Inside Uhuru and Ruto's Sh32 billion school laptops lie

Pupils from Kibirigwi Primary School in Kirinyaga County display tablets

Pupils from Kibirigwi Primary School in Kirinyaga County display tablets during the launching of the Digital Literacy Programme by the Ministry of Education. The gadgets procured now largely lie idle, and are underutilised or broken, while some have been stolen.

Photo credit: George Munene | Nation Media Group

What was billed as the most ambitious project in education has turned out to be one of the most embarrassing misses by the Jubilee administration.

Over the years, it has also become the butt of caustic jokes by critics.

During campaigns for the 2013 General Election, the joint ticket of Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto branded itself ‘digital’ while deriding their opponents, Raila Odinga and Kalonzo Musyoka, as ‘analogue’.

To accentuate their digital image, Mr Kenyatta and Dr Ruto promised to give a laptop to every child who enrolled in Standard One in public schools, the following year, if they won the election. Those are the learners currently in Form One.

The project faced implementation challenges that saw it mutate from laptops to tablets and it is only in 2015 that tangible plans were put in place to execute the project.

Idle, broken

According to official documents, so far, the Digital Literacy Programme (DLP) has gobbled up more than Sh32.2 billion, but the gadgets procured largely lie idle, underutilised and broken, while some have been stolen.

For example, in July, there was a buzz on social media following advertisements of the school tablets in the Ugandan market. It is not clear how the gadgets ended up across the border, where sellers were offering each piece for UGX150,000 (about Sh4,000).

A spot-check by the Nation on the status of the project in public primary schools shows that many have the equipment. According to the Ministry of ICT under which the DLP is domiciled, a total of 22,891 primary schools have been supplied with the gadgets. That leaves 1,902 others without digital devices.

Schools were supplied with tablets based on their enrolment. They also received two laptops for use by teachers, a projector and a router and 1.2 million devices have been delivered. However, only a few schools use gadgets for learning.

Teachers who spoke to the Daily Nation on condition of anonymity for fear of victimisation revealed that the gadgets are lying idle in staffrooms, while some are either spoilt or missing. Most of the projectors are, however, in good condition.

“Only a few laptops were delivered and in most cases, they remain under lock and key. They lack enough content and teachers cannot add their own content, making them unusable for learning,” said a teacher in Nairobi.

Another teacher from Tharaka-Nithi County said her school was given 76 tablets, yet it has more than 500 learners. “Under the competency-based curriculum (CBC), all lessons for all learning areas in every class have an aspect of digital literacy. It’s not possible for teachers to use the gadgets in all the classes,” she said.

Primary schools laptop

Former ICT Cabinet Secretary Joe Mucheru helps pupils of Ortum Boys Boarding Primary School during the launch of the digital literacy programme in 2016. 

Photo credit: File | Nation Media Group

In other schools, the laptops are in the custody of deputy headteachers or headteachers. They are only showcased to Ministry of Education officials in the event of an inspection. Teachers also revealed that schools have not reported the spoilt gadgets, to avoid antagonising their superiors.

“We have safely kept them in case they (officials) want them. Many of the internet routers that were supplied hardly function, so it’s not easy to access content online. Also, the quality of the content uploaded and their efficacy was not considered,” the teacher said.

A number of teachers said they prefer using their personal mobile phones and laptops to teach because they are able to access a variety of digital content and projects, unlike when they use the government-issued gadgets. Others said they preferred desktop computers installed in computer labs.

Teachers from Kitui, Makueni, Kisii, Nyeri, Narok, Kiambu, Mombasa and Nairobi, among other counties, said the project would have been effective if the government had consulted teachers before rolling it out. They pointed out the lack of internet connectivity as a major challenge to the DLP.

Digital gap

The disuse of laptops in schools also exposed the digital gap that exists between public and private schools. This was most pronounced at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic when schools were closed for more than nine months. Teachers in public schools were unable to teach virtually, while those in private schools did.

Since its launch, 229,000 teachers have been trained by the Teachers Service Commission (TSC) in digital literacy. However, many teachers say they are still unable to use the tablets.

The project was piloted in 150 schools across the country. The government partnered with the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKuat) and Pasitivo, a Rwandan manufacturer, to assemble and distribute 2,000 tablets to schools in 21 counties.

The DLP contract was later awarded to Moi University and JKUAT, which were the initial contractors during Phase One. The two assembly plants established on JKUAT’s main campus in Juja and the other on Rivatex Campus, Eldoret, for Moi University, have a production capacity of 1,200 digital devices each for a shift of eight hours.

Even though former ICT Cabinet Secretary Joseph Mucheru had assured Kenyans that the government would launch Phase II of the project last year, targeting 10 schools per county for the Proof of Concept (POC) stage, the distribution of the equipment has yet to begin. The devices were targeting learners in Grades 4–6.

According to Mr Mucheru, the acquisition and assembling of devices were expected to start from September to December 2020 and distribution was to start in January last year. The government blamed the delay on the Covid-19 pandemic.

The schools were also to be supplied with five digital output devices known as educational robots and one wireless access point per school. The distribution was to have been done by July last year at a cost of Sh61 billion in all public primary schools. With the change of government two months ago, the fate of the DLP hangs in the balance.