Zimbabwean Artificial Intelligence (AI) expert William Sachiti and chief executive of UK-based start-up Academy of Robotics has developed an open-source technology known as “Trees of Knowledge”.
The technology seeks 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.
The WiFi connection and content comes from a micro-computer moulded into the landmark to protect it from theft or damage.
Anyone within a roughly 100-metre radius can then access the content on any mobile device free of charge. Users can also charge their phones 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.
A global crisis in education
The user only needs 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, thereby removing the burden of expensive data charges.
The technology uses basic computers 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 that are not in school.
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. One in five children of primary school age are out of school.
However, this is also a region witnessing rapid growth in smart-phone adoption.
Already, more than 23 percent of people in sub-Saharan Africa have access to smartphones, a number which the GSMA estimates will rise to 39 percent in the next five years.
Serial entrepreneur Sachiti, who was educated in Zimbabwe before moving to the UK to start his first technology company at the age of 19, highlights the challenges: “One of the challenges in providing education through smart-phones is that, while many people have access to a basic smart-phone 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 aim 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.
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.
Last week, UNESCO director-general Audrey Azoulay noted: “Rethinking tomorrow’s education must be done collectively.”
Sachiti believes that Africa’s burgeoning tech ecosystem can play a vital role in this collective effort.
“While many programmes 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, I feel it would have succeeded.”
The pre-loaded educational content will likely be largely video-based and anyone can access it any time.
Whilst the system can work with existing educational content packages, ultimately Sachiti hopes that content can also come from local educators.