Organizations working to bridge the digital divide in Kenya’s Kibera slum face an uphill battle. But that hasn’t dampened young people’s desire to gain the digital skills they hope will lead to a better life.
The Tunapanda Institute equips young people from Nairobi's Kibera slum with the skills to master Kenya's digital economy
If you do an online search for “Kibera”, chances are that you will be inundated with images depicting this part of the Kenyan capital Nairobi as a poverty-stricken slum with rampant crime. But while it’s true that Kibera is the largest slum in Africa, it is far from a picture of doom and gloom. A 2012 article in The Economist suggested that Kibera "may be the most entrepreneurial place on the planet”, and that "to equate slums with idleness and misery is to misunderstand them". Kibera is also benefiting from initiatives to keep the pace of digital inclusion at a par with the rest of Kenya - efforts pioneered by organizations such as Tunapanda Institute.
Tunapanda is a Swahili word with a double entendre. It can mean both ‘we are rising’ and ‘we are planting’. I recently paid the organization a visit at their institute nestled in a sea of Kibera’s tin shacks. On a wall, a mural captures their goal of equipping the youth of Kibera with the skills to help them scale the heights of the new digital word, and rise beyond their present circumstances.
Kenya’s digital economy
Grafitti at the walls of the Tunapanda Institute in Kibera: Tunapanda wants to bridge the digital divide
There’s certainly reason enough for optimism. According to the Digital Planet 2017 report by Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Business, Kenya is the fourth-fastest growing digital economy in the world, and the fastest in Africa. And yet, the report noted that the country’s digital economy is still in its nascent stages. Initially propelled by mobile commerce innovations that took off due to Kenya’s immensely tech-savvy population, weak infrastructure and unreliable Internet connectivity to areas like Kibera is hampering progress. It is, the report says, preventing Kenya’s digital economy from reaching the levels of Asian or Latin American counterparts.
Another barrier comes in the form of teaching institutions that are not keeping pace with the skills demanded by the labor market. The Tufts University report notes that Kenyan universities are lagging behind in the adoption and teaching of ICT-related courses.
"Many graduates leave university unprepared to hit the job market running. That’s because there is a disconnect between the education curriculum and the workforce demanded by the current economic environment," says David Owaro, an economist at the Nairobi-based Institute of Economic Affairs.
A 2017 report by the Ministry of Education showed that employers in Kenya are increasingly turning away public university graduates because they lack the skills needed for the digital economy. It’s left training institutions such as Tunapanda, Andela, Moringa and many others trying to fill in the gap, by equipping graduates with the knowledge they need. It also means many young people are desperately looking to acquire the skills they need for the many ICT sector jobs available in today’s job market.
Institutions such as Tunapanda, which operate in the slums around the Kenyan capital, face a two-pronged challenge. They not only have to bridge the digital gap by providing access to the Internet, but also offer training to help Kibera’s youth make use of the opportunities available online, and acquire the skills employers are looking for, both locally and internationally.
Bridging the skills gap for a digital economy
To that end, Tunapanda runs a 3-month intensive program open to young people in Kibera and its outskirts. They receive practical, hands-on skills in design, technology and business. Maureen Moraa, the lead trainer and the programs manager, said that demand is far outstripping Tunapanda’s capacity, with over 300 applications for between 25 and 30 places on the course. Even then, the available computers have to be shared.
Most of the students picked by Tunapanda to participate in the 3-month program have no prior knowledge of computers and many lack the necessary skills to hit the job market after receiving a basic education. The program does not teach basic computer skills as part of the training. Instead, they use peer-to-peer learning where students learn these skills from each other outside of the training sessions.
Although Kenya has a high mobile penetration rate, most young people have limited or no access to devices such as desktop computers and laptops for learning about design or software programming. And although there is now an influx of cheap smartphones imported from China, personal computers and Internet connectivity are still expensive. Another challenge is encouraging young people to see the Internet as more than a source of entertainment. Facebook is one of the most widely used social media platforms in Kenya, closely followed by WhatsApp. For most Kenyan youths, social media is the first entry point to the Internet. But trying to show them how the Internet can also be a tool for economic empowerment is something many vocational training institutes struggle with.
Digital inclusion of girls and women
On top of this are efforts to ensure that digital inclusion also means the inclusion of girls and women. Josephine Miliza is a network engineer and the project manager for Tunapanda’s digital inclusion program. Josephine joined Tunapanda from the IT corporate world, quitting her job as an IT support engineer with a leading Kenyan financial institution to pursue her passion in closing the connectivity divide and helping communities leverage technology for socio-economic empowerment.
The Community Networks project is one of the two digital inclusion programs that Josephine leads. The project’s goal is adoption of ICT through provision of connectivity to schools and community centers, capacity building for teachers and provision of content to schools, youth centers and women’s centers.
Josephine insists that the Community Networks project is providing access for a particular purpose, namely the socio-economic empowerment of youth and women. In her view, affordability of Internet access and language are the two biggest barriers for the Kibera community. Most online content is in English, and a significant number of those living in Kibera do not have formal education, and can only communicate in Kiswahili or their mother tongue. The language barrier and a lack of local content have led Josephine’s team to challenge beneficiaries of the program to create solutions around these problems.
Josephine is also active in the Tech Dada program, which seeks to build confidence and awareness of opportunities that are available to women in technology. She explains that most schoolgirls tend to aspire to professions such as law and medicine, but that they have little knowledge of computer science. She and her team also encounter a lot of stereotypes among female students, who think ICT professions are “a male thing”.
Josephine works with an all-women team of mentors for the Tech Dada program. She says this is the first step in changing girls’ perceptions of computer science and IT. In addition, she and her team take a problem-solving approach, rather than putting the emphasis on women coding.
“This program is not about saying that all girls must code, but rather what challenge would you like to solve and how can tech play a part in it,” she says.
During my visit, Josephine introduces me to one of the Tech Dada mentorship participants, Habiba.
Habiba has just finished her mentorship is currently going through the 3-month main Tunapanda program. She would like to solve the problem of insecurity and terrorism, which is rampant in the northeastern region of Kenya bordering on Somalia. That has lead to an interest in developing cyber security software. Josephine says it’s a good example of how program participants are given the freedom to find their passion and pursue it, with no pressure to be a designer or programmer.
Njeri is a Kenyan writer, digital marketer, and Internet rights advocate living and working in Nairobi. She is one of Kenya’s pioneer bloggers. Her interest and work lie at the intersection of new media, market research, arts, culture, and technology in Africa.