With schools shut by the pandemic, solar radios keep Kenyan children learning

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Pupils listen to school lessons broadcast over a solar radio in Dalu village, Tana River County, Kenya. Picture: Benson Rioba/Reuters
Pupils listen to school lessons broadcast over a solar radio in Dalu village, Tana River County, Kenya. Picture: Benson Rioba/Reuters

NEWS


Deep in Tana River County, in southeastern Kenya, a group of pupils form a circle around their teacher and jot down notes as they listen to a Swahili diction lesson coming from the solar-powered radio sitting in their teacher’s lap.

The radio the children at Dida Ade primary school gathered around was one of hundreds distributed for free to the most vulnerable households in the semiarid region east of Kenya’s capital, Nairobi.

The radios allow children without internet access or electricity at home to continue studying while schools are closed to slow the spread of Covid-19, in a project that could also help children stay in the education system after the pandemic.

Funded by the Zizi Afrique Foundation, a Kenyan NGO that produces research to drive education policy, the solar-powered radios also come with bulbs for household lighting and ports to charge phones.

When schools across Kenya shut in March, Zizi Afrique did a survey in Tana Delta sub-county and found that just over 20% of households owned a radio and only 18% had access to electricity.

“We immediately knew something had to be done to bridge the gap,” said Sara Ruto, who leads the foundation’s accelerated learning programme.

The foundation has distributed 1 660 solar radios in Tana River and Turkana counties since the project launched in May.

The Tana River phase has cost more than R2.4 million so far, Ruto said.

We are also willing to share the idea across the continent with other development organisations and governments to ensure pupils in far-flung areas have access to a quality education.
Sara Ruto

The solar-powered radios take a day to fully charge, after which the battery can last for up to three days, she added.

Zarah Abude, an 11-year-old pupil at Imani Primary School in Tana Delta sub-county, said the solar lights were an improvement on studying by the light of a fireplace or kerosene lamps, which can fill a house with smoke and toxic fumes.

According to the World Health Organisation, nearly 4 million people die every year from illnesses linked to indoor air pollution caused by the use of polluting fuels.

“We used to light a fire at night, or, when there is enough kerosene in our home, we would light the tiny metal lamps to help us conduct our studies,” Abude said.

“Now, at least we have these solar lamps that are clean and produce more light.”

MOST VULNERABLE HOMES

James Nyagah, Tana River County’s director of education, said the project was especially important after government’s ambitious initiative to get tablets into schools proved to be of little help during the pandemic.

The government had distributed nearly 1.2 million tablets to primary schools around Kenya in phase one of its Digital Learning Project, which was launched in 2016. But, when schools shut their doors earlier this year, the tablets were locked inside.

“Most teachers are not locals, so when schools closed, the teachers went away with the keys,” said Nyagah, noting that pupils were not allowed to take the tablets home anyway.

“The radio project will go a long way in mitigating that challenge,” he added.

Douglas Mainga, regional director of the Tana Delta Teachers Service Commission, which employs government teachers, said head teachers worked with Zizi Afrique to identify students from the poorest homes who most needed the radios.

Before the radios came, we used to graze the animals each day. We still work, but not every day – and on Saturday we have to listen to the radio.
Zakaria Abdula, a 10-year-old pupil at Dida Ade

Those households each received a radio and pupils from neighbouring homes can congregate to listen to educational programmes, either on their own or with a teacher.

Zizi Afrique contacted local FM radio station Amani, whose presenters agreed to read prepared lessons from Kenya’s national curriculum over the air, Ruto said.

During the week, the station broadcasts lessons in English and Swahili, and on Saturdays, lessons are broadcast in Swahili only for pupils who are not fluent in English, she explained.

Zizi Afrique plans to expand the distribution of solar radios to eight more counties, even after schools reopen in January, she added.

Ruto said: “We are also willing to share the idea across the continent with other development organisations and governments to ensure pupils in far-flung areas have access to a quality education.”

MORE TEACHERS

Athman, the head teacher at Dida Ade, praised the project, but said it would be more effective if the government employed additional teachers to reach students in remote areas and supplement what they learnt from the radio programmes.

With schools still closed to most pupils, many children have to help their families with housework and tend to livestock, which often involves moving animals around to find grazing, he explained.

“This makes it hard for our available teachers to keep on following the pupils everywhere they move,” Athman said.

Zakaria Abdula, a 10-year-old pupil at Dida Ade, said the radios meant he could spend less time feeding his family’s herd.

“Before the radios came, we used to graze the animals each day. We still work, but not every day – and on Saturday we have to listen to the radio,” he said, smiling. – Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters


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