Zimbabwean AI expert William Sachiti, CEO of UK-based start-up Academy of Robotics has published an open-source technology – ‘Trees of Knowledge’ – to improve access to education through smartphones in Africa.
This free-to-develop technology enables a tree or rural landmark to broadcast a Wifi connection providing access to a pre-loaded package of educational content.
“There is an urgent need to improve access to education for these children. For many children their classes are taught gathered under the shade of a large tree, so ‘Trees of Knowledge’ seemed a natural technical extension of this existing system,” Sachiti said.
The Wifi connection and content come from a micro-computer molded into the landmark to protect it from theft or damage.
Anyone within a roughly 100m radius can then access the content on any mobile device free of charge. Users can also charge their phone by plugging it into the accompanying solar-powered battery charging station.
The micro-computers will run on the power equivalent of a small rechargeable battery and can run for years without maintenance. All the user needs is a wifi-enabled device such as a phone, tablet, laptop or computer.
There is no need for the phone to be connected to a carrier or any network provider, removing the issue of expensive data charges.
The technology uses a basic computer like the Raspberry Pi computers which have been used in refugee camps in Lebanon by UNICEF as part of its Raspberry Pi for Learning initiative.
Globally there are 258 million children out of school and UNESCO’s new report Education Progress highlights that the problem is particularly acute in Sub-Saharan Africa where the population of primary-school-aged children has doubled since 1990 and 1 in 5 children of primary school age are out of school.
However, this is also a region witnessing rapid growth in smartphone adoption. Already more than 23% of people in Sub-Saharan Africa have access to a smartphone – a number which is estimated to rise to 39% in the next five years.
“One of the challenges in providing education through smartphones is that, while many people have access to a basic smartphone of some description, in many areas 3G coverage is still patchy.
The data costs are high for most people and in rural areas keeping the phones charged is a problem when there is limited or no electricity. Trees of Knowledge aims to address all these challenges.”
Sachiti added: “Every day millions of children walk for hours to get to school in the hope – often a vain hope – that they will find a teacher present at their school. In other cases, children are unable to attend school because they need to take care of the family’s cattle or support their families in other ways.“
Sachiti believes that Africa’s burgeoning tech ecosystem can play a vital role in this collective effort commenting:
“While many programs already exist to fix this problem, it is still not enough. With the growth of the developer community in Africa, I believe we have the opportunity to simply release the technology and let local communities build it themselves. If this technology reaches one or two more children, then I feel it would be a success.”
The pre-loaded educational content is likely to be largely video-based and would be free to access by anyone at any time.
Whilst the system can work with existing educational content packages, ultimately Sachiti hopes that ultimately, content will come from local educators.
Sachiti was educated in Zimbabwe before moving to the UK where he started his first technology company at aged 19.