Most of us take Skype for granted these days, but for a group of children in sub-Saharan Africa it’s nothing short of magic.
Yesterday morning Sugata beamed into Hello Hub Uganda to talk to a group of children who had never used this technology before. Initially, there was a lot of nervous giggling while it sunk in that when they waved, this strange man on the computer screen responded to them in real time.
However, within a matter of minutes the community at St James Primary School gained in confidence, with one student asking Sugata where he was in the world. When he responded with a description of the harsh reality of weather in North East England this time of year, their faces were a mixture of fear and disgust – they decided pretty quickly they weren’t keen on the idea of winter!
“It’s a lovely moment when they realise they’re actually talking to a real person who can see and hear them too,” explains Katrin Macmillan, CEO and founder of Projects for All, which is installing these Hello Hubs – solar-powered outdoor computer stations – across sub-Saharan Africa.
But this wasn’t just memorable for the children – it was also a significant event for Katrin Macmillan and Roland Wells. They were inspired to set up Hello Hubs after watching Sugata’s TED talk ‘Build a School in the Cloud’ so having him Skype into the project was a dream come true.
“Seeing children access the Internet for the very first time is a moving and humbling event to witness and it’s great to link Sugata into a Hub as he’s the reason we’re here,” explains Katrin. “Without him we wouldn’t know so much about child-led education and his research helped to define this project. This was a chance for Sutaga to welcome the children at the Hello Hub to the world’s body of knowledge, and also an opportunity for us to thank him, to say ‘you inspired this’.”
It was an encounter that only lasted a matter of minutes but is likely to have a lasting effect on everyone involved. One of the most touching moments for Projects for All partner in Uganda Drew Edwards was when one of the children asked Sugata ‘What is your tribe?’. With a smile he replied, ‘I am Indian and within my country my tribe is Bengali. What tribe are you?’.
Then followed ‘a beautiful moment of chaos’ when everyone raised their voices to explain their tribe and languages (there are 69 across Uganda). Sugata also answered questions about his job as a professor and asked the group a mini ‘Big Question’ about trees to illustrate how the Internet can be used to explore ideas and come up with answers.
Katrin was a human rights advocate staying on the Ethiopian border with the Hamar tribe, arguably one of the most marginalized in the world, when she realized existing educational philanthropic gestures were simply not working. Everywhere she looked there were crumbling schools that had been built but not maintained, and no teachers or resources.
“After watching Sugata’s talk I started to talk to Roland about how we can adapt all this research into an environment where there are no schools or teachers,” she says. The answer, they realised, lay in community-led development. All the Hello Hubs are built by the community so they not only have ownership of the project, but also know how to maintain and repair their Hello Hub. This is a significant paradigm shift from the traditional aid model.
There have also been some ingenious techniques to prevent teenage boys from monopolising the Hub. “We were scratching our heads about how to solve this problem,” explains Katrin. “Fortunately, Sugata (who is also on the Projects for All Board) knew exactly what to do – drop one of the Hub screens right down low to the ground. We also had the children design and paint the children’s side of the Hub themselves – there aren’t many teenage boys who want to sit on a tiny little rainbow bench to use a computer!”
Katrin tells me how she has valued being able to tap into the wealth of experience within Sugata’s team, which has given her strength in the difficult times. “You have to believe education for all children is possible before you even begin,” she says. “This kind of work can be demoralizing at times, so it’s important that NGOs support each other to bring about change for those born into terrible inequality. Nothing less than reaching every child with top quality education will do.”
She explains that although Sugata’s talk resonates with many people and they believe in what he says, it is difficult for the majority to get past the post-industrial educational system so many of us have grown up with as the ultimate paradigm. As a result, very few foundations will take a risk on something this innovative.
But Katrin found support from innovators Lessons For Life Foundation and Stephen Dawson, who have just helped install four Hello Hubs in the central and western regions of Uganda, bringing Internet access and digital education to communities in Sub-Saharan Africa, where over 134 million children are not in school.
Katrin tells me it’s also having an impact on the adults. The first thing they wanted to ask the Internet was who built the Ugandan National Monument. Once they were satisfied that it knew the answer, and so could be trusted with more complex questions, they went onto ask why Africans are black while Europeans are white.
Projects for All was established as a non-profit organization which exists to give developing communities the tools they need to thrive. During the first build for their Project Hello World initiative in 2013, a Hello Hub was installed in Suleja, Nigeria. Now they’re a US and UK charity with Hello Hubs across Africa. Their aim is to reach more than two million people within the next five years across Africa and the Middle East.
“Sugata started a movement that is changing how we think about education, and we’re really proud to be a part of that” – Katrin.