Connecting Africa’s Future Leaders To Digital Education

By Emeka Oparah

It is one year already since I took on the role of Vice President, Corporate Communications & CSR at Airtel Africa, an organization I have served for 21 years (20 of which were in Nigeria). While this is neither an appraisal of my work (it will be gratuitous for me so to do) nor a celebration of the anniversary (one pastime I don’t relish), the past few days in Nairobi, Kenya, where I attended the Airtel Africa-UNICEF Convention, provided me a great opportunity and, indeed, the inspiration, to reflect on the work my colleagues and I have been doing in partnership with our friends at UNICEF since 2022 to provide children of Africa, our future leaders, with access to digital education.

Let me start on a rather somber note by regretfully acknowledging that Africa currently sits precariously on the edge of a steep and slippery cliff with regards to educating her fast-growing children and youth population. The level of “learning poverty” (the inability to read and understand a simple text by the age of 10) across the continent is as disturbing as the statistics of out-of-school children, with both stubbornly headed south. The bad situation has unfortunately been aggravated by the horrifying impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, which led to lockdowns and school closures. To put these sorry assertions in a much clearer (or rather gloomier) perspective, a 2019 World Bank study had sadly estimated that “48 per cent of children worldwide and 87 per cent of children in sub-Saharan
Africa are ‘learning poor’.” There couldn’t be a more insidious threat to the future of the continent than when over 70% of the population is educationally disadvantaged and, therefore, economically vulnerable.

I need not here dilate on the excellencies of education for it is already well known that perhaps it is the most important factor in making people fit members of regularly organized society. Again, it is well known that education is a leveler; it helps in bridging the divide between the rich and poor as well as facilitating the shattering of known glass ceilings. Regrettably, education also makes a good man (or woman) better and a bad one worse, as we’ve seen in several instances where otherwise knowledgeable people have deployed their knowledge in doing evil. That said, education, at the end of the day, offers more advantages than otherwise. Ignorance and illiteracy are not alternatives.

Ironically, it has to be acknowledged that Covid-19, with all its deleterious and perilous consequences, has also opened the eyes of Africans and their leaders to not only the power of education but also the importance and urgency of implementing digital learning plans in their various countries. It must be acknowledged that literally every government in Africa has emplaced strategies, with all their imperfections, to connect their children, teachers and schools to various digital platforms to not only promote but also improve teaching and learning. This is where conscientious technology companies like Airtel Africa stepped forward as enablers to provide the needed and necessary support.

Like other socially responsible corporate citizens, Airtel Africa, through her operations in 14 African countries, joined hands with African leaders to bridge the yawning learning gap occasioned by the school closures due to the Covid-19 lockdowns. On her part, Airtel Africa zero-rated several government-approved websites and digital learning platforms to enable teaching and learning. This proved to be a great palliative, but like every known palliative, it did not adequately address the needs. For example, there were millions of children who, due to their unavoidable circumstances of poverty and locations could not afford the devices to access the free online educational resources, where they existed. In other cases, it was impossible to access the websites and platforms due to lack of internet facilities as most parts of the continent are still low on teledensity (number of mobile telephone users per 1000 population). In acknowledgment of these huge and dangerous gaps and the potential of digital connectivity, I therefore, Airtel Africa, in pursuit of her vision to Transform the Lives of Africans, decided to invest $57m in the provision of Access to Quality Education, which later became one of the pillars of her Sustainability Strategy. At the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic, Airtel Africa announced a 5-year partnership with the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) to deliver this initiative, which in spirit and letter aims at connecting a minimum of 1400 schools and a million children to digital education.

In my honest opinion, there couldn’t have been a better partnership than this, with two institutions very passionate about and highly invested in the future of the African child. Personally, it has been an honor and privilege leading the Airtel Africa team co-creating and co-delivering the plans and activities in pursuit of this noble cause. As I pen this piece, three countries namely Kenya, Nigeria and Madagascar (in that order) have launched the initiative. 10 other countries, Chad, Niger, DRC, Congo Brazzaville, Gabon, Malawi, Tanzania, Zambia, Uganda and Rwanda will launch before March 31, 2023, all things being equal.

By launch, we mean connecting selected government schools, especially those in remote communities, to the internet using Airtel’s high-speed internet and providing digital devices like tablets, laptops, desktop computers or television sets. It also means zero-rating and granting access to some government-approved educational websites and learning platforms for teachers and children of not only the selected schools but the entire communities. In Kenya, for example, 30 schools were connected, and two platforms were zero-rated namely Elimika (for teachers) and Kenya Education Cloud (for students), with over 600 teachers and 20,000 students already using the resources.

Not unexpectedly, it has not all been smooth sailing. There are still some obstacles on the way. For instance, the level of commitment to and understanding of the importance and urgency of this intervention are not at the same high levels across the continent. Hence, we still have some governments insisting that either Airtel Africa or UNICEF or both pay(s) tax for providing free
data to enable children of their countries not only to continue learning but to also sort of catch up with their peers in other parts of the world. In any event, it is not a lost cause, I believe, because as we make headway in some countries, others will begin to appreciate the need to make hay while the sun is still shinning.

Interestingly, the third pillar of this initiative (one is connecting schools and two is zero-rating websites) is to engage in advocacy in support of providing access to digital education. So, between Airtel Africa and UNICEF, we will continue to engage the various governments and educational authorities to make them appreciate the enormity of the challenge, the urgency of the solutions and the importance of partnering with us to empower the future leaders of Africa. Of course, it goes without saying that our arms are wide open and outstretched to welcome partners, who are also passionate about and invested in this pursuit as we are. The larger the ecosystem, the better! I also believe there is a whole lot to be said about the state of educational infrastructure across the African continent. In many of the countries, public schools are either literally nonexistent or totally decrepit. Some children still trek over 10 kilometers to attend school while some study under the shade of trees.

Sometimes, one wonders how a school without desks and chairs or even blackboards could be amenable to digitization. This is where the words of the Group CEO and Managing Director of Airtel Africa, Dr. Segun Ogunsanya, resonates with us, the advocates and champions of this movement. According to him, “we need to think of new ways of learning beyond the construct of the four
walls of a classroom.” This is the future. This is the way to go. Airtel Africa and UNICEF are irrefragably dedicated to re-imagining education to meet Africa’s post-Covid-19 and indeed 21st century realities. That in essence, my dear friend, is what this whole story is all about. Thank you.

At the end of the two-day Airtel Africa-UNICEF Convention, having looked back at what we have done, what we are yet to do, as well as the challenges and the lessons, we leave reassured that we are doing the right thing-at the right time. The next four years will test our capabilities, but we are all going back to our various countries or OPCOs (as we say in Airtel parlance) feeling privileged to be part of such a noble objective, indeed a sacred mandate, to empower Africa’s future leaders.

Emeka Oparah, Vice President Corporate Communications and CSR, writes from Nairobi.