A new wave of educational efforts across Africa exploring the use of ICTs

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young men on the move in Bobo-Dioulasso
young men on the move in Bobo-Dioulasso

A delegation of French businesses, together with some of their African partners, visited the World Bank last month to share lessons emerging from their recent efforts to utilize "digital technology to provide quality education for all", and to outline some of their related upcoming initiatives and activities.

The focus of much of the small workshop, which included World Bank staff working in the education sector and the ICT sector (and a few of us whose work straddles both areas), was on the activities of 2iE, an international, nonprofit higher education and training institute which provides training programs, courses and degrees in the areas of water and sanitation; the environment; energy and electricity; civil engineering and mining; and managerial sciences. 2iE, which the World Bank has supported in various ways over the years, is affiliated with the French network of “grandes ecoles” and trains 2000 students from Africa at its campuses in Burkina Faso.

98% of 2iE graduates work in Africa. A little more than a decade ago, almost 100% of its graduates went into the public sector; now 85% join private companies. Paul Ginies, 2iE's executive director, noted that across much of Africa, the middle class is growing faster than the capacity of higher education systems can accommodate.  At the same time, the pipeline of students who can potentially take courses at institutions like 2iE is dependent on the quality of general education in the countries from which these students come. Even as we talk about the need for students to develop 'new literacies', often related to the use of new technologies, 'old literacies' become even more important. Ginies observed that only 8% of students in Burkina Faso study science, and only 4% study engineering -- and yet demand for graduates in these disciplines continues to grow.

(At this point in Ginies's presentation [pdf], I was reminded of a related conversation a few years ago, when a senior vice president of a Fortune 50, multinational company stopped by our offices and stated that his firm was experiencing growing demands for its products and services across many African markets. We want to hire Africans to run our businesses there, and make investments in local ecosystems of African businesses to help grow strong partner companies in local markets, he said, but we just can't find enough people with the skills we need. What can be done to support education systems to produce more graduates with the types of skills -- technical, scientific, managerial -- that we are looking for? Of course, it is not only large foreign multinationals that are asking such questions, but African firms as well.)

As successful as 2iE's current model of educational delivery is, one wonders: How can it be scaled to reach more people? Indeed: Can it be? And if not: What other models might be relevant, and practical? Current labor market needs are so great, and immediate, and demand for higher education so large, that other models are being aggressively explored, with an emphasis on linking university offerings to the needs of the private sector.

Given that I am discussing 2iE here on the World Bank's EduTech blog, it will probably come as no surprise to readers that that 2iE is increasingly offering courses via e-learning. It is exploring pay-as-you go models, where students only pay for one course at a time, with special interest in utilizing various emerging m-payment schemes (m-payment options are important, given that online payments systems are for the most part not in place in Africa). It is experimenting with ways in which it can integrate smartphones (still a small minority of phones used across Africa, but whose use is growing rapidly among 2iE's target student populations) into its service offerings, as well as SMS-based outreach campaigns to reach potential students across the continent.

A low-cost, pay-as-you-go model is at the heart of many of the innovative business models 2iE is pursuing. By breaking payments into small pieces, and not requiring that (for example) a student pay an entire semester's tuition. Such schemes are much easier to self-finance than many tradition approaches -- especially important where sources of student aid can be rare. As relevant to their needs and as their finances allow, students can proceed one course, and one certificate, at a time, with the possibility to aggregate these courses and certificates into full-fledged degrees over time, at a pace that suits them. "An African solution for the Africa economy" is how 2iE describes this approach, which is labels the taxi model ('taxi-brousse'):
 - you start when the car is full;
 - you drive for as long as you need -- and can afford;
 - if you don't like the ride, you can get out and find another taxi.

2iE's efforts in these areas were featured in the 2012 WISE  publication, "Learning a Living: Radical Innovation in Education for Work" , one of fifteen case studies of innovative models for education around the world.


