Final reflections on the iMlango project

13 March 2022 by Debbie Mavis, Project Director, iMlango

Over the course of the programme we have learned many lessons, especially as a corporate venturing into the world of humanitarian and development assistance. We went in with our eyes open but believed the project would get off the ground more quickly than it did. We thought that by providing the connectivity and having the content we would be able to start immediately but the project did not gain as much traction as we expected at the outset.

What we didn’t realise was how much we would need the absolute buy-in of the head teachers, teachers and parents in order to deliver the project. On reflection, we may have been a bit naïve. We had to address cultures as well as bandwidth. However, we realised this quickly and made the necessary changes and appointments. We put teacher training in place and hired a gender specialist so that we could work with communities to convince them that girls were as important as boys in terms of accessing an education.

Our initial objectives were clear. We wanted to give something back to the countries in which we were working. We wanted to improve learning outcomes for girls – making our connectivity really work to support girls’ education. We also wanted to be seen as a success so that this would be a flagship programme within our organisation that we could expand across Kenya and other countries in Africa in which we work. 

There have been many challenges over the course of the programme not least in the last year with COVID-19 which has been a huge hindrance – but this has been the same for everyone.

In general, working as a relatively large consortium has brought its challenges. There are positives and negatives. On the on hand, you have different skills and areas of expertise to bring to the project but on the other you encounter different ways of working and views on how things should be done. On reflection, there should have been earlier ground rules, setting out how each organisation should operate in order to gain a greater degree of consistency.

We also underestimated the challenge and value of the monitoring and evaluation requirements. At the outset, it was new to us and we did not really understand the value. But we now realise how important it is. Without this information you cannot tell the full story of the project and what it has achieved. 

What also surprised us was the things we needed that were not in place initially. We never thought we would have to recruit gender and safeguarding experts to make the programme successful.

We realised fairly quickly that there was little benefit to the technology if the children were not able to get to school or were to hungry to study and use it when they got there. We had to link up with parents and teachers to ensure children were able to get to school and learn. And we ended up funding food programmes as part of our CSR programme.  

In many schools we found that boys were being prioritised over girls, including in the use of the ICT labs. In order to counter this, we arranged gender training for teachers and communities. This helped us to overcome these barriers, particularly in ICT usage. A real success was encouraging teachers to line learners up in boy and girl lines and allowing one pupil from each line to enter a time, ensuring an even split between boys and girls on computers. We found that communities, particularly fathers, were not aware of the issues faced by daughters at school. At one school in Kilifi there were no doors on toilets. Once parents became aware of the issue, the next day doors were donated and installed by the community.

This wrap around activity – beyond the provision of technology – was a particularly successful element part of the project. 

Given all of this learning, there is a lot we might have done differently knowing what we know now! We have been constantly learning, adapting and evolving.

We have identified a few specific lessons:

  1. Do less to do more – we would be more focused on specific elements of the programme such as the maths programme and increasing those learning outcomes rather than trying to do numerous elements less successfully.
  2. We would have been more cautious in the roll out of microfinance loans, there is not concrete evidence that these correlate to improvements in attendance and believe they could have been more successful with continuous learning.
  3. For schools in rural communities, we should have focused on activities that offers the best value for money and at the same time has greatest impact on girls learning outcomes.

Building the trust of parents and teachers was a particular focus. Many of them simply did not understand what was on offer through the project. Many of the teachers were unfamiliar with the technology. We were naïve to think that our focus would just be the children! We offered training modules for the teachers within school to increase their skills and understanding.

Throughout COVID-19 we contacted parents and let them know that the technology could be downloaded at home through their smart phones so that their children could continue to learn – although this was not always possible.   

Knowing that the project in its existing form would be coming to an end, the plan was to build strong partnerships with the government bodies. However, this activity in the final year has been hampered by COVID-19. The main focus was the partnership building with the Fund Manager, FCDO, children, parents and schools. Government bodies were not as essential in terms of delivery. However, now we are working proactively to build those relationships and engage them in what we are planning to deliver in the next 12 months and beyond.  

The project would not have been feasible without the strategic partnership and the support of the GEC. It will continue now but it could not have been set up at the start without this donor support which also helped to open other doors such as with the Kenyan Ministry of Education

We would be happy to talk to anyone about the challenges we faced and how we overcame them! In terms of advice that we would offer to other organisations, especially corporates, embarking on this kind of programme, there are a few things we would say: 

  1. Set out an initial strategy and do as much research as possible - but be prepared to keep listening to the stakeholders on the ground and keep evolving. Don’t simply hold your nerve and hope things will work out – make changes if necessary. Also, don’t underestimate the importance of stakeholders on the perimeter. There are people who can hamper your efforts if they are not brought on board so make sure you know who your audience is, beyond the children you are supporting. 
  2. Make sure all partners are ‘singing from the same hymn sheet’. Be quite prescriptive about roles and responsibilities as early as possible.
  3. Keep it simple. Don’t try and do too much all at once in too many schools and, most importantly, make sure you have local resource on the ground. You can’t run a programme like this out of the UK.

The thing that we are most proud of is the impact on the children. It is amazing to think about the impact that a connection from a satellite can have on the life of a 10 or 11-year-old girl. 245 schools have been connected allowing children to learn in this way. They are enthusiastic to learn and attendance is good as a result. Teachers and pupils want to go to iMlango schools because of the ICT.

The potential impact of offering digital literacy to children at a young age is huge. Some of them are learning things in primary school that they might not otherwise have accessed until secondary school or even university.

When you are in the classroom you can see it working – especially when you see children teaching children. Eight-year-olds are showing each other what to do without any nervousness or self-doubt.

Our main legacy are these children who are now using the technology and their expectation to continue to learn in that way. It is opening up opportunities for jobs and success that they can bring back to their families and communities.

We are proud of the fact that there are not many companies doing this kind of activity. The project is not finishing. Avanti is working with Whizz to streamline the offer and continue to make it accessible. Once you have started a project like this you cannot simply walk away. That would be worse that not starting it in the first place!

As someone who has had a career in the corporate sector, when you see the value and impact of this kind of project, you realise the value that a corporate can bring to tackling a humanitarian need. On a personal level, you also realise that the rewards are far greater than anything you might get in terms of business awards and accolades.

It has also made us all more empathetic and aware of the reality of for others.

We have learned to listen and be more patient. Things can take longer than you expect but you can get there in the end. Nothing stops the team in Kenya. They go to every length to get things done. Even the challenges have been positive when you know that by addressing them you are making a difference to people’s lives. It’s fantastic working with a group of people, across countries, who really care about what they’re doing.


Further resources from the iMlango project:

Final reflections: Achievements and lessons learned by the iMlango project

Short film: Avanti - Short film

Project report: Measuring the impact of COVID-19 on learning in rural Kenya (Whizz Education)

Project report: Data to insight to action (Whizz Education)

External evaluation: Endline report