Computers for Schools Kenya at top of the class

Kelly Haggart

Five years after retooling its first recycled computers and finding them a good home, Computers for Schools Kenya (CFSK) has won a coveted Africa-wide prize for its work.

CFSK won the 2007 African ICT Achievers Award in the category of top civil society organization helping to bridge the digital divide on the continent. The annual awards for leadership in information and communication technology (ICT) in Africa were handed out in November at a televised gala in Johannesburg.


Computers for Schools Kenya video
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Executive director Tom Musili launched CFSK in late 2002, with support from Canada’s International Development Research Centre. Musili’s vision for the new venture was modeled on a Canadian government initiative, Computers for Schools, another award-winning program that has been refurbishing computers for use in Canadian schools and libraries since 1993.

“We have to produce people for the job market and we have to face international competition,” Musili says. “What Computers for Schools can do for Canada, it’s very important to do for our country, too.”

The Canadian Computers for Schools program has inspired similar initiatives in several South American countries, but Kenya is the first African country to replicate the idea. Musili and his colleagues have now shared their expertise with groups looking to launch schemes elsewhere in Africa, including Tanzania, Uganda, Sierra Leone, and southern Sudan.

Power problem

CFSK has come a long way since delivering its first batch of 200 computers in March 2003. Since then, it has placed close to 15 000 computers in more than 500 schools, community centres, and training institutes, reaching even into remote and sparsely populated corners of Kenya’s semi-desert northern region.

The challenges have been formidable. Kenya has almost 20 000 primary schools, but only 3 000 have electricity, and just 500 of the schools – one out of every 40 – have at least one computer.

At the secondary level, two-thirds of the country’s 4 000 high schools have electricity. But still, only 750 high schools – fewer than one in five – have even one computer.

To get a computer up and running in a school, CFSK often has to drum up more than the hardware. “We’re partners with local corporations, who provide generators where there’s no power,” Musili says.

CFSK, which has headquarters in Nairobi and seven regional centres around the country, has entered into numerous local partnerships in pursuing its mission. It has also gathered a range of strategic allies on its board of directors, including the CEOs of leading local corporations.

Training component

CFSK’s core activities are sourcing, deploying, and maintaining computers. But it is much more than an ordinary recycling program, and has grown to become a vital part of Kenya’s efforts to boost ICT capacity and build a knowledge-rich society.

A dearth of technical expertise can sink an ICT project, with the equipment falling into disrepair. By embedding its computer-refurbishing program in the school system, CFSK is addressing that issue at the same time as it is helping to produce computer-savvy high-school graduates. Hands-on experience that could lead to jobs is welcome in a country with a 40% unemployment rate.

“Our technical work is accomplished as young people are simultaneously trained in computer repair,” says Musili, who calls this dimension of CFSK’s work “as exciting as it is valuable.” (The lesson of ICTs, he says, is: “Empower! Especially young people.”)

CFSK has also helped to develop an ICT curriculum that equips students with high-level user skills. Secondary schools receiving computers from CFSK are now required to offer this course, taught by a qualified ICT teacher. And CFSK, of course, is helping to train those teachers.

‘No dumping’ policy

More than 90% of the donated computers CFSK handles come from outside the country, mostly shipped over by partner organizations in Europe. “And if there’s space, Kenya Airways will airlift them free of charge,” Musili says.

When CFSK computers reach the end of their useful life, they are taken to Nairobi to be dismantled, with the metal and plastic sold to established local recyclers. “Management of electronic waste is something we take very seriously,” Musili says. “We dump nothing at all in Kenya.”

CFSK has also hit upon a novel use for dead monitors, turning those into low-cost television sets that have proven popular on the local market. The TVs sell for US$100 (a new set costs at least $250) and come with a one-year warranty.

“Schools and people who never dreamed they could own a television now can,” says Musili, who hopes that this income-generating sideline could eventually help CFSK become self-sustaining.

“Our plan now is to reduce donor dependency and be sustainable,” he says. “Innovation is the key.”

Kelly Haggart is a senior writer at IDRC.