Imelda, an 11-year-old Standard Six pupil at Luminous Educational Institute in Kawangware, Nairobi, is living testimony of the power of technology in the transformation of lives. Born to a poor family, her education prospects always looked dim, until a chance encounter with technology shone a bright light on her path.
Last year, a team behind the educational app Shupavu291, developed by Eneza Education, started following her keenly after they noticed that she was consistently at the top of the app’s leaderboards. Her activity was so high and her performance so stellar that they decided to look for her. They were not prepared for what they f0und out.
Two years ago, Imelda’s mother went through a rough financial patch and could neither afford schools fees for her daughter nor her school text books. And then one day, just before Imelda, then in Standard Four, was sent home for school fees, she met the Shupavu291 team at her school and was introduced to the learning app. It was a godsend meeting, because even though she ended up staying away from school for weeks, her mother could afford the Sh10 per week that the SMS app required for Imelda to use to learn at home.
At the end of the third term, Imelda was called back to school to sit her end-of-year exams. Without any in-class instruction, and so relying on nothing but what she had gained from the app, Imelda managed to score 391 points out of the possible 500, earning her an impressive position four in her class. Since then, she has been at the top of her class.
Imelda’s is just one of the many success stories that Shupavu291 has collected since the app was launched years ago. Kago Kagichiri, the CEO of Eneza Education, says Shupavu291 was born of two observations; first, mobile phone penetration had reached even the remotest parts of the country; and, second, no one was using this technology to explore new ways of learning.
Shupavu291 thus started as an out-of-school system, providing learning materials for interested students in bite-sized lessons. It then integrated teacher training programs, helping them to learn how to use the system to help students. In time, it integrated parent training programs and, four years later, the app has 1.5 million users from both high- and low-income backgrounds.
The app offers different ways of access; the SMS route charges Sh10 for a week-long unlimited access, but only offers text. Students can also use an Android app or access the site via Web.
One of the popular features on the App is Ask a Teacher, which allows students to engage a teacher on the other end. During the term, this feature is very active. Its popularity, however, explodes during school holidays, with up to 5,000 requests daily on both the primary and secondary school sections.
Roselynn Awili, the content manager at Eneza Education, says the Ask a Teacher feature has also revealed a strong need in the education sector. During the holidays, when there is no pressure to understand topics and pass exams, the students relax and ask questions about careers, sex, pregnancy, how to avoid early marriage, and so on. This might be because they realise there is an adult at the end of the line, who cannot see them, and therefore cannot judge them.
On recent concerns for literacy and numeracy development in primary education in East Africa, Kago says there are issues that come up on a daily basis that have to be addressed by the teachers at Shupavu291. This constant correcting and reminding is part of the education. Since all the content on Shupavu291 is created by practising teachers who are aware of what is examinable and what students should know, they can handle these issues as they come up. He, however, notes that Eneza rewards activity and reliability, openness to learning and different ways to learning rather than being right all the time.
Roselynn Awili, the content manager at Eneza Education, says the Ask a Teacher feature has revealed a strong need in the education sector. During the holidays, when there is no pressure to understand topics and pass exams, the students relax and ask questions about careers, sex, pregnancy, how to avoid early marriage, and so on. This might be because they realise there is an adult at the end of the line, who cannot see them, and therefore cannot judge them.
This explains why Imelda is always so free to use the app. Her mother says that whenever Imelda is stumped, whether by Math or Science, she reaches for the phone and types away. So important has the service become for the family that Mama Imelda has enrolled for adult business classes on Shupavu291!
With these kinds of success stories, and with Eneza rolling out its Math, English and Science lessons to 10 other African countries — its goal is to reach all 54 countries in the next three years — it is no surprise that Safaricom’s Spark Venture Fund has reached out to invest in the start-up.
Now the options seem endless for the young firm. They could, for instance, spread out to more consumer driven areas of information handling, or they could use the localised content they already know so well and move it to other geographical areas.
Just a few of the options… and even wider horizons for Imelda.