Second chances through Global Learning XPRIZE
World Food Programme (WFP) teams up with XPRIZE to provide 2,700 children in Tanzania with education software as part of a US$15 million global competition
Meet Pili Esto. She is officially known as a Mama Vitongoji — Swahili for Sub-village Mama — and has one of the most important roles in the field test for the Global Learning XPRIZE, a five-year, US$15 million global competition designed to find a software that will enable children to teach themselves basic reading, writing and arithmetic.
The Global Learning XPRIZE began with an open challenge for teams to develop the open-source learning software. Five finalists from around the world were then selected and their software uploaded onto new Google Pixel C tablets, donated by Google, which were distributed to 2,700 children from 170 villages in Tanga region in northeast Tanzania. The Tanga field test was designed to determine which software enables the greatest proficiency gains.
The field test was possible thanks to Pili and the other 169 Mama Vitongoji who work throughout six districts in Tanga. Each one of them manages a solar powered charging station serving children who were provided a tablet as part of the test. As the name suggests, the majority of Mama Vitongoji are women.
The main job for Mama Vitongoji is to make sure that when the children bring in the tablets, they get recharged and are ready to use. The Mamas also help to coordinate the collection of tablets for software updates and to change out those that may be faulty or broken.
Empowering through education
Many of the children in Kwediloko, a sub-village of Komsanga, have a hard time regularly attending school due to the 16 kilometer round-trip.
“It can take students two to three hours to walk one way with the rough terrain,” said Pili. “This is too much, especially for the young ones, and it can cause them to quickly fall behind in school.”
Falling behind affects children’s chances of finishing school or even learning key skills such as reading, writing and using basic math.
“This is a problem we can and must solve,” said Emily Church, Executive Director, Global Learning XPRIZE. “We can harness the power of technology so that children everywhere — regardless of circumstance — have the opportunity to thrive and build a better future for themselves and all of us.”
The 15-month field test for the competition began in December 2016 and so far 2,700 children have been able to improve their education and learning through access to educational content on the XPRIZE competition software.
The impact has not gone unnoticed by the communities and particularly the parents of the children who received the tablets.
“Within six months of using the tablet, I could see so much progress,” said Zahari Omari, one of whose four children received an XPRIZE tablet. “Juma was able to read and write. I couldn’t believe it. I had never seen him do that before.”
Juma only attended school for one year when he was younger. Waking up at 4 a.m. to walk to school as a young child became too much and he stopped going. Now he uses the tablet every day and takes it to Pili at the solar-charging station when the battery runs out.
“The tablets are fun, I look forward to playing with them and learning,” said Juma.
After using the tablet for 15 months, one of Juma’s favourite things to do now is to help his mom by typing and reading her text messages for her.
If you travel from Kwediloko north and then turn east in Muheza onto the dirt road to Pangani, you will pass by the village of Mkuzi, with another sub-village named Maweni. This is where Mboni and Twaha live. They also received tablets under the XPRIZE project.
Mboni is currently attending kindergarten. She’s a year older than the other students as she was enrolled late.
“The tablet has helped her to catch up on school,” says Rehema, her mother. “She’s doing so well now. We are checking to see if she can move up to study with students her age. I think she’s ready.”
Fortunately, Mboni is only a year behind and might more easily be able to catch up with her peers. That however, is not the case for Twaha, who is older and only received one year of formal schooling.
“He was really struggling. I couldn’t get him interested in anything, especially not school,” said Frida, his mother. “The tablet has given him a second chance. He has a new-found confidence.”
Twaha is now enrolled and regularly attending a special school for students like him who are too old to study in the regular classroom. His mother says that he is doing very well and that he has even shown interest in things that he didn’t before, such as playing games and soccer.
“He loves soccer,” she says. “Now you can always find him either at school studying, playing with his friends or at home with his tablet.”
An unlikely partnership?
For the duration of the 15-month field test, the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) worked closely with Pili and the other Mama Vitongoji, overseeing the technology and logistics components. This included installing 170 solar charging stations in their remote villages and managing the repair and maintenance of the 2,700 tablets, including over 10 rounds of software updates. To reach all of the remote sub-villages, WFP put enough miles on the field office’s car to drive around the world 2.5 times.
“WFP was delighted to be associated with the Global Learning XPRIZE. We utilized our expertise in logistics and IT and deployed it to the field to support the competition,” said Michael Dunford, WFP Tanzania Country Representative. “ It has been a great project for us to be involved with and we are happy to have brought positive change to the lives of so many children.”
On 15 May, XPRIZE awarded the grand prize to Kitkit School and onebillion based on the top performing software. You can watch the replay of the live event here which features appearances from actor, director and producer LaVar Burton and Elon Musk, Global Learning XPRIZE benefactor and CEO of SpaceX and Tesla.
XPRIZE’s partners are working to secure and load software onto tablets; localize the software into different languages; and deliver pre-loaded hardware and charging stations to remote locations so finalist teams can scale their learning software across the world. The public is invited to sign the pledge to show their support and help provide an education for all children, everywhere.
The educational components of the field test are being led by UNESCO in partnership with Tanzania’s Ministry of Education, Science and Technology and the President’s Office Regional Authority and Local Government (PO-RALG).
The United Nations World Food Programme — saving lives in emergencies and changing lives for millions through sustainable development. WFP was founded in 1961 as a multilateral food aid programme, typically distributing food to those in emergencies and most in need. Over time WFP developed extensive experience in deep field logistics as well as ICT, particularly as the lead UN agency for setting up communications during emergencies. WFP works in more than 80 countries around the world, feeding people caught in conflict and disasters, and laying the foundation for a better future.
Find out more about WFP’s work in Tanzania
Author’s note: The names of children in this story were changed to protect their privacy.