Technology - Kenya plans to plug in with 1.3 million laptops for children

But 90 per cent of schools don't even have electricity, critics say

In one of the most ambitious programmes of its kind in the developing world, Kenya has committed to providing 1.35 million laptops for children - one for every student starting primary school.

The investment in laptops amounts to #163;399 million over three years, according to Henry Rotich, national treasury cabinet secretary. The money is also expected to pay for computer labs for older students, training for teachers and digital resources.

But the plan is being opposed by teachers, who are in a prolonged industrial dispute over pay, and by parents, who say schools are unprepared and the targeted children are too young. Critics also point out that 90 per cent of schools do not yet have electricity.

The move comes as the nation seeks to create a "Silicon Savannah", an African version of Silicon Valley in the US. A new #163;9.1 billion city called Konza, about 40 miles (70km) south of Nairobi, will offer tax breaks to encourage companies to move in when it opens in 2030.

Kenya has already proven attractive to technology firms, with IBM last year choosing it as the location for its first African research lab. Google, Microsoft and Intel are also establishing regional headquarters there.

But parents say that much of the country is still too underdeveloped to make the best use of computers. "The idea is very wonderful but the target group is wrong in that the kids are very young to understand the benefit of the gadget," said Musau Ndunda, secretary general of the Kenyan National Association of Parents, which represents 4 million parents.

He told TES that 90 per cent of primary school teachers have no experience of information and communications technology (ICT) education and that 90 per cent of schools do not have electricity. Mr Ndunda also said that 95 per cent of state schools do not have adequate storage for the laptops. Critics of the scheme fear that children from poor families could become targets for crime if they take the computers home.

Meanwhile, after four weeks of industrial action over three pay rises since 1997, which were promised but not paid, Kenyan teachers recently reached a settlement with the government. President Uhuru Kenyatta refused the Kenya National Union of Teachers' demand to divert the funding for computers to cover salary costs, arguing that the ICT programme was a key election pledge and that it is being financed by borrowing, which would not be a sustainable way to cover the wage bill.

The administration is having second thoughts about what to purchase with the money, however. Professor Jacob Kaimenyi, cabinet secretary for education, told the Parliamentary Committee on Education, Science and Technology last week that it is considering buying tablet computers, fearing that firms will dump old technology on poorer countries.

"What Kenya needs to do is to move in tandem with technology so as to avoid the country being a dumping ground for obsolete goods. We have also established that young children prefer touchscreen to devices that use a mouse," he said.

Despite these uncertainties, and the cost of the programme, the government is convinced that investment in education technology is central to the country's development and dismissed parents' concerns.

"Anybody criticising the idea is somebody who does not care about the future," Muthui Kariuki, a government spokesman, told the Associated Press. "We are in a digital age, and from the young people we will train we will get the next managers of the 'Silicon Valley', spurring growth and creating jobs. Technology is the only remaining frontier."

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