How Satellite Technology is Supporting Learning in Africa, Despite COVID-19 

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At least 1.5billion children are affected by school closure due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Students in low and middle-income countries lost nearly four months of learning while their counterparts in high-income countries lost only six weeks, catching up via remote learning. For students in Africa, these limitations bite harder because, in sub-Saharan Africa, about a third of the population remains out of reach of 3G networks. As such, Africans in remote communities neither have access to quality education nor quality internet connectivity for virtual learning. 

The role of remote learning

As this challenge intensifies, several African countries have looked for ways to keep learning going through remote learning. Remote learning is where the student and the educator, or information source, are not physically present in a traditional classroom environment. Information is relayed through technology, such as discussion boards, video conferencing, and online assessments. Remote Learning can occur synchronously with real-time peer-to-peer interaction and collaboration, or asynchronously, with self-paced learning activities that take place independently of the instructor.

During school closure across the world due to the COVID-19 pandemic, some stakeholders in Africa used satellite facilities (like satellite TV) for remote learning. Imlango, an education technology programme based in Kenya, is improving the quality of learning through the provision of ICT equipment, e-learning platform, satellite broadband connectivity, teacher training and parents empowerment. iMlango commenced in 2014 through a public-private partnership between six major stakeholders; Avanti Communications group, sQuid, Camara education, Whizztutor, Kenyan ministry of education, and Department For International Development (DFID).

Avanti communications group, the lead partner of the program, is providing broadband connectivity via its HYLAS 2 Ka-band satellite. This satellite broadband, as opposed to terrestrial networks, which are almost non-existent in remote communities, connects the primary schools to the internet for further access to the e-learning platform. While sQuid provides; the e-learning platform for learning, smart attendance system to monitor pupils attendance and financial platform for payments of incentives to parents. Furthermore, Camara education and WHizz tutor support iMlango with refurbished computers and educational content respectively.  

The program runs in selected primary schools across four counties; Kilifi, Kajiado, Makueni and Uasin Gishu. These schools were selected based on factors such as; poverty rates, attendance statistics, access to electricity and marginalisation of the girl child. 

According to the iMlango endline report in 2017, marginalised girls who took part in the program became better at numeracy and literacy, and they became more enthusiastic to further their education to various levels. During the COVID-19 lockdown, iMlango launched a mobile app to ensure learning continues for the student in remote areas. Currently, iMlango supports 180,000 pupils, including 70,000 marginalised girls, in 240 schools.

Like Imlango, Khula education, an initiative of the David Rattray Foundation, is using satellite broadband to provide internet connectivity to remote primary schools in uMzinyathi district, South Africa. The satellite broadband was sponsored by Morclick in partnership with Yahclick during the Covid-19 lockdown. The lockdown has ended, however, the schools are still connected to satellite broadband at a reduced cost of ZAR 750 (48.98 USD) per school. This cost is split between the schools and Khula education. 

Due to the sparse nature of terrestrial network connection in parts of uMzinyathi district, Morclick’s satellite broadband has effectively connected 15 schools in the uMzinyathi district to e-learning facilities. Following the availability of internet connection in the schools, Khula education was able to provide i-pads and laptops to teachers and pupils by soliciting for assistance from well-meaning individuals. They also trained and equipped teachers with necessary IT skills for the curation of online lessons. So far, this initiative has connected 6 000 learners and 200 teachers to the quality internet connection.

In Ghana, Joy learning channel is providing students with free educational contents. These contents can be accessed by TV viewers all over west Africa through a standard decoder or a TV with built-in direct-to-home (DTH) tuner. The channel which launched in December 2019, is hosted on the MultiTV platform, a privately owned free-to-air (FTA) satellite television based in Ghana. The educational channel is a collaboration between Multimedia Group (MGL) – owners of the Multi TV platform, Wolo TV – an e-learning platform, network service provider K-Net and SES – a satellite and terrestrial telecommunications network provider.  SES provides satellite capacity and broadcast services via its Astra-2F satellite. 

Asides the Joy channel, the Ghanian government also rolled out Ghana learning TV to support students with remote learning during the COVID-19 lockdown. 

Furthermore, Startimes, a Pay-TV company also launched educational channels in  Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda, Ghana, Guinea, South Africa and Mozambique to cushion the effect of school closure, however, these channels were only available to StarTimes subscribers.

But there are still barriers to learning in Africa

Despite these tremendous efforts by different stakeholders, the impact of these initiatives has not been felt in remote communities. And this is evident in the fact that sub-Saharan Africa has the highest number of out of school children. This challenge has not gone unnoticed as it is reflected on in the African space policy. 

According to the policy, “satellite-based wireless systems are the most cost-effective way to develop or upgrade telecommunications networks in areas where user density is lower than 200 subscribers per square kilometre. Such wireless systems can be installed five to 10 times faster and at a 50% lower cost than landline networks.” It further highlights the possibility of using satellite broadband to fulfil the needs of African countries that have to train and integrate a large number of workers in widely dispersed and underserviced areas. 

Also, the African space strategy highlights open-data sharing frameworks for African countries without satellite or space agencies. Keying into the African space policy and strategy is a viable means for African countries to solve their development challenges especially in the education sector.

The number of out of school children in Africa can be reduced through conscious usage of remote learning facilities either as a substitute or to complement existing learning models. Governments, non-profit, and private institutions need to key into the usage of satellite for remote learning across the continent. African countries without satellite or capacity to launch satellites can bridge their educational deficit by leveraging on collaboration opportunities made available by the African space policy and strategy.