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Rooted Revolutions: Innovating for Africa's Future

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Jul 04, 2024

We… don’t have African Universities. We have universities in Africa.” - Sabelo J. Ndlovu-Gatsheni

This statement is an extension of a well-established body of literature that challenges the use of Western models to design African education systems. The root of its message is that educational challenges are most effectively addressed when they are approached and understood within context. For Africa specifically, this highlights that imposing Western models (“universities in Africa”) only perpetuates the deficit perspectives of Africans—which are rooted in the legacy of colonialism—and simply does not work. 

This quote kept surfacing for me of late as I engaged in conversations about education innovation for Africa. For instance, education all over the world is increasingly incorporating Artificial Intelligence (AI) applications, often relying on technology from major companies like Google, Microsoft, IBM, Amazon Web Services, Meta Platforms, and OpenAI. The catch is that all of these technology giants are US-based. Despite the emergence of AI developers worldwide, educational technology products are still largely driven by North American or European initiatives. It's crucial to consider whether these innovations address the unique challenges faced by African education systems, rather than simply adapting existing solutions with things like multilingual support and curriculum alignment (which are necessary but insufficient measures). True innovation requires creating new solutions tailored to Africa's specific needs and circumstances.

A Solution for Africa vs. An African Solution

Over the past few decades, many African nations have been actively working to decolonize their education systems. This involves challenging the dominance of European-centered knowledge systems, values, and ways of thinking that have historically served as a foundation for education systems in Africa. These European-centered systems include historical narratives that focus on European history and colonial achievements, as well as scientific theories that neglect indigenous African knowledge. As part of the decolonization effort, there is a growing recognition of the importance of acknowledging and incorporating diverse knowledge systems and cultural perspectives into educational frameworks and curricula. 

Take my example about AI: colonial legacies persist in AI, with global power imbalances manifesting in subtle yet still harmful ways compared to the historical dominance of European systems. From algorithmic discrimination (racism being baked into the AI) to ghost work (exploiting the relative lack of power of vulnerable communities—often in low-income countries—to hire workers to conduct monotonous labor for low wages), the power asymmetry between the higher-income countries (“colonizer”) and lower income ones (the “colonized”) remains apparent. In fact, scholars have even called for a “decolonial AI.” This entails a participatory approach to machine learning, where individuals from target marginalized communities are actively involved in the process of designing, developing, and deploying machine learning models to ensure that the outcomes are more relevant and aligned with their needs and values. Africa is now home to a growing number of AI developers and organizations that are making significant contributions to the field (e.g., Data Science Nigeria, Deep Learning Indaba, InstaDeep)—a sort of rooted revolution towards homegrown innovations.

Today, many African education sectors are themselves inventing solutions and models specifically designed with Africans in mind, with a recent emphasis on considering the behavioral repertoire of African educators in developing these educational innovations. Recently, I had the honor of attending the EdTech Connect Conference in Kigali, Rwanda (a convening for and by African innovators, funded by The Mastercard Foundation Centre for Innovative Teaching and Learning (“CITL”)). The conference was the culmination of CITL’s efforts to unite innovation hubs, EdTech entrepreneurs, policymakers, researchers, and educators. 

CITL’s primary goal is to identify Africans with the most impactful uses of technology in education and help them scale their solution across the African continent. The EdTech sector is one of the most dynamic areas showcasing Africa's shift towards homegrown education solutions, and the EdTech Connect Conference serves as the premier platform for highlighting not only the most promising innovations by Africans for Africans but the collaborative ways in which African nations are engaging in this work. We can all gain valuable insights from these groundbreaking African EdTech vendors driving this movement. 

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Africa as a Global Leader in EdTech Innovation

Globally, particularly with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the education sector has experienced waves of technological transformations that have accelerated both the creation and adoption of technology in learning. This has, in turn, prompted policymakers and educators alike to understand what works amongst the new tools and for whom. National and local authorities are reassessing their technology policies and advancements in AI, which have compelled the education sector to further confront both the challenges and opportunities presented by technologies (I write about the nexus of behavioral science and technology in my piece on online learning). 

