From Silicon Valley to Abobo

Naomi Logan is a full-time MBA student working on an International Business Development project with the Jacobs Foundation in Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire. She and her team of four other MBAs are exploring ways to improve education in developing West African countries through low-cost technology.

Walking into school
The sounds of recess are unmistakeable anywhere. When we walk into Abobo’s primary school we are greeted by a chaotic courtyard teeming with kids running, yelling, and laughing. Abobo, a suburb of Cote d’Ivoire’s capital Abidjan, is densely populated and individual classrooms can include up to 100 students per teacher.

We are in Abobo to observe a pilot that our client, the Jacobs Foundation, is running with Côte d’Ivoire’s Ministry of Education. They have equipped pilot schools with tablets, training, and basic software designed to improve reading and math skills.

As we make our way into the classroom, a corridor of kids forms around us eager to check out the visitors. With pale skin and bright red hair, I especially stand out. Some tentatively tap my arm, and excitedly wave when I smile back. As we’re seated, the teacher has to shoo away kids from another class that are crowded around to see what we’re doing.

Jacobs_girl-fvStudents in CP1 (first grade) ready to start class

Digital classrooms
The teacher hands out tablets, and after warnings not to break them, the students are set to log-in. Even the most basic password (12345) takes some explanation as they are just learning how to count to 5. However once the kids are logged in, they display the intuition of digital natives. An error message pops up on one girl’s screen that she can’t possibly read. But she navigates back to the home screen, reopens the app, and is ready to practice drawing the letter “a”.

The excitement is palpable, and the teacher has to repeatedly clap and tell the kids to sit back with their arms folded to calm them down. In an older class this is less of an issue, but the dedicated focus on their tablets shows the real potential for technology to help keep students engaged in such large classes.

Jacobs_ipad_fv
Students logging in to their tablets

Bringing Silicon Valley to the Ivory Coast
The route to digitally-enabled classrooms will not be easy. As we’re discovering with field visits and interviews, infrastructure like electricity and internet are sorely lacking in most schools. Teachers, themselves often unfamiliar with technology, need substantial support managing technology in the classroom. And aspiring education technology enterprises will need support from a Ministry of Education that is just beginning its own technology journey.

However, we’re here to understand these challenges and how technology solutions might help improve education in Côte d’Ivoire. After months of researching companies ranging from global success stories to the edtech explosion in our own backyard in Silicon Valley, we’re eager to advise our client on the types of businesses that might make both a difference and a profit in West Africa.

Over the next few weeks we’ll be meeting with technology companies, education non-profits, startup accelerators, government staff, and more to understand how the Jacobs Foundation can best support appropriate efforts and business models in support of bringing education technology to Cote d’Ivoire. There’s a lot to learn, but we’ll also make time for weekends at the beach and lots of local food.

Jacobs_group_fv

Our team at a maquis, the local name for a casual bar/ restaurant

As we wrap up our visit in Abobo, the kids have grown braver. They reach out to feel my hair and skin, or grab my hand and walk with me. By the time I’ve reached the gate I have an entourage of at least a dozen waving me off. There are plenty of office visits and brainstorming sessions to come, but ultimately this project is all about how technology can change their lives.

 

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