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Q&A: Maendeleo Foundation PDF Print E-mail

Maendeleo Foundation is a non-profit NGO, which has been imparting ICT skills to mainly rural Ugandan pupils. Ms. Asia Kamukama, the foundation’s Executive Director recently shared her views with I-Network. Below are excerpts

How do you see the future of ICTs and education five-10 years from now?
In the developing world, infrastructure is the main problem. All the technology and knowledge is available, but it is up to governments in the developing world to understand that we live in a world economy now, and the only access to that economy is through ICT.
If funding isn't provided to create this infrastructure, the divide between rich and poor countries will only grow.

You currently run a training programme known as MSCC. What is it?
The Mobile Solar Computer Classroom (MSCC) consists of a modified TOYOTA RAV4 with a custom roof rack on top (to hold solar panels in place), three 75 watt solar panels, one 200 mA battery, 15 Intel-powered classmate PCs, and a 5m by 3m foldable tent with eight folding tables and 15 chairs, and two computer teachers.

MSCC visits five schools every week, training about 100 students a day. We train the same five schools throughout a school year, providing both pupils and teachers with a complete set of introductory computer lessons.

How effective has it been?
After installing a solar-powered computer lab in a secondary school in Ruhiira, part of the UNDP's Millennium Villages Project, we saw that the cost of putting computers and solar equipment in schools would be prohibitive and wondered if there was a way to reach more students by reusing resources in multiple schools.

From this we designed the MSCC, allowing us to take computers and our own teachers to a different school each day of the week. In 2009 we were able to give basic computer skills to more than 1500 students and more than 100 teachers.

Your focus is mainly on rural Ugandan schools where English is rarely used. How do you impart ICT skills to pupils and students who hardly use the language in their daily lives?
We developed our own multi-lingual self-teaching software that’s designed to cater for people with different learning abilities and allows every student to learn at his or her own pace. We use simple tools such as games and puzzles to promote writing, reading and art skills.

Our software enables students to start with simple mouse and keyboard skills and move on to more complex puzzle solving and real world skills such as the use of word processing, spreadsheets and internet applications. With our software, we are able to follow up each student and help them out as they advance.

What would a normal training day entail?
A typical day begins at about 7AM when the two trainers in a Toyota RAV4 set off for school where a crowd of young children come running to meet them.

In half an hour, the two trainers in the car have unloaded their unusual cargo: a completely portable computer classroom, including solar batteries, cables, and enough folding chairs, 15 Classmate PC laptops, 8 collapsible tables, place the solar panels on a custom rack attached to the top of the car, and attach all the cables. We then give groups of 15 students each 30 or 45 minute lessons (depending on the size of the class we are training). In larger schools, this means teaching one class (i.e. P7) one week, and the next week another class (i.e. P6). In villages, some schools are small enough that we can teach multiple classes in a single day. We train up to 100 students a day and, a week later return to the same school and move on to another class.

How have the beneficiaries responded to your training programme (the pupils, students, teachers and parents)?
The response has been very positive. Our main objective is to give these skills to the youth of Uganda and show them another possible choice of career in a difficult economy. It is the response of the students that is really important to us, and they are very excited whenever they see our cars drive up in the morning. Some students have shown great interest in pursuing ICT related careers.
Many teachers have also shown great interest and jump in to help us teach, once they have grasped the concepts. Our teacher training sessions have also been very popular. We have also been approached by some parents. 

What happens next after you impart the basic ICT skills to the beneficiaries? Do you leave behind any equipment to the schools to perfect their skills?
The unfortunate reality is that it is cost prohibitive to leave computers behind, and without being able to monitor their usage, which requires human resources as well as transportation costs, we can never be sure if they are being used for the right reasons, or if they remain at the schools at all.
So our solution has been to build our advanced training centre in Mukono, where those (students and teachers) who wish to continue their ICT education can come for free advanced training at convenient times - during school breaks or evenings for example. Hopefully this prototype training centre will help us get funding to build other training centers in community centers near areas that we have visited.
What is the geographical scope/reach of the foundation's project?

