16 January 2017
For Liquid Telecom, internet access always has a “transformatory” effect in education.
“Improving education is at the core of our own mission of facilitating the rise of Africa as an economic powerhouse,” says Ben Roberts, CEO of Liquid Telecom Kenya.
For instance, the company has connected all 46 branches of Kenya’s National Libraries to high speed internet so that more than 500,000 library members across Kenya have easy – and free – access to research materials, opportunities and information.
Another more recent deployment was for a school in the remote village of Kiltamany.
Liquid says that in many ways, Kiltamany is a typical rural Kenyan village surrounded by kilometre after kilometre of dry, dusty barren land.
It lies approximately 160km from the nearest town and is a seven hour drive from Nairobi.
The men herd goats, the women make beaded necklaces, and there are few outside visitors. Expectations for future economic development were low.
There are usually around 170 children in the school divided into eight classes.
Recruiting and keeping teachers is difficult. Unfortunately, there were usually only five teachers so the children were often behind in their studies compared to their contemporaries.
In addition, there was a shortage of books, pens, papers and other items that are usually found in classrooms.
However, Kiltamany’s fortunes changed when it was chosen by Kenyan technologist and entrepreneur Erik Hersman as an early recipient of his latest initiative, Kio Kit, a digital classroom in a box developed by BRCK Education, one of the first hardware startups in Africa which was co-founded by Hersman in 2014.
Kio Kit comprises a ruggedised Wi-Fi router with onboard battery and storage that can, according to its developers, seamlessly serve educational content to 40 tablets.
Due to the demands of rural environments, and the fact that children are bound to drop and spill things on the tablets, the Kio Tablet was also designed to be rugged, adaptable and highly functional.
There is a single plug used to charge all the kit and one button to power up the entire system.
As well as accessing information online, users of the tablets can also access a wealth of pre-loaded multimedia content including the local curriculum, games that stimulate critical thinking, and information focused on responsible citizenship.
Kiltamany is around 20km from the nearest telecom base station and is only covered by a patchy and weak 2G signal. So Hersman asked Liquid to help provide connectivity.
Although Liquid is best known for its pan-African fibre network, the company also provides satellite connectivity across the continent and says it has vast experience in connecting remote rural locations which mostly share the same characteristics: unreliable or no power, poor roads, no engineers living nearby, as well as dust and heat.
Liquid installed its most robust VSAT dish on a one-metre high pole. The company says this offers upload and download speeds of 10Mbps. The antenna is wired to the BRCK Wi-Fi router while power is provided by a solar battery and generator set.
With almost zero interference, Liquid says the tablets can be used up to 50 metres from the BRCK router which means people outside the classrooms can also use the network.
Indeed parents, teachers, village elders and others are all encouraged to use the Wi-Fi system after school lessons have finished, and most of the villagers have accessed the internet, either by phone or tablet.
With satellite availability of more than 99 per cent, content can be constantly updated so children do not have to wait for new materials to come from the nearest town.
Data about how the tablet is being used can be gathered by BRCK. This enables the company to constantly review online tests and interactive exercises in order to both monitor the children’s progress and help it to improve the content.
Kiltamany’s five teachers all agree that their work has been made easier with the fast internet connectivity and they have been able to widen their scope of teaching to match what is taught in urban schools.
“We used to travel for about 20 kilometres to Archer’s Post to update fresh educational materials into our kits,” says teacher Elizabeth Leress. “But with the internet and solar infrastructure in place, we have reduced the cost and time we spent on the way.”
Liquid trained a local man to manage and update the system although, to date, no connectivity problems have resulted. (However, after the first week, a fence had to be built around the dish as goats were using it as a scratching post and misaligning it.)
Liquid says the deployment has been a “textbook” example of how children can benefit from the internet. No longer are teachers the only sources of knowledge and information in the classroom. The world has got much bigger for both the children and adults of Kiltamany.