The Taifa laptop saga: could JKUAT have designed the program better?

About a month ago, the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture & Technology (JKUAT) was all over the news. What had they done this time? It wasn’t a strike and it wasn’t because of a product/program that they were launching. It was because of their Taifa laptops. All students joining the institution were being forced to acquire the Taifa laptops so as to complete the registration process and be cleared to join the school.

In Kenya, getting an undergraduate degree is still a big deal. Education is still relied on heavily to lift people from poverty. The Kenyan government, through the public university subsidy and the Higher Education Loans Board (HELB) loan facility for students, has made university education affordable to more citizens. Despite this, university education is still expensive for a significant number of the population.

The case for students to have computers

Access to a computer early in life can make a huge difference. If you look at people like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Steve Wozniak, just to name a few, had access to computers early in their lives. It is undoubted that early exposure to computers had a significant impact on what they achieved. JKUAT’s idea was to have everyone joining the university owning a laptop with the hope that it would significantly impact what they did while pursuing their undergraduate. This was a very noble idea.

How much more would it cost the students?

A first-year government-sponsored undergraduate student at JKUAT pays about KES 48,000 per year as fees. This translates to about KES 24,000 a semester. If you want to live in the hostels provided by the school you have to pay at least 3/4 of the 24,000 at the beginning of the semester. Living in the school hostels bodes well for your wallet as it is significantly cheaper than private accommodation options. Additionally, you won’t experience the regular Juja blackouts. JKUAT bought a generator in 2008 as a backup for the frequent blackouts back then. They had to wait for a strike to buy the generator.

Self-sponsored students pay between KES 100,000 to 180,000 per year depending on the undergraduate course taken. As a self-sponsored student, based on when I was still in JKUAT, you also have to look for accommodation outside the school.

The Taifa laptop retails at KES 41,000. As a result, each new student had to fork an extra KES 41,000. The payment was to be done in two separate installments to a bank account specifically created for the laptops.

The Taifa laptops — a little bit of history

One of the key promises Uhuru Kenyatta, Kenya’s current president, made while campaigning was that his government would distribute laptops to all class one students once he got into power. I am confident JKUAT identified this as a huge opportunity. To this end, they quickly started a unit to assemble computers locally. Their bet was that the Kenyan government would give priority to local companies. Alongside Moi University, JKUAT was one of the vendors who won the tender to supply laptops to schools.

The Taifa laptop’s logo has an uncanny resemblance to Sony’s logo — maybe the designer used a Sony when designing the logo :-)

Between the time JKUAT won the tender and when project implementation started, something changed. Instead of laptops, tablets were going to be distributed to the class one students. All of a sudden, JKUAT had a lot of laptops that they had to sell.

What do you do with all these laptops?

Now that JKUAT couldn’t use the laptops in the government program they had to figure out another way to sell them. Conventional wisdom would have been that they offer the laptops competitively on the market like other manufacturers (like Sony) but there had to be a better alternative. This presented a good opportunity to think outside the box.

In my head, the board meeting to brainstorm on this went down as depicted by the image below.

No person was hurt while creating this meme

The math adds up really well. According to a report by NTV Kenya, JKUAT takes about 4,000 government-sponsored students and 5,000 self-sponsored students. Each laptop is sold at KES 41,000.

  • 4,000 government-sponsored students * 41,000 = KES 164,000,000
  • 5,000 self-sponsored students * 41,000= KES 205,000,000

The total is a whopping KES 369,000,000 (about $3.6 million) for each batch of students recruited. Perfect plan, right? Unfortunately, it didn’t go as smoothly as planned. Parents and students didn’t take kindly to being forced to buy the Taifa laptop. Originally, JKUAT had communicated that students could acquire laptops on their own. To complete the registration process, all you needed to do was present a laptop. Students were in for a rude shock when they reported to school. You had no option but to buy the Taifa laptop. If you didn’t, you couldn’t complete the registration process.

Why the Taifa laptop specifically? The Deputy Vice Chancellor for Academics, Prof Romanus Odhiambo, explained it really well. Let me quote him verbatim.

The laptop you buy in the streets are not custom-made for technology learning in the university. When we were coming up with this concept, we were basically saying that we must have a laptop that is going to address the technological needs envisaged and as prescribed in our curriculum. The one you get from outside is not that. That I can tell you.

Knowing how unbelievable this statement sounds, I took it upon myself to locate the video recording of him making it.

Was the outrage by the students and parents justified? Totally!

According to me, this is the kind of program designed with good intentions but poorly executed because the decision makers didn’t consider all the stakeholders and users involved.

How could have JKUAT designed it better?

When I first complained about how JKUAT have designed and implemented the Taifa laptop program I was asked by a couple of people to also offer solutions. This is despite the fact that someone at JKUAT is paid to do precisely that. My assumption is that whoever that person is, he/she is competent enough to think through each facet of the problem and come up with a solution that works for the different stakeholders. Clearly, that wasn’t the case. Look at the reason (for forcing students to buy the Taifa laptop) a full Deputy Vice Chancellor gave live on TV and tell me if this was thought through. The university relied entirely on their ability to force students to buy the laptops to implement the Taifa laptop program.

You can see the same line of thinking used by the same universities when addressing complaints by students. Student grievances are blatantly ignored until the only option they have is to strike so that they can be heard. When they strike they are punished with fines for damages caused. This money is never accounted for. We expect universities to produce critical thinkers and yet they can barely think for themselves! Let me stop before this becomes a rant.

I can think of three good alternatives the university could have opted for. Let me briefly outline them.

  • Don’t produce laptops — JKUAT has a very good agri-focussed research arm. Why not concentrate their energy on making it the best in the world? This would have allowed them to leverage on what they are strong at. Instead, they could have partnered with the established companies (like Sony) to implement the laptop program.
  • Ever heard of the Wezesha program? The Wezesha program allowed students to acquire laptops from 5 prequalified vendors and pay for it over a long period thus making it affordable. The amount was added to the student’s fee. JKUAT should have spread the payment over a longer period as opposed to only two installments. This would make it more attractive to the students
  • Sell the laptops to the Kenyan government — many government departments use laptops. The government would have been a good pilot client as it would have allowed JKUAT to sell in large numbers and the government would be supporting the local manufacturing scene.

How will this saga end? Seeing as most Kenyan universities are impervious to reasoning, I bet JKUAT will force the students to pay for the laptops. At the end of the semester students who haven’t paid the first installment probably won’t be allowed to sit for their exams until they clear the required amount.

Institutions of higher education my foot!

This post is very different from what I usually write but this particular incident irritated me so much such that I had to write about it. You can check out my usual posts here.