Youth & COVID-19 in Kenya: Why the Impact of Technology Was Limited
The Kenyan government has released a new report based on interviews with young people across the nation that analyses the impact of COVID-19.
It reviews some of the initiatives implemented in response and proposes a roadmap for the future. Technology is a key theme of the report, primarily around access to education when schools were closed, but also in other aspects such as cushioning the economic impacts and in access to health information and services. Despite some promising practices, gender inequality emerged as a key issue and the overall findings were not positive. For example:
During school closures, most adolescents were not able to fully engage in remote learning due to limited access to digital services and the internet, lack of access to computers, radio, or TV, competing demands on their time and lack of a conducive environment to study.
In this article, I will share the report findings and give my thoughts.
Background to the Report
The Generation Equality Forum (GEF) held in Paris from 30 June to 2 July brought together governments, corporations, NGOs, youth-led groups, and foundations to secure concrete, ambitious, and transformative commitments on gender equality. Shaped by the Action Coalitions as a world roadmap for gender equality, one of the Action Coalitions is using technology and innovation for gender equality.
During the Forum the President of Kenya highlighted Kenya’s 12 commitments towards the elimination of gender-based violence (GBV) and achieving gender equality. Great progress has been made in the past towards gender equality in Kenya, including achieving gender parity in school enrolment at the primary school level and 100% transition from primary school to secondary school, and also policy and legal measures against GBV. But with the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, the gains made in the past decades are at risk of being rolled back.
To understand the situation, the government commissioned a report to document the challenges facing Kenyan adolescents during the COVID-19 pandemic. This new report Promises to Keep: Impact of COVID-19 on Adolescents in Kenya will also inform the government’s roadmap to support adolescents’ current and future well-being.
The report leverages data collected on the social, education, health, and economic effects of COVID-19 on adolescents in June 2020 and again in February 2021 from four cohorts. The quantitative research covered around 4,000 youth and the qualitative research covered around 200.
The report found that during the prolonged school closure, young people lost precious learning time. They no longer had a safe school environment and managed platform to socialize, learn, and explore their identities. As parents and guardians faced unemployment, many adolescents who were already living in resource-poor environments, experienced increased economic stress. Many were exposed to emotional, physical, and sexual violence, and others became vulnerable to personal and social risks such as alcohol and drug abuse as well as teenage pregnancy.
Impact on Education and the Role of Technology
The education system was unprepared for the massive changes in learning modes during the pandemic; however, various stakeholders adapted and leveraged remote and online learning options. When the pandemic broke out, there were a wide variety of remote learning programmes implemented by the Ministry of Education, supplemented by individual schools’ initiatives. These remote learning programmes were delivered through the Internet, television, radio, and physical materials.
The research found that 80% of the interviewed adolescents engaged in some sort of remote learning, mostly by reading schoolbooks available at home; however, only 1 in 5 adolescents accessed learning materials via mobile phones, television, and/or radio. Limited access and agency to use mobile phones and other electronic devices also affected adolescents’ remote learning, especially girls. During school closures, some teachers relied on mobile phones for remote learning where they would send assignments to students and received answers as text. However, this medium was very limited – less than a third of students were able to use mobile phones for learning.
The reported mobile phone ownership was almost exclusive to 15–19-year-olds and was higher for boys than girls (33% vs 29%). In some cases, mobile phones were also used by other siblings, parents, or guardians. In others, parents limited adolescents from accessing mobile phones since they were concerned the phones would be used to communicate with the opposite gender. Only 1% of respondents had access to computers during the pandemic, highlighting the significant digital divide in education in the country.
Even for adolescents who could access mobile phones, limited Internet connectivity was a major barrier. 40% of respondents in the study stated that a lack of data bundles hindered them from accessing lessons on smartphones and other devices. This problem was higher for girls (41% vs 36% for boys). Lower income households were more affected. In addition to limited access and connectivity, remote learning through mobile phones and other electronic devices was hindered by lack of and unreliable electricity. The lack of electricity prevented learning for 53% of adolescents. Again, this was reported by more girls (89%) than boys (77%).
Girls had less time for learning compared to boys and were also less likely to access resources for remote and online learning. There were large variations in usage with 32% of adolescents in Nairobi (the largest city) using mobile phones to access online learning materials prepared by their schools, as well as generic materials provided by the Ministry of Education, but only 12% in Kilifi (a more typical rural area) and 2% in Wajir (a very remote area).
Despite the significant challenges that accompanied remote learning, some respondents highlighted positives from the experience. Some were pleased with remote learning, as it prevented adolescents from engaging in deviant behavior by keeping them “busy”. While a few others said that adolescents would easily “adapt” to school learning after reopening since they had been academically active during the school closures.
The study estimated that when schools re-opened in January 2021, 1 in 6 girls and 1 in 12 boys did not return to school, mainly because of lack of school fees, and secondly, due to pregnancies and the need to work. The study also found that the prolonged school closures had adverse effects on the academic performance and self-esteem of students. In such cases online learning can play a critical role in helping youth who are out of school for various reasons, as well as helping those who are behind to catch-up. The inequality in education and digital divide requires careful approaches as students return to school to remove any gaps in learning.
