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Can Kenya Fulfill Laptop Promise?

  • Gabe Joselow

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta has made an ambitious offer to the country’s schoolchildren - free laptops for every first-year student. But some question whether the country is ready and whether the president’s plans can really happen.

At the Muthaiga primary school outside Nairobi, first-year students are learning addition and subtraction the old-fashioned way - with chalkboards, textbooks, and memorization.

But a new government program aims to radically change Kenyan classrooms by giving every new first-year student a laptop, starting next year.

Head teacher Bernadette Owino said the new technology could really open doors for her students. “The world is becoming a small village and you need to connect with the rest of the world, only if you’re computer literate," she said. "And it will also give the children a chance as they progress and grow to be able to research and have more knowledge. I think it’s a great idea if it works. It’s beautiful. “

While students and educators are excited about the government’s laptop program, others say Kenya isn’t ready. Many teachers still aren’t computer literate themselves and a lot of schools are in disrepair or even lack electricity.

The post-primary teachers union said it supports the initiative in theory, but Secretary General Akelo Misori said bringing teachers and students up to speed should be the first priority. “If basic skills of math and reading are still a challenge in our primary schools, then it means, therefore, that the introduction of technology in schools through laptops may not be a viable component of our learning circumstances now,” he noted.

The laptop program was a major campaign promise of President Uhuru Kenyatta who won the March election by a narrow margin.

But the idea started at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology in Nairobi.

Suleman Okech heads a team proposing ways to implement the program, from assembling the solar powered laptops to training teachers. “Every new project or program has challenges to be sorted out. So to us the way we train those teachers to fit and man those schools, they can still be trained, the brain never gets obsolete,” Okech stated.

Okech said if the program gets the go-ahead, the benefits will go far beyond the classroom.

He said to produce half a million laptops by January, they would have to employ 12,000 people.

Of course the biggest remaining hurdle is cost. The new government is still working on the country’s budget and how to pay for the program, estimated to cost hundreds of millions of dollars.