From device to development: what is needed to turn Africa’s smartphone boom into an educational boon

Internet access is booming across Africa

I launched Lean Africa two months ago with the vision of putting a world class learning platform in the pocket of every child.

That might sound like an impossibly ambitious goal, but consider this: within the next three years a majority of adults on this planet will have a device in their pocket capable of accessing all the world’s information. Smartphone ownership has exploded across the developing world, providing unprecedented access to Google, online articles, blogs, ebooks, Wikipedia, YouTube, podcasts, and all the rest.

There are still financial hurdles to overcome: those living on less than a dollar a day cannot typically afford $50 devices, and the high cost of prepaid cellular data bundles (ca $0.01 per MB in many African countries) limits most people’s surfing habits to short bursts rather than prolonged periods of exploration. However, these costs will continue to fall over the coming years, bringing more people online while shifting habits towards the “always connected” mode that we are now accustomed to in the developed world. A generation from now it is likely that every human being that wants to will be able to access a connected device.

Imagine if this unprecedented access to information could lead to an age of mass enlightenment, with people reaching reflexively for their devices whenever a question crossed their mind to which they didn’t have an answer. Over time, that reflexive behaviour would fill people’s heads with understanding, helping them acquire new skills, make better choices, and improve their life condition. What an amazing future it would be.

But access is not enough

Alas, this vision does not reflect the future we are currently headed towards. The reason is that our expanding access to information solves only part of a larger problem.

Billions of dollars in development aid have been spent on well-intentioned programmes that failed to deliver sustainable development for the world’s poor. When you hear the “aid doesn’t work” argument being touted, this is what the critics are referring to. But why weren’t people using the free bednets, taking their medicines, washing their hands, fortifying their flour, or sending their children to the newly built schools?

In economic lingo, the development practitioners had focused on increasing supply of goods and services while ignoring demand. And demand, as it turns out, isn’t always straightforward or rational (for an excellent overview of this supply/demand issue, check out the book Poor Economics). Understanding human psychology and behaviour in order to change it is often fraught with difficulty. If demand generation were easy then we wouldn’t have a multibillion dollar global marketing industry.

To have any chance of realising our vision of a class of connected citizens lifting themselves out of ignorance and poverty, we need to solve not just the access and affordability side of the equation, but we need to address perceptions of the good or service on offer.

So how do the new class of smartphone owners in Africa perceive the devices they carry around in their pockets?

Form over function

To answer this question, I spent last summer travelling around Tanzania, visiting communities from the highest to the lowest rungs of the socioeconomic ladder with varying degrees of access to mobile phones and the internet. I asked adults as well as children in both rural and urban areas about their attitudes towards technology and learning (and ran some interesting experiments too – subject for another blog post).

Below is a video I shot in a government primary school in Tanzania’s second largest city of Arusha in July 2015, where roughly 25% of the students came from smartphone-owning households. (Tip: if your Swahili isn’t quite up to scratch, turn on captions to get English subtitles).

Clearly these children were very knowledgeable about smartphones and their uses. They could rattle off the names of apps, they knew about cameras and bluetooth and touch screens, and many of the 10 year olds had memorised their parents’ phone numbers. Few of the students had their own devices, but they had clearly spent time playing with their mummy’s or daddy’s phone.

At a market in the capital Dar Es Salaam I asked shop keepers selling electronic goods to describe the motivations of prospective smartphone buyers. According to them, first time buyers were motivated more by image than functionality. People wanted something modern and cool. Large screens were deemed particularly desirable. Many buyers would hold off on a purchase until they could afford something slightly better than the cheapest device.

In terms of apps, most folks cared only about a limited number of social and messaging services such as WhatsApp, Facebook, and Instagram. These apps often came pre-installed on the device by the manufacturer or would be installed at point of sale before the phone was handed over to the customer. Buyers would then go on their way with little knowledge of how to browse the internet, look up information, download new apps, or find directions. Some customers would come back to the shop asking for support if they accidentally got logged out of their social media accounts or wanted a new app installed.

This relatively limited set of use cases for smartphones was borne out by my experience interviewing parents and inspecting their phones. These users enjoyed sharing photos, listening to music, messaging their friends, and occasionally checking the latest football scores or reading verses from the Bible or Koran. Their kids would use the phones primarily to play games. Nearly all the smartphones were cheap Androids (either originals or Chinese rip-offs) with limited storage space, slow processors, and a propensity for frequent crashing.

Shifting perceptions

A use case I didn’t see displayed much was that of accessing online resources for the purpose of engaging in intellectual pursuits. This was true of both children and adults. Ebooks, insightful news articles, reference materials, educational games, informative videos, podcasts – the kind of content that expands a person’s mind, teaches them something practical, or gives them a deep question to ponder – were generally not  featured in the information diets of most users.