In Africa, the landscape of EdTech not only offers a unique narrative and opportunity for innovation but also serves African youth, who are expected to comprise the largest portion of the incoming global workforce. However, despite this demographic significance, EdTech vendors—even those who are servicing Africa—fail to design their solutions with Africa in mind. Rather than perpetuating the practice of adopting non-African solutions for African students, Africa is now investing in homegrown innovative technologies tailored to its own challenges and needs.
While the West remains involved in these education initiatives, many philanthropic organizations are taking a South-South approach where collaborations among low and middle-income nations are prioritized, including the establishment of headquarters in the Global South. In the EdTech space, a powerful example is CITL, which is actively contributing to EdTech development in Africa. By identifying and scaling homegrown solutions and using conferences and programmatic activities across different countries, CITL facilitates knowledge sharing and regional integration. In doing so, CITL underscores the potential of EdTech to transform education on the continent, thereby repositioning Africa as an innovation leader and not merely a consumer of (often foreign) technologies.

Behavioral Insights for Locally Tailored EdTech Solutions in Africa

EdTech has the potential to address a diverse array of challenges present in education systems across Africa. It can offer solutions to issues that continue to pose significant obstacles to student well-being and learning. For instance:

  • Student attrition rates can be mitigated through e-learning platforms and mobile apps, offering personalized learning to cater to individual student needs. 
  • Gender disparity can be tackled by providing safe and accessible paths to education for girls through online learning. 
  • Health and safety concerns can be alleviated through remote learning and virtual labs, ensuring learning continuity in times of instability. 
  • Teacher shortages can be mitigated by using online platforms to train educators and connect students to qualified teachers when access is limited. 
  • Inadequate learning resources can be addressed through open educational resources and digital libraries, making materials more accessible and adaptable for local contexts. 
  • Insufficient monitoring can be enhanced through online assessments, providing timely feedback, and leveraging data analytics to keep track of student progress.

During CITL’s EdTech Connect conference, I engaged with leading EdTech vendors and African tech hubs. The focus was on overcoming obstacles faced by high-quality African EdTech vendors to ensure they effectively address dropout rates and improve learning outcomes. Our discussions highlighted two important ways that behavioral insights can refine the framing of the unique needs of African EdTech vendors and identify impactful solutions to address these needs. 

1. Resistance & Misconceptions

During the COVID-19 pandemic, African policymakers had the chance to reassess their ICT strategies and integrate virtual learning solutions and EdTech. However, despite the progress made during the shutdowns, many African educators reverted to traditional in-person teaching methods once restrictions were lifted. This is due to a lack of infrastructure and training, little to no access to hardware and learning materials, limited availability of EdTech products, and, according to the discussion at the EdTech Connect conference, a much more fundamental issue of EdTech not being fully embraced in African learning communities. Local leaders in attendance discussed the need for mindset shifts and dispelling misconceptions about virtual learning being inferior. This, they believed, would make the other barriers (i.e., infrastructure and resources) much easier to address. To those in the room that day, this was an underlying barrier that must be overcome first.

Additionally, there's a lack of commercial incentives for EdTech compared to sectors like FinTech or AgriTech. This was primarily discussed as an inherent consequence of the nature of the education sector. First, EdTech adoption is much slower than FinTech or AgriTech due to longer sales cycles and regulatory hurdles that exist in the education sector. Second, educational systems are quite varied from one locality to another, making scalability and standardization across regions and countries challenging for EdTech companies in ways that FinTech or AgriTech companies do not experience. Lastly, education is often perceived as a social good (as opposed to a purely commercial enterprise) which can contribute to lower investment and profit margins in the EdTech sector as compared to FinTech or AgriTech.

