Tonee Ndungu, the founder and C.E.O. of digital platform Kytabu, discusses with Annie Brookman-Byrne how he hopes to overcome barriers to education for girls and young women in Kenya.
Annie Brookman-Byrne: What do you see as the biggest challenge for education in Kenya?
Tonee Ndungu: Equity is the biggest challenge. There is an assumption that everybody’s equal, that we all have access to the same teachers, schools, learning content, and educational opportunities, and that’s not true.
ABB: And what are the barriers to education for girls and young women, in particular?
TN: The first is that our cultures and our systems are permeated with the idea that women are meant for the house and men for the workplace. Women are seen as productive and promising and fulfilling their ‘role’ when they are working at home, and men fulfil their ‘role’ when they’re in the workplace. Because education focuses on the workplace, women are excluded.
“Girls want to know that they are important and that they matter to their families.”
The second is hygiene and facilities. A lot of girls completely drop out of school when they get their periods, because of the shame, the stigma, or just a lack of money for sanitary products. This is a real problem, and as a result, educating girls is perceived to be harder than educating boys.
The third is a resource allocation problem. Places where there are more girls than boys have far fewer learning resources than places where there are more boys.
As Kenya has grown as a country, we have learnt that to move from the status of a poor country to the middle country range, and from a mid-level country to a rich country, we will need all hands on deck. If half the population is not engaged in the workplace, we’re never going to achieve that.
ABB: Has the COVID-19 pandemic had an impact?
TN: Kenya is predominantly a service- and tourism-based industry – restaurants, hotels, that kind of thing. When those businesses were shut down because of COVID, thousands upon thousands of people were sent home, and the coastal areas in particular lack any other source of revenue. Parents went on the hunt for work in different areas of the country, and that left girls with responsibilities at home, like taking care of younger siblings, while boys went back to school.
ABB: How have parents and girls responded to these challenges?
TN: Parents want to educate their kids, they just don’t have the means. Imagine the societal disadvantages of those teenagers and preteens who are forced to stay at home. There are a lot of self-esteem and self-confidence issues. Girls want to know that they are important and that they matter to their families.
“Girls are in a virtual classroom with nearby peers, and access videos, assignments, and daily collaborative problems.”
Lots of girls have been talking about these problems on social media and sharing information via WhatsApp during the pandemic. It has become a really big tool for girls to learn from one another, but they can only share limited types of content on that platform. Our calculations show that there are close to 4 million girls of primary- and secondary-school age, and about a third of them are at home. It is a staggering number.
ABB: Tell me about what you’ve been doing to address some of these barriers to learning.
TN: We created Girls-4-Girls as an intervention for girls who are either taking care of their siblings or for some other reason unable to go back to class, so they can learn from home. Girls are in a virtual classroom with nearby peers, and access videos, assignments, and daily collaborative problems. The technology is adaptive, so each girl’s learning journey is personalised.
We’ve reached about 270,000 with Kytabu, our other e-learning app, including girls at home. It’s been gratifying to see that parents are happy about it. They have told us to keep doing what we’re doing, and that they will do their best to make sure that their kids have devices and data, because that’s more affordable than school fees and transport to school. We are giving parents an alternative that is within their reach.
“I don’t see how any country is going to succeed if we cannot fully tap into the power that is women and girls in the future of work.”
ABB: Mentoring and community building is a key feature of the platform. Why is it important for girls to build those social connections?
TN: Because we’re social beings. You can’t become what you can’t see. It’s one thing to put a vision in front of young people, telling them that education is going to change their lives and take them places, but it doesn’t seem realistic. So we find people who have gone through that experience, who can stand up and say, “Look what it did for me”. They devote three hours a month to putting some videos together about what they studied and what happened – to showing their story. I think that’s a really big driver for the girls in appreciating why they are learning.
ABB: What’s your hope for the future of girls and young women in Kenya?
TN: I want them to take their rightful place as peers and partners in the development of the nation, its agenda, and its future. I don’t see how any country is going to succeed if we cannot fully tap into the power that is women and girls in the future of work. It doesn’t matter who you are, we need to make sure that everyone has a part to play. We have to do this if we’re going to have any semblance of success in the future as a nation.