The report highlights some promising practices that took place during the pandemic response measures, including:
- The Huawei DigiTruck initiative, which was run together with the Ministry of ICT, Innovation and Youth Affairs and other partners. The solar-powered mobile classroom equipped with Internet and smart devices provided 20-hour training courses on using computers, smartphones and the internet to enable young people study and find jobs online.
- The Food4Education initiative that provides subsidized nutritious meals to primary school children. It incorporates Tap2Eat, a digital mobile platform, through which parents can pay for subsidized lunches using mobile money. The amount is credited to a virtual wallet linked to an NFC smart wrist band which students use to then Tap2Eat in under 5 seconds.
- The Nia Program, which provides sanitary pads for girls and promotes free, confidential digital health services on each pack.
There are several recommendations outlined in this report, two of which relate to technology:
- Prioritise learning continuity during school closures and ensure that adolescent needs and life realities are considered. This includes accessible and inclusive distance learning that will reach the most marginalised and limit inequalities in the education system.
- Reduce the gender digital divide and address gender disparities in access to digital learning. This includes working to provide free or low-cost mobile Internet access. When digital solutions to distance learning and Internet are accessible, ensure that adolescents are trained with the necessary digital skills, including ways to stay safe online.
Reading the report provides a stark reminder of the challenges we face using technology in Kenya. Despite 4G networks now covering around 95% of the population, only around half the population are using 3G or 4G, and of that the majority are “low data users” due to affordability of Internet, lack of skills, lack of relevant content, or lack of awareness of such content. The report touched on the importance of technology in helping youth get jobs online as well as getting skills necessary for working online, but mainly focused on how the impact of online learning was more limited than most in the sector would have thought.
Other research has shown that around 40% of students accessed education content when the schools closed, with 35% of these using TV, 34% using a smart-phone and 11% using a radio. This was despite most mobile network operators making it free or cheap to access the Kenya Education Cloud website and other private education providers’ sites. The government content was mostly accessed through TV, much more so than online, even if the Kenya Education cloud has the standard content on it (average users of 300-400 a day when schools were closed, average session duration of five and a half minutes) and also broadcast on YouTube. Most utilized private providers such as Eneza education, Ubongo and E-Limu.
The report has laid out many of those reasons clearly and it is a call to action that much more must be done; my four key ones:
- Youth need more devices and more capable devices, along with reliable power, that can support several hours of use per day (sharing devices amongst children in a household was a problem);
- Interactive learning is critical, particularly the ability to ask questions and get feedback from live learning, even if there is some one-way content available online;
- Enhancing digital skills for teachers and students so they can make better use of the internet particularly for work opportunities and e-commerce;
- Government and private providers must consider long-term strategies to provide free or discounted access to education content online (not just temporary during COVID-19).
I believe that beyond the two promising cases identified related to health and nutrition, there are much more that has happened during COVID-19, but also at very small scale. It is critical that such other practices are identified and that the government looks at ways for scaling them up. For example,
- Mitigate the economic effects of COVID-19 by helping youth find work online, utilize e-commerce for trading, and work in online jobs. A key part of the government’s Ajira initiative, which is partnering with Huawei on the DigiTruck. The government has utilized mobile money to scale-up cash transfer programs to support the very poor affected by the pandemic, and to pay those working in the government’s Kazi Mtaani initiative that provided paid work for vulnerable youth.
- Help youth access healthcare information and services, through accessing trusted health information online, getting health advice by phone or online, and utilizing e-pharmacies to get medicines delivered.
- To help youth access information on sexual and reproductive health, as well as how and where to get contraceptive products; access counsellors and support groups, as well as the use of various digital tools to aid those with depression or other mental health issues;
- To help respond to gender-based violence by reporting to relevant authorities through digital means and accessing helplines for support.
What Can We Learn?
This report is a timely reminder of the challenges youth have faced during COVID-19, and the limited impact that technology has had compared to its potential. It is critical that we reflect on this, invest more attention and resources on the solutions and promising practices, and make sure that these help jumpstart the recovery efforts.
As the developed world speeds ahead in their widespread use of digitization efforts, Kenya and other countries have the risk of being left behind, especially youth from marginalized areas, with low incomes, and girls.
The Global Partnership for Education Summit at the end of this month represents an immediate opportunity for the World to acknowledge the challenges outlined in this report related to remote learning and step up efforts to help children catch-up using technology.
 Covid-19 Global Pandemic in Nairobi’s Low Income Areas: Children’s Learning and Domestic Violence
Round Three Survey Report 1st Release 13th October 2020, TIFA Research. http://www.tifaresearch.com/round-three-survey-on-the-social-economic-and-public-health-impact-of-covid-19/
 Are Our Children Learning? The Status of Remote-learning among School-going Children in Kenya during the Covid-19 Crisis https://docs.edtechhub.org/lib/SIP45PBA
Disclaimer: Any views and/or opinions expressed in this post by individual authors or contributors are their personal views and/or opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views and/or opinions of Huawei Technologies.