And this brings us to the crux of the demand problem. Increasing access to the internet gives people more of the information they want to consume, but it doesn’t necessarily alter their perception of what information is interesting or useful.

If you gave a hungry person a fridge full of free food, they would surely stuff themselves full. But they would most likely choose to eat the things they already desire – and depending on their tastes, those things might not be healthy or good for them in the long run. Turning them onto a healthy, nutritionally balanced diet would require a change in behaviour, something a fridge full of free food might not accomplish on its own. In fact, as anyone who has tried going on a diet will attest to, changing eating habits usually requires deliberate effort. Similarly, shifting one’s information diet towards the consumption of more educational, intellectually stimulating, high quality content may yield rewards in the long run, but it requires a period of short term effort as the mind attempts to digest these tougher, more complex strands of information.

It is only a matter of time before virtually all humans will walk around with an abundance of information accessible through devices in their pocket (or on their wrists or implanted in their ear or wherever). But their ability to convert that information into a tool that will improve their lives will depend on what’s already in their heads. If we are to avoid the intellectual equivalent of a junk food epidemic, then people must develop preferences for content conducive to healthy intellectual growth and emotional development. Developing these preferences starts with giving everyone a foundation in basic literacy, without which written information cannot be properly ingested. But healthy information habits go far beyond mere reading, requiring skills such as critical interpretation, problem solving, and higher order thinking, as well as  character traits like inquisitiveness, scepticism, and creativity.

Distributing digital dividends

World Bank ed tech specialist Michael Trucano calls education “the analogue foundation of our digital lives”. Pointing to the 2016 World Development Report, he notes that despite the rapid expansion of  internet access around the world, the digital dividends of this transformation have thus far flowed primarily to highly educated people equipped to take advantage of the new opportunities afforded by this change.

I see myself as prime example of the positive educational benefits afforded by the informational abundance on the internet. I set out several years ago to learn about startups with the aim of one day becoming a tech entrepreneur. I had no background in engineering or computer science, no MBA, and no capital. I had an undergraduate degree in economics and politics and a few years of consulting experience in mostly non-technical sectors. However, I believed that by reading books and blogs recommended by successful entrepreneurs, attending networking events, and applying the transferable skills that I did possess, I would emerge within a few years as a skilled practitioner. Three years and two product manager stints later, I am now running my own tech startup. Although there is plenty left to learn, I feel like I have the skills and mindset to succeed.

Looking back on my journey of the past three years, I realise that the transition would not have been possible had I not already possessed:

  1. A habit of voracious reading and of rapidly digesting complex information about new subjects.
  2. A thick “trunk” of general knowledge about the world to which new branches of understanding could be attached.
  3. The confidence to believe that I could independently – through books, the internet, and conversations – acquire a solid understanding of an entirely new field and start applying myself productively within a short time frame.

Had any of the above three conditions been lacking, I would not have known how to milk the endless online resources available to anyone interested in technology and entrepreneurship.

This, then, is our challenge. For the benefits afforded by increasing connectivity to reach everyone, people must have the cognitive tools to filter, assess, ingest, digest, and apply this informational abundance. Incidentally, those cognitive tools may themselves be developed through digital means, which is where education technology comes in.

A reading revolution in Africa

My startup Lean Africa is currently exploring the question of how to spark a reading revolution in Kenya and wider Africa. Our first product SimuLia (simulia meaning tell or narrate in Swahili, simu meaning mobile phone) seeks to address the first of the three points – creating a habit of voracious reading – by supplying engaging stories to children through a smartphone app. Future products and features will seek to address the other points of expanding general knowledge and building mindsets conducive to learning.

We know the culture of reading in East African households is weak, so merely increasing the supply of reading materials is not sufficient. However, through interviews with families we’ve discovered that the demand for (and willingness to invest in) education is high. Parents value exam results and formal job offers, but often fail to see the connection between those tangible outcomes and the gradual cognitive development that results from years of sustained reading practice in the home.

Our mission is therefore to figure out a way for people to connect the dots between a academic achievement and a regular reading habit. Just as we are using the smartphone to solve an access and affordability problem on the supply side, we believe the technology offers ways to generate a shift in perceptions of reading on the demand side. We think this shift in perception can occur quite rapidly and are confident it can be scaled using mostly (if not exclusively) digital means.

If we can get parents and children in Africa to appreciate the connection between achievement and reading, then we’ll see a generation young readers growing up across the continent. Those readers will form the habits of intellectuals and lifelong learners, seeking out the online resources that will allow them to further themselves and contribute to their communities. Curious and eager to add new branches to their expanding trunks of knowledge, they will begin to harvest the rewards sprouting from those remarkable devices in their pockets.