At TDL, we believe that resistance to adoption and scaling are promising areas for behavioral science support. Behavioral science can help both understand and address EdTech hesitancy among administrators, educators, and communities because it allows us to explore motivational factors and tailor solutions to meet very specific needs. It can also help the education sector leverage large-scale interventions by partnering with other sectors, such as healthcare and media. These collaborations can increase awareness of the benefits of EdTech through culturally relevant campaigns, reduce social and physical barriers to acquiring EdTech, and shift mindsets through effective framing and messaging. By doing so, they enable equitable access to and benefits from EdTech across Africa. (We co-authored an article on leveraging educator behavior to enhance quality EdTech adoption in the US, showcasing similar strategies.)

2. Lack of Accessible and Inclusive Delivery

In Africa, inclusivity presents a complex challenge due to limited access to electricity and internet connectivity across many communities. These challenges vary widely from country to country, locality to locality, and even within communities themselves. To effectively serve learners in regions with varied and often lower levels of infrastructure, innovations must adopt different approaches and delivery channels. For example, our discussions at the EdTech Connect Conference highlighted that many top EdTech companies across Africa prioritize delivery through cellular phones via mobile apps as their primary delivery platform because personal computers are not widely accessible in African households; however, the barriers to inclusivity vary across contexts.

In Kenya, where access to smartphones is limited, personalized learning delivered through feature phones via text messaging has emerged as a viable method to guarantee girls are included in virtual learning efforts. This addresses the disparity in access between genders, as girls often lack access to smartphones compared to their male counterparts in their families. Thus, adapting EdTech to accommodate feature phones as the primary mode of delivery becomes crucial in such contexts.

Conversely, in South Africa, where smartphone penetration stands at 80%, data costs pose a significant barrier to leveraging smartphones as an educational platform. Despite widespread smartphone availability, high data costs hinder access to online educational resources, highlighting the importance of addressing affordability issues in addition to connectivity concerns.

Like much of the rest of the world, accessibility issues are pervasive in the African market, primarily due to the exclusion of differently-abled students from user testing of tech solutions and the lack of regulatory policies governing vendor solutions. Behavioral science offers a valuable framework for both understanding user experiences and addressing these accessibility challenges, including contextually relevant incentive frameworks for the creation of and compliance with accessibility standards. This approach encourages vendors to prioritize accessibility in their product development, moving beyond generic strategies (we write more on usability testing in our open-access reference guide).

What can you do about this? 

As we look ahead, it's crucial to acknowledge and address the social barriers that hinder the thoughtful integration of technology by and within African communities. It is important to recognize the strengths and resources within all communities in order to invest in locally-driven solutions. This asset-based approach can allow us to better understand learning needs within the context in which they occur and to collaboratively develop effective solutions tailored to these needs. Decolonizing innovation in Africa is not just about recognizing Africa's agency to benefit African learners; it's also about recognizing that the unique and innovative solutions that communities in the Global South can offer will benefit all learners across the world. 

If we wish to strengthen the education landscape in Africa through technologies and innovation, we must foster a culture of critical evaluation of EdTech products for Africa’s students. We must stop mining Africa for data and start looking to her for leadership in innovation. Learning communities often have a very clear understanding of their challenges, many are aware of what solutions are needed, and some may even be working on the solution. CITL's strategy involves identifying successful practices already identified or implemented by Africans who intimately understand and experience the challenges faced by the communities they serve. Their approach is to then simply ask, "How can I help?"—a valuable model that we can all learn from and apply.

About the Author

Dr. Maraki Kebede

Dr. Maraki Kebede

Maraki is a Project Leader at The Decision Lab. Her research focuses on social and spatial equity in education globally, and has been featured in peer-reviewed journals, edited volumes, and international conferences. Maraki has worked with several international organizations to craft pathways to empower underserved school-aged children and youth in Africa, including UNESCO, the World Bank, the Institute of International Education, and Geneva Global Inc.

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