Solar-powered Radios Support Remote Learning


May 11, 2021, 9:55 a.m.

Tens of thousands of tin roofs, gleaming white in the sun, pour down the slopes of Kibera informal settlement in Nairobi. Under one, 16-year-old Selina Nekesa Mamati is studying. She huddles by a grey and orange radio in her small living space, on one of two chairs placed on the earthen floor. She leans into the set, writing quickly in an open binder.

“I was out of school for eight months,” Selina explains. “Now I am behind.”

When the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in Kenya in March 2020, schools closed across the country. As a result, more than 17 million students like Selina had their education interrupted. The solar-powered radios are part of an effort to help them catch up. Blinking white and red lights, it is broadcasting lessons developed by the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development, in partnership with UNICEF, on the Kenya Broadcasting Channel.

UNICEF has delivered more than 10,000 of these solar-powered radio sets with light bulbs to vulnerable households across Kenya, helping at least 40,000 children to access remote learning. The sets have been distributed in areas where radio coverage is excellent, but access to remote learning is low. Textbooks were also distributed to assist with the learning process.

For Selina’s family, the radio has proved a lifeline. During school closures, Selina struggled with the monotony of life stuck at home, without the learning opportunities and friendships she had at school. With the added financial pressures of the pandemic, her mother could not afford to buy a radio.

“Coronavirus not only affected my children,” Selina’s mother Ruth says. “It also affected my job. It kept us all at home and has given me many challenges. It is harder for me to provide daily food for the children.”

With the provision of solar radios, children can now continue their studies from home, without facing additional costs, and their parents can make sure they attend classes. “The solar radio has helped me a lot, explaining things with stories,” says Selina. “That way I can paint a picture in my mind, to help me follow my literature studies.”

More than 100 sets have been distributed in Kibera informal settlements. “We have quite a number of children who are now able to listen to the radio,” says Sub-County Director of Education Lydia Wangechi Mugeti. “When we gave the households the radios, we also asked them to allow their neighbors to come and listen to the lessons.”

Standing on a mud path winding between a jostle of homes in another part of Kibera, 12-year-old Bildad Kagia clutches his family’s solar-powered radio set. He says it has been invaluable in helping him prepare for his final exams.

“When schools closed because of coronavirus, I could only do the homework we were given and try to read the textbooks,” he recalls. “When I got the radio, I could learn much more by following the lessons aired on KBC. I listen a lot to the radio lessons because I learn more than in the textbook and class.”

The radios also have other benefits. Most homes in Kibera are not connected to the national electricity grid, so the attached lamp can help children study at home after sunset. Moreover, each set has a USB port and is Bluetooth enabled, meaning households can use it to charge their mobile phones.

Originally designed to support remote learning during extended school closures in 2020, the radios are have also supported students since they returned to school in January 2021. Many students spend some days in class and others at home, as part of a so-called ‘blended’ learning setup, while others have been affected by temporary school closures.

For these learners, the radios continue to broadcast key lessons that help keep them up to speed.


UNICEF’s support

As well as providing radios to support remote learning, UNICEF supported children’s return to class by installing handwashing facilities in over 600 schools, providing textbooks to vulnerable families, and supplying 700,000 masks to primary and secondary students.

“During school closures, UNICEF supported the Government, firstly with remote learning and secondly with helping to prepare schools to safely reopen,” explains UNICEF Kenya Chief of Communications, Andrew Brown.

“When schools partially reopened, UNICEF continued to support remote learning for those children whose year groups had not yet gone back,” Andrew continues. “But at the end of the day, we want to see all children in school, where they can learn most effectively in a safe and protected environment.”

Back in Kibera, the experience of using the solar radios has not only helped children keep up with their studies, but has also provided unexpected career inspiration for some. “When I grow up, I want to become a mechanic, so I can fix technical stuff like this,” says Bildad Kagia with a smile.

By Rose Foley and Sammy Nyaberi (UNICEF)

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