Drones: remote school highlights challenges of rural education

Children learn under a tree outside the local church, while exams are on at their school
© UNICEF Malawi/2017/Andrew Brown

By Doreen Matonga, UNICEF Malawi

The mood at Katayanthona Primary School was subdued during exam season, without the usual scenes of children running around and shouting. It was so quiet that visitors almost felt guilty to even utter a word. Standard 8 students were writing their primary school leaving certificate examinations, while other students were having their classes in the community. Some were in a local church, some in empty houses, and others under a few trees.

Set on a slope with a few surrounding trees the school has three school blocks comprising six classrooms. It is in a dilapidated state. Almost all the classrooms are empty, without a single desk or any doors. Another school block has been condemned as not suitable for children. It has big cracks on the walls making it a hazard for children. There is no library.

Katayanthona Primary in Kasungu District provides an education to 583 students and has eight male teachers. On a normal day, Standard 3 and 4 students learn outside while the rest occupy the available six small classrooms. There are eight toilet block each with two holes located on a hillside above the school, the only place in the school to have mobile phone connectivity.

The closest Teacher Development Centre (TDC) is at Suza, 9 kilometres away from the school. This is where all teacher training and administration is done. “In order to make a phone call to the TDC, I have to stand near the toilet block to try and pick up a signal,” Headteacher Austin Mwakalinga says. “If the network doesn’t work that day, I have to walk to Suza.”

Students sit outside their classroom at lunchtime, waiting for the afternoon exams to begin
 © UNICEF Malawi/2017/Andrew Brown

Drone corridor

On 29 June 2017, the Government of Malawi and UNICEF are launching an air corridor to test potential humanitarian use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), also known as drones. The corridor is the first in Africa and one of the first globally to focus on humanitarian and development use.

The corridor is centred on Kasungu Airfield, with a 40km radius (80km diameter) and is designed to provide a controlled platform for the private sector, universities and other partners to explore how UAVs can be used to help deliver services that will benefit communities and schools like Katayanthona.

UNICEF hopes that drones can help the poorest and hardest to reach families in Malawi. The choice of Kasungu as the location for the corridor will allow companies to test drones in a rural setting including several remote areas, where schools and health centres struggle with transportation and mobile reception.

“If drones can offer us mobile network connectivity, we would be so happy, Austin says. “That is our greatest need in this area. We literally have to leave everything to go stand by the toilets in order to access the erratic networks in this area.”

The Headmaster recalls an incident where a student fainted at the school but they could not get hold of the Health Surveillance Assistant who manages the local village clinic due to lack of connectivity. The school struggled to transport the little girl 19 kilometres to Dwangwa Health centre for medical attention.

Lusiness Phiri looks out of a church window, where she is studying while exams are on
 © UNICEF Malawi/2017/Andrew Brown

Connectivity is just one of the many challenges the school faces. It also has no means of transport. Austin has to either walk or hire a bicycle in order to deliver school mail and other important documents to the Teacher Development Centre. Due to teacher shortages, he sometimes sends learners who stay closer to Suza to deliver school mail and other paper work, including Standard 1 registration forms.

“The roads here became impassable during the rainy season,” Austin says. “It is a big problem to move from here to the Teacher Development Centre during rainy season. Many times, documents have been damaged by rain on the journey.”

There are many other potential uses of UAVs that could benefit a school like Katayanthona. Drones can do what is called a ‘connectivity drop’, providing mobile and Internet access for a set period of time. This would allow staff to speak to the Teacher Development Centre, and for students and teachers alike to access the Internet, possibly via tablet computers. For a school without a library, Internet access could be a huge benefit.

Lusiness Phiri (11) is a standard 4 learner at Katayanthona. She stays less than a kilometre away from the school. Her parents are subsistence farmers growing maize, groundnuts and tobacco. Although Lusiness is third in her class overall, she worries about some subjects. “I want to be a nurse but I am struggling with mathematics,” she says. She hopes that drones could help her school and with her studies. “Maybe it can help me solve my maths problems?” she wonders.

Katayanthona is a typical school in a hard to reach rural area. With no library, the learners rely on the knowledge imparted by their teachers. The school has many needs, including new classrooms and textbooks, but if the drone corridor is successful, one day digital libraries and document drops could form part of the answer to their problems.

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