You've seen the meme: "If only trees supplied wi-fi - we'd all be planting like crazy. Pity they only give us the oxygen we breathe."
Well, Zimbabwean AI expert William Sachiti this week published open source technology dubbed 'Trees of Knowledge', which aims to improve access to education through smartphones across Africa.
The technology, which is free to develop, allows a tree or rural landmark to broadcast a wi-fi connection, providing access to a pre-loaded package of education content, Sachiti said on Friday.
Sachiti, who today lives in the UK and runs the start-up Academy of Robotics, has been a serial entrepreneur since the age of 19.
Recalling his own education in Zimbabwe, he explains: "Every day millions of children walk for hours to get to school in the hope - often a vain hope - that they will find a teacher present at their school. In other cases, children are unable to attend school because they need to take care of the family’s cattle or support their families in other ways.
"There is an urgent need to improve access to education for these children. For many children their classes are taught gathered under the shade of a large tree, so 'Trees of Knowledge' seemed a natural technical extension of this existing system."
But according to Sachiti, the idea of keeping the technology inside trees or similar landmarks serves another practical purpose as well.
"The wi-fi connection and content comes from a micro-computer moulded into the landmark to protect it from theft or damage," he says.
According to Sachiti, anyone within approximately 100m can then access the content on a mobile device, free of charge. Users can also charge their phones by plugging the device into an accompanying solar-powered battery charging station.
"The micro-computers will run on the power equivalent of a small rechargeable battery and can run for years without maintenance. All the user needs is a wifi-enabled device such as a phone, tablet, laptop or computer. There is no need for the phone to be connected to a carrier or any network provider, removing the issue of expensive data charges," reads a statement from the Academy of Robotics.
Zimbabwe has faced mounting economic challenges in recent months, with increasing school fees adding to the burden and sparking a wave of alternative schools opening in a bid to save educational costs, local media have reported. But it is not alone.
Across the globe, approximately 258 million children are out of school, according to Unesco's Global Education Monitoring report. In countries across sub-Saharan Africa, the problem is pronounced.
"Of all regions, sub-Saharan Africa has the highest rates of education exclusion. Over one-fifth of children between the ages of about 6 and 11 are out of school, followed by one-third of youth between the ages of about 12 and 14," according to Unesco.
Yet sub-Saharan Africa is also the fastest-growing region in terms of smartphone adoption, according to GMSA. In 2019, GMSA predicted a compound annual growth rate of 4.6% and an additional 167 million subscribers over the period to 2025. "This will take the total subscriber base to just over 600 million, representing around half the population," GMSA said.
But Sachiti says while many people have access to "a basic smartphone of some description", a key challenge is that in many areas, "3G coverage is still patchy".
"The data costs are high for most people and in rural areas keeping the phones charged is a problem when there is limited or no electricity. Trees of Knowledge aims to address all these challenges," he says.
Further information and instructions for building Trees of Knowledge are available here.