement from the county government to finish off the floors of the classes.

“But we need much much more, as you can see,” she says, pointing at the gaping holes where windows and doors should be.

“Even if we get laptops, how would we have used them under these conditions? Our priority now is getting students desks and enough books.”

‘Not a miracle pill’

But those government primary schools that do have electricity – and an internet connection – will be getting laptops for first year students – along with computer labs.

It has taken the government three years to start to make good its election pledge because of a long-running tendering dispute.

The whole concept has also changed from one laptop per child to setting up shared computer labs.

St Jude Nabuyeywe is typical of many schools in poor and rural areas of Kenya – connection to the electricity grid and internet remains a pipe dream, but Digischool backers say it will benefit 1.2 million pupils at more than 23,000 schools countrywide.

A digital curriculum has also been developed locally and some of the laptops will be manufactured by the Jomo Kenyatta University of Technology.

Sarah Ruto, an education researcher, says the digitisation project is a good investment.

“But I think it is important to acknowledge that technology is not a miracle pill that will solve our problems, rather it is an opportunity for improving things,” she says.

She adds that 20% of Kenya’s primary schools do not have the basic necessities.

_88549584_20160302111912-1Image caption Roysambu Primary in the capital, Nairobi, is one of the schools included in the pilot phase of the laptop project
_88549586_20160302111913Image caption Power points for the laptops at Roysambu have been installed by parents

Kenyan Information Minister Joe Mucheru agrees there are issues that need resolving and says several government ministries are working in tandem to ensure that infrastructure in schools is improved alongside the laptop rollout.

“We want to prepare our children and our schools for 21st Century jobs. You have to start from somewhere,” the minister says.

“You can’t say they have nothing – they have books, they have teachers, they have curriculum, but it’s time we inject the digital content into our curriculum.”

Parent power

In stark contrast to Bungoma, children at a school in a sprawling low-income area of the capital, Nairobi, are excitedly chatting in the playground about the imminent arrival of their computers.

Roysambu Primary School is among 150 schools chosen to pilot the project.

“I can’t wait to learn new things and play educative games on the laptops,” says 10-year-old Lincoln Maina – even though his class is not directly in line to get the computers funded out of the education ministry’s $3bn annual budget.

“I have used a computer before and I will teach my friends a few of the games I enjoy at home,” he says.

_88544040_20160302111912Sarah Nyota, head teacher at Roysambu Primary School:

“The world out there is moving fast and we cannot as a country afford to remain behind in terms of technology”

It is not only the pupils who are enthusiastic at Roysambu, parents are giving it their full backing and are donating laptops to help expand the pool of computers so all 1,700 students get a chance to use them.

Head teacher Sarah Nyota says some parents even helped build the storage facility and charging units for the laptops.

“The world out there is moving fast and we cannot as a country afford to remain behind in terms of technology,” she says.

She has plans to rotate classes over weekends and school holidays to make sure all pupils get a chance to use the computers.

And the intention is to expand the project so all pupils can have better access to computers, says Mr Mucheru.

”If we don’t have our young children trained on digital, they will be even worse off than we think they will be.”