The One-Laptop-per -Child initiative has often come under criticism due to a lack of ease of application in Rwanda and other developing countries where it has been deployed.
The initiative involves availing laptops in all public primary schools across the country to facilitate pupils learning and improve their scope of materials.
Among the challenges of the technology, according to experts in the sector, is that the gadgets require constant charging which is not always possible given the electricity penetration in the country both via grid and off-grid solutions.
Michel Bezy, the Associate Director of the Carnegie Mellon University-Africa campus in Rwanda, has previously cited that though the initiative would help promote the use of technology in education, it was not designed with the local eco-system in mind.
In one of his blog posts, he pointed out that OLPC was not designed for developing countries due to challenges such as charging the laptops.
“A quick calculation showed that the cost of recharging the 900 computers every day for one month would be equivalent to the salary of one teacher,” he wrote in a 2013 post, referring to a school that was struggling with recharging 900 laptops.
A trip to schools using the One-Laptop-Per-Child units justifies the concerns.
In some instances, some schools are not connected on the grid and in other instances, when they are there are not enough charging spots around the school to charge about 100 devices.
For instance, for years since the introduction of OLPC, Groupe Scolaire Kimironko 1 has been struggling with charging and maintaining the laptops.
A total of 440 laptops were given to the school but the school only had two power plugs.
“It was almost a terrible experience to charge all these laptops, as well as moving them from their storage to classrooms every day,” says Alphonsine Dusabeyezu, the head teacher at the school.
For context purposes, the OLPC was designed in Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab as a sufficiently inexpensive tool that would provide every child in the world access to knowledge and modern forms of education.
Rwanda, like a few other countries, procured them as part of its ultimate vision to empower students with educational resources using technology.
But Rwanda’s quest for the positive impact of the project faced significant unforeseen hurdles owing to the nature of these laptops.
According to Dusabeyezu, her school had only two power plugs which could barely support the recharging of 440 OLPCs whose battery life was between 2.5 to 3 hours, in addition to inadequate power supply the school continues to experience.
But such challenges saw a birth of one innovative solution- a charging cabinet that would support the charging of 60 laptops at once.
This is a brainchild of Fulgence Nikobamera, a former teacher trainer in technology.
Nikobamera is a bachelor’s degree holder in electronics and telecommunication from the former University of Science and Technology (KIST).
“During the time I was part of the programme (OLPC), I used to face a lot of challenges while training teachers to use these laptops. In most schools, we hardly had were to plug them as existing power plugs were not sufficient,” he narrates, saying this is where the whole idea began.
Fast forward, in 2012 he quit the training programme to work on his idea.
This was the year he developed the first prototype of the charging cabinet for laptops, where he started testing it in rural schools of Rutsiro district in the Western Province.
“By then, the charging system I had prototyped had the ability to recharge only 20 laptops, and I began thinking of how I can upgrade it,” he reveals.
Groupe Scolaire Congo Nile and Rugote in Rutsiro were the first schools to experience the first innovation from the former teacher trainer, who says that the school administration had thought that they had seen a relief by that time.
But before this, MIT experts had reportedly built a multi-battery charger capable of recharging 15 OLPC batteries at once. But the cost of the charger was way too high, estimated to be in thousands of dollars.
The charger that they had built was even more problematic because one had to remove the battery from the laptop and plug it into a multi-battery charger, which was not only inconvenient but also risked damaging the gadgets.
A sustainable solution
Over the course of the last few years, the Rwandan entrepreneur was able to upgrade his innovative solution to support the recharging of more laptops. At the moment, his upgraded charging system can recharge up to 60 laptops at once.
“Really the problem we are trying to solve is bigger than you can imagine,” he says at a school tour at Groupe Scolaire Kimironko 1 where he set up two charging cabinets three years ago.
One big challenge that he is trying to address is the high cost associated with owning an OLPC laptop.
Previously, for a school like Groupe Scolaire Kimironko, they would have to buy over 70 multi-power sockets to be able to charge all the 440 laptops at once. This would cost them over Rwf700,000 to purchase them.
“For a nine-year basic education school which doesn’t run on a big budget, this was nearly impossible. Similarly, having all these multi power sockets in one room could cause chaos as kids would play around with them,” Nikobamera says.
According to him, the cost of one charging cabinet for 60 laptops is Rwf100,000, which is relatively cheap compared to what could possibly be spent on purchasing multi power sockets.
Unlike the MIT proposed solution, with this locally developed system, students are not required to remove the battery from the laptop. Instead they insert the laptop with its recharging cable inside the cabinet.
“This has minimised the chances of damaging laptops and their cables. At the same time, it has helped to keep the laptops clean, which was a different story before,” he says.
Dusabeyezu, the head teacher at Groupe Scolaire Kimironko indicates that this has brought a multiplier effect in terms of learning and teaching as students and teachers no longer waste time in the process.
Already, the entrepreneur has worked with more than 200 schools to set up these charging cabinets, both in Kigali City and in rural schools. Som of the schools with limited financial capacity have had a provision to pay in installments.
His ultimate goal is to continue attracting the interest of other administrations to deploy it to other schools.
Statistics from Rwanda Education Board (REB) indicates that over 275,000 laptops have been deployed to 1,523 schools across the country.
This means there is a need for more of these charging cabinets, something he believes could domestically generate more jobs for years if these locally developed cabinets can be taken to other schools.
Addressing current challenges
However, the head teacher at Groupe Scolaire Kimironko highlights that there are still challenges of costly electricity, which she believes need more attention to enhance the learning environment for students.
“Right now we use a lot of power and to be honest it is very expensive for a day-school where we have a few activities. It is something that needs to be addressed,” she notes.
Nikobamera, on the other hand, reveals that he is currently working on providing alternative sources of energy for schools that cannot afford to purchase expensive power, especially those in rural schools.
”I am working to explore ways of fixing solar panel on each charging cabinet I develop, and this would be an alternative source of energy for schools that can hardly afford electricity,” he says.
However to commercialise such a solution, he says that it would require a lot of capital and a partnership to enable financially unstable schools to purchase these solar powered charging cabinets.