Kenyan politician helps local charity in education bid

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By Steve Guntli

A Whatcom County nonprofit is helping bring changes in Kenya’s education system.

Whatcom County residents Dr. Debra Akre and Jeana King are the founders of  Tembo Trading Education Project. The nonprofit is helping provide education to impoverished rural areas of the country, and the project is beginning to
build momentum.

Honorable James Rege, a member of parliament from the Karachuonyo constituency in western Kenya, visited Bellingham on May 4 and 5. Rege is collaborating with Tembo on an ambitious project that will integrate technology into the educational program in Rege’s district and beyond. Rege met with Akre and King to discuss plans going forward, and held a successful meeting with representatives from Microsoft’s 4Afrika program to bring the project to the next level.

“We just confirmed that Microsoft is going to contribute,” King said. “We don’t know all the details yet. They’re going to help us with access and power to certain regions, and they’re making arrangements for us to meet with other leaders in Kenya to help us roll out the program.”

The project involves what King and Akre call a “classroom in a box.” Engineer Mark Knittel designed a pocket-sized server called ARES (African Ruggedized Education System). When used with a tablet and a small projector, the system can provide up-to-date educational tools for teachers and research materials for students. The entire system costs less than $700. The ARES servers are currently in two schools in Rege’s district: a primary and a high school. This July, Akre and King will travel to Kenya to bring the servers to four more schools.

Those first six are just the tip of the iceberg. 4Afrika executives want to eventually have ARES servers in 22,000 schools throughout the country.

“It’s pretty scary,” Akre said. “When we first heard 22,000, we thought, ‘Can we actually do this?’ But it’s moving along quickly and I think it’s been very successful.”

“What’s nice about the Honorable Rege is he has an IT background,” King said. “He’s chairman of the country’s telecommunications and communications division, so he has a lot of clout. He can help us figure out what needs to be done.”

Akre and King have been working with rural schools in Kenya since 2003. The pair noticed a huge disparity between urban and rural schools in Kenya, and feel the new digital system will address that.

“You can find gorgeous schools in some places and others that have dirt floors, broken windows and no teaching tools whatsoever,” Akre said. “And yet those children are expected to complete the same exams.”

The Kenyan education system requires students to pass a national exam at the end of eighth grade. If students don’t pass, they cannot move on to high school.

Rege said education is the highest priority in his country.

“I’ve known families who would sell everything they have, their very last piece of land, to make sure their children are educated,” he said. “They will do anything.”

Kenyan officials recognize the importance of education for combating poverty.

“The majority of the country’s budget actually goes towards education, but when the country has a small budget, it’s still not enough,” Akre said.

Last year, the country spent 2.3 billion shillings (roughly $24 million) on math textbooks for first and second graders, but Akre said this is an impractical approach.

“That’s a lot of money, and those textbooks are going to be outdated in just a few years,” she said. “Oftentimes, it’s so hot the glue melts and the books fall apart. It’s easy for them to get torn or dirty or lost, so when money is already a struggle and an issue, why not go digital? That’s what the country wants.”

King said the project still has a few challenges to address. Power and Internet access to some regions are either intermittent or nonexistent, and the cost-effective system may still be too much money for impoverished regions. But the group is optimistic, and Rege said they have already made a positive impact.

“Since their arrival many kids have benefited,” he said. “We look forward to even more success.”

For more information or to donate to the project, visit tembotrading.org.

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