Currently we are only able to reach a few areas in Central Uganda -i.e. Kampala, Mukono and some parts of Luwero.We hope to spread out to other parts of Uganda and East Africa with time.

When did you start and what has been the impact been on the country's rural pupils/teachers and any other beneficiaries?
The project has been running for two and a half years and has raised ICT awareness and interest among our beneficiaries. When we had just begun, most students, teachers and village folk had never seen a computer in their lives and some where even scared to touch them.
Our beneficiries now have the knowledge to explore Microsoft Windows and use Windows applications further. Some teachers are now even able to get teaching materials from the internet.

How many beneficiaries has the MSCC project benefited so far?
From 2008-to date, the MSCC has benefited more than 2,000 primary school pupils, more than 200 primary and secondary school teachers in 15 Ugandan schools. Our other beneficiaries include orphanages, libraries and community centers.

How do you gauge the level of ICT literacy before your project started and the current situation?
Before the project started, the ICT literacy was very poor. Around Kampala there are usually a few students who have a little computer knowledge, but lack of infrastructure and resources really limits accessibility to computer equipment. In rural Uganda where electricity is very rare and computers even rarer, very few students or teachers had ever seen or used computers.

Fortunately, it appears that universities are upgrading their ICT equipment and have become more serious about training. But there are very few students who get that far in the Ugandan education system. Right now, the people we have reached have been able to get some knowledge concerning ICT, basic computer skills and the interest in ICT.Some schools have even started putting up Information Technology posters in their classrooms/libraries.

Does the project put any particular emphasis on girls acquiring skills (contribution to bridging the gender-digital divide)?
Most of our teachers are female, providing good role models for girls. If anything, girls take training more seriously than boys, which is encouraging to see.

What are some of the achievements you have been able to register in the few years you have been in operation?
In 2008, Intel (US-based computer firm) funded a case study on Maendeleo Foundation’s MSCC, which looked at the use of ICTs in education. This case study enabled us to win Intel’s “Inspire-Empower Challenge,” in April 2009.We came top out of more that 300 entries, which included a US $100,000, grant.
Besides that, some organizations have adopted our MSCC idea and have/are planning to use it to improve ICT literacy in Africa. For example, Kageno.org, an NGO Maendeleo Foundation has worked with in the past, has unveiled a Solar Mobile Computer Classroom currently operating in Kenya.
Maendeleo founder Eric Morrow was recognized as “an American Innovator,” and the MSCC was showcased, at the 2009 Innovation Economy Conference in Washington, D.C.

What have been some of the major challenges?
We have run into various administrative and organizational red-tapes which has caused delays in our progression. The other challenge has notably been ignorance in some communities. It’s sometimes hard to convince people that they need ICT skills and many people are too short-sighted to see the future benefits of such skills and so we have run into schools that have failed to fully cooperate (especially secondary schools) and have wasted a lot of our time and resources.

Give us a brief background of Maendeleo Foundation
Maendeleo is a Swahili word meaning development/progress. The organization was started by Eric Morrow, an American entrepreneur and me in 2007. Seeing that ICT skills were being taught in very few schools at the time, and after talking to several university students studying ICT, we noticed that there was lack of practical ICT skills in education. We wanted to find a way to make computers accessible to the youth of Uganda and start them on the road to building an ICT services industry.

What are some the objectives of your organization?
Maendeleo Foundation strives to complement the East African education system and promote the development of productive technology practices by making available computers and training materials, training people of all age groups, and encouraging and supporting the formation of IT businesses.
It aims to maintain training programs in a network of schools and to cooperate with national organizations of similar interests, as well as with international organizations that are concerned with the promotion of technology for development. The foundation hopes to help develop an East African based and owned computer industry to promote economic development and uplift people’s standards of living.

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