As part of its CSR efforts, the large French telecom company Orange has been helping to finance small pilot 'e-education' projects across Africa, supporting partners delivering education projects, products and services. Orange faces a business challenge as it seeks to grow in rural areas across Africa, and so is exploring new mechanisms to engage with potential consumers of its products and services in such places in ways that are relevant and useful. One notable project has been training 500 primary school teachers with the aid of mobile phones in Madagascar over the period of a year, an activity it is doing in partnership with the Agence Française de Développement (AFD). Quizzes are sent each week via SMS to test teacher knowledge and expertise in various subjects. As part of this effort, they are using the 'Orange Money' mobile payment system to pay per diem and other monies to teachers directly. In speaking about the potential for the Orange m-payment scheme to increase transparency around the payment of teacher salaries in Madagascar, Ralph Ankri from Orange (here's his presentation [pdf]) recounted the response of one teacher participating in an m-payment scheme in Bangladesh, who asked, "How come my salary has increased?" One impact of transferring money directly to teachers via mobile phone could be to effectively cut out the middle man -- who may have been taking a cut of these sorts of monies in the past! As part of the Orange project in Madagascar, a call center is maintained to support teachers who call in with questions; when lots of similar questions come in, they are bundled together and featured on a local radio program -- together with the answers. Also in partnership with AFD, Orange is supporting a small two-school pilot effort in Niger that is utilizing tablet computers in classrooms; an external evaluation of these efforts is due out soon. Ankri noted that the tablets being used come from a Congolese partner, an example of a 'designed-in-Africa, manufactured-in-China' collaboration that may become more common in the future.


This is the first in an occasional series of new posts that will look at some emerging activities across Africa that are exploring new ways to utilize ICTs to help meet challenges in the education sector. Whether such initiatives remain interesting but ultimately small pilot projects, or if they eventually demonstrate approaches that are relevant, useful, cost-effective, scalable and sustainable over the longer term, remains to be seen.

After a few years where many of the 'innovative' ICT/education projects across the continent have struggled to exit the 'pilot' stage (or indeed, had disappeared), we are seeing the beginning of a new wave of activities, many of them seeking to capitalize on the increasing ubiquity and power of mobile phones and related devices. While many such initiatives are, as in the past, supported by groups from 'outside', based on recent discussions I have had with lots of groups active, and looking to be active, in supporting and implementing these sorts of activities, an encouraging number of the groups in this 'new wave' appear to be cognizant of the lessons (and failures) of past efforts (many of which we tried to catalog at infoDev in the two-volume Survey of ICT and Education in Africa a half decade ago). Let's hope that this time around the results will do more to help support the development of a generation of 'makers' in Africa who can help ensure that African schools not only graduate future workers and consumers who will represent a source of profits for IT and other firms in the rest of the world (Africa's importance in this regard will only continue to grow) but, more importantly, do their part to help educate future generations of innovators and  entrepreneurs who will export their products, services and ideas across the continent, and across the world.


Also of potential interest:
[-] Education & Technology in Africa: Creating Takers ... or Makers?
[-] Here are some other EduTech blog posts related in various ways to the uses of ICTs in education in Africa.


Note: The image used at the top of this blog post of a street scene in Burkina Faso ("young men on the move in Bobo-Dioulasso") is adapted from a photo by the Wikipedian Adam Jones, Ph.D. It comes via Wikimedia Commons and is used according to the terms of its Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.


SPECIAL NOTE: In the version of the blog post as it initially ran, the quote from Ralph Ankri was erroneously attributed by me to a teacher participating in Orange's pilot initiative in Madagascar. In fact, this was actually from a teacher receiving an m-payment as part of a project in Bangladesh. The point in relating the anecdote was to highlight the potential for m-payments to increase transparency in the way that teachers are paid: in Madagascar as in Bangladesh and elsewhere. (See also short exchange in the comments section below.)


Michael Trucano

Visiting Fellow, Brookings, and Global Lead for Innovation in Education, World Bank

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