Schools adopt social business model to push IT

When Peter Wanjohi joined St. Marks Kigari Teachers College in Embu (about 150 kilometers from Nairobi), the computer lab was in dire need of maintenance. Computers kept breaking down each day, and the cost of hiring external support was high.

The college suffered like many schools that receive substandard computers from unscrupulous "computer experts" and suppliers, yet pay huge amounts of money to have those suppliers offer technical support.

For instance, the suppliers sell computers with 256M bytes of RAM at 20,000 Kenya shillings (US$326), yet when it comes to supplying, they provide ones with 128M bytes of RAM, or in some cases, 64M bytes.

Lack of technical knowledge affects many schools, which are not able to use an independent, knowledgeable person to verify the suitability of tech specifications.

Aware of this challenge, Wanjohi says St. Marks is collaborating with other teacher training colleges, secondary and primary schools, supplying them with brand-name computers at cost -- without making a profit. Under the collaboration, St. Marks supplies computers and technical support for the schools, mainly around Embu and Meru.

Wanjohi, the dean of curriculum at St. Marks, says that the burden of computer maintenance has become heavy for many parents of students, who finance IT in schools. This has forced colleges to seek alternatives.

Because of its limited budget, Wanjohi says, the college approached Computer Aid International, a charity based in the U.K., to supply branded computers. The resulting agreement stipulated that the college would bear shipping costs from the UK to Embu.

"The first consignment was for 20 computers -- they worked so well, compared to the machines we had before," Wanjohi said.

St. Marks was keen to share its experience with neighboring schools who faced similar challenges. The schools decided to partner with St. Marks. Under the agreement, St Marks orders supplies and gives technical support.

"We have decided to adopt the social business model, where the schools pay for the cost of shipping and we provide technical support from our computer studies department," says Naomi Kimotho, the principal at St. Marks.

Lydia Mutegi, the head teacher at Archbishop Gitari primary school, says the project has enabled the school to offer computer lessons and get technical support whenever needed.

"It is a challenge for this school to employ and sustain the salary of a diploma-trained computer teacher. It would even be harder to afford a technician's salary," Mutegi said.

Mutegi said that after getting the hardware and support from St Marks, the school hopes to partner with software developers and get relevant content that teachers can use in classrooms to demonstrate to the pupils. She says the biology teachers at the school have an animated image of the heart that makes learning exciting.

Florence Kiambi, a teacher at Kanyakine boys boarding, another beneficiary, says the computers at the school have given the pupils a broader outlook in life, where they identify how computers can make work easier.

"With the computers, the pupils can type their assignments, and whenever we go for field assignments, they identify areas where computers could improve the way people work in the specific area," Kiambi said.

Benjamin Makai, the East Africa Programme officer from Computer Aid, the provider of professionally refurbished computers, says that the project is demonstrating how communities can work together and achieve the goal of greater access to technology.

"Computer Aid supports communities in their quest to achieve greater access to computers. Schools have enjoyed benefits of technology and are finding a way to work together as demonstrated by the social business model," Makai said.

Apart from service to other schools, St Marks is offering computer training to the neighboring community at minimal costs. In the past, the people around Kigari used to go to Embu or Nairobi to get basic computer training.

Ann Waweru, a mathematics lecturer at the college, says the community class was started as a way of helping the community in Kigari. The community class is separated from other college classes to make it easier for older community members to learn without any pressure.

"Our aim is to integrate computers in their day-to-day life. The packages are user-friendly - with 7,000 shillings, they can learn introduction to computers. The focus is on providing valuable products and services to the communities," says Waweru.

David Mureithi, a farm manager, is one beneficiary of the training in St Marks. He now uses a computer to take stock of chemicals used in the farm, manage the chicken and dairy business, and project the profit margin for the year ahead.

Paul Mwangi, a shopkeeper, is expanding his business to include aspects of technology, such as providing copies of learning materials to students and teachers. From his shop, he can expand the business without acquiring extra space because he will be using the same computer he uses for monitoring the stock in his shop.

Waweru says the community members are able to use technology and make their businesses more efficient. The school supports the community by providing computers to graduates at minimal costs.

While the service to other schools and the community allows St Marks to recover its costs, the college is overwhelmed by requests from other schools that are unable to raise the cost of transport from Kigari to the school. For instance, a school in Garissa has asked for support, but the transport costs are hindering progress.

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Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.