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How can we use technology to improve education in Tanzania?

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Education, Tanzania, Technology

Whilst I was still a young child, Tanzania's founding father and President Julius Nyerere, highlighted the benefits of mass education on accountability to the people:

"An educated Ujamaa Village, for example, will neither allow nor tolerate dishonesty among its accountants or authoritarianism among its leaders. An educated population will challenge the actions of its elected representatives, including its President."
- J, K. Nyerere (1967) Adult Education and Development

The Department for International Development (DFID) has inherited a somewhat unusual assignment - to support the Tanzanian government to purchase and distribute millions of textbooks (and lots of school desks) using funds resulting from a multi-million pound settlement between the UK Serious Fraud Office and a large company that provided an air traffic control system to Tanzania.

Going the last mile

In the spirit of Nyerere's wise words on education, we've been busy supporting a major tender exercise to be sure that the process and audit trail are all above board. However, the task to get a big stock of textbooks to all of Tanzania's 16,000+ mostly rural primary schools is complex. Centralised mass procurement exercises can fall down going the 'last mile' - stocks may be left rotting in warehouses or get diverted onto the black market for example. Crowd sourcing the monitoring of local distribution looks an attractive option with the government committed to widely publicising the book distribution plans.

Great experiments to monitor rural service delivery are being piloted in Tanzania, blending technological data systems with citizen empowerment measures to realise Nyerere’s vision of holding the government to account.

For example Population Services International (PSI) Tanzania have innovated with SMS messaging and digital GIS mapping to track condom stocks in local vendor’s shops (duku) and availability of anti-malarial drugs in clinics. To incentivise responses free mobile airtime scratch cards or credit is given once the response is received. Positive results of SMS for Life have included major reductions in stock-outs of life saving drugs and the generation of detailed maps of service coverage. However challenges have been encountered with getting the incentives right to sustain accurate, regular reporting and building human capacity to exploit the information generated.

SMS for Life. Picture: Population Services International (PSI) Tanzania

UNICEF also managed an excellent, high impact textbook distribution campaign whilst I was in Zimbabwe using UK aid and other donor support. One idea that was trialled here was to get SMS text messages confirming book delivery back from school heads. A toll free number and guidance was given but the response rate was low. Visits to over 500 schools did confirm the books got out and were being put to good use, but this did take up staff time, vehicles, fuel, etc. We need to understand why this happened and learn from it - is it a question of incentive?

I'd love to see this sort of approach used to support 2013's mass distribution of school textbooks. I'm attracted by some kind of variant of PSI's use of free airtime - ideally with a telecoms sponsor partner - to provide the incentive for a response from a school representative or concerned parent and near real-time digital mapping to assist the government in quickly spotting and dealing with problems. Given the origins of the finance, it would be disastrous if the process was tainted by corruption or abuse.

Any suggestions most welcome please from the blogosphere!

What gives me confidence is that the Tanzanian government, people and business community share our goal for a successful book campaign and the blocks are falling into place. Government data is increasingly open and online. Tanzania's Science and Technology Commission: COSTECH has a dynamic business incubator for technology and application development start-ups. Civil society champions are already engaged in piloting cutting edge apps to promote accountability.

Great programmes or lesson learning will be showcased at the forthcoming Open Up! conference in London on 13 November 2012. This UK aid, Omidyar Network and Wired Magazine collaboration will highlight technology to open up and enable millions of citizens across the world to hold decision makers to account and change lives.

A wide range of schemes will be discussed including:

The Open Up! conference will bring together entrepreneurs, government and civil society to galvanise action in the fast-growing field of open government, to show how web and mobile technologies can drive more engagement of citizens in government and showcase entrepreneurs’ innovations and experiences from around the world. You'll be able to join in at or by following #OpenUp12 on Twitter.

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  1. Comment by wendychai posted on

    Thanks u very much for information about technology. Nice blog

  2. Comment by Victoria Luckie posted on

    Contact Kenya-based crowd mapping folk Ushahidi

  3. Comment by Ian Jones posted on

    I don't think we can help as we are overcommitted due to our small capacity, but from our knowledge of some of the more rural, and therefore more disadvantaged communities I would urge you not to place too much emphasis on modern technology. If I were doing something like this I would use NGOs or other civil society organisations to manage local distribution. For example we work with the Small Industries Development Organization (SIDO) who have multiple regional offices across the country. They help us distribute the tools we send, and they visit the more rural areas too.

  4. Comment by Valerie Herr posted on

    Thanks for this very thoughtful and interesting piece. I hope you get lots of good suggestions - I was just reading your material for information.

  5. Comment by Pernille Bærendtsen posted on

    Of course - technically it can be done (that's just a matter of money) - setting up an SMS service which confirms the arrival of text books. The techies are there in TZ to work it out, and the infrastructure, too. Again a matter of money and getting the right people together.

    What many forget though when an SMS/crowdsourcing system (like USHAHIDI) is set up - is to make a strategy, and to do proper training and information of and to the people who are supposed to feed the system. Another is verification and dealing with the data received. (I blogged about that recently here:

    In this case here - you may receive data that text books have arrived - but take it one step or two further so it also leads to confirmation of WHO reads them and the IMPACT of it. Local ownership is key.

    And yes, the Tanzanian 'Government data is increasingly open and online'. Online some data is but certainly not easy to make an overview of what's what and what's not there.

    Do also check KINU an innovation hub in Dar - here you will find the techies who can set up the technical part etc.

    Greetings Pernille

  6. Comment by Frank posted on

    sp local vendor's shops = duka (not duku)

  7. Comment by Criana Connal posted on

    Thanks for this opportunity to share information and experiences!
    MoEVT is in the process of designing and piloting an Inspectorate Management Information System (IMIS) with UNICEF support, to strengthen quality assurance for basic education. Among the many innovations we're testing is the use of a mobile application to (a) monitor captiation grant disbursement and utilisation and teacher attendance; (b) follow-up the implementation status of recommendations/remedial actions identified via digitized Whole Schoo Evaluation; (c) collect community feedback on education quality issues (remedial actions) using a community score card disseminated via sms. Among our partners in this are TIGO and CSOs (Friends of Education, HakiElimu). Ian Jones, your caution is well-noted 🙂
    It's early days yet, and we're no doubt ambitious, but it would be interesting to see if these innovations can be extended and integrated into the ongoing scale-up of the school-level Basic Education Management Information System (BEMIS), also being implemented by MoEVT, within the framework of SEDP-II.
    Criana Connal

  8. Comment by Ian Attfield posted on

    Thanks so much to everyone for their incredibly useful suggestions, I'm certainly learning plenty when I investigate some of the options.

    It was encouraging at a meeting with senior government couterparts today that they also emphasisied the need to make open government a reality and cited the size of Tanzania : 4 times that of the UK, as one reason why digital commuication with citizens must play a role.

    We are considering a mash of phone sample surveys of head teachers coupled with a public website and SMS/hotline, together with a map interface of schools (GPS co-ordiantes already mostly known) and will seek to engage a technology provider in the new year. Suggestions again most welcome!