At St Paul’s Academy, located a few kilometres from Meru town’s Central Business District, a three-day technology workshop was recently held. This was not your ordinary kind of workshop; parents were requested to allow their children aged between six and 18 to attend the event that sought to “help create the next generation of technology leaders.”
Alex Guantai, the regional coordinator of Code Mashinani, a tech initiative, addressed the young brains. He has been traversing counties to boost computational thinking among primary and secondary school students.
“We organise coding camps, clubs and cafes not to teach kids how to code but to help them improve their critical thinking regarding the problems existing in the environment they live in and how innovation can be used to tackle them,” says Mr Guantai.
Many of the children who attended the workshop were tech-enthusiasts who already know various innovations that are disrupting the traditional way of doing things globally.
Brian Mutuma, a Form Four student at Mang’u High School who aspires to be a lawyer, is aware that technology will have a huge impact on every industry and “all generations must be prepared to adapt to the changes”.
“Tech is taking over the world and humans will become more dependent on it. This is because man can never be 100 percent efficient. The adoption of technology will help bridge the quality gap in work places,” says the 17-year old.
Disputing the idea that technology will render workers redundant, the student is quick to express the many opportunities that come with innovation.
“Man must learn to fit into technology and stop the fear of being replaced. They should see the opportunities and exploit the gaps in emerging technologies,” he says.
Given a chance, Brian says, he would create a digital platform to eliminate the enormous and boring paperwork in the law sector. According to him, instances of court cases failing to proceed for lack of evidence or due to disappearance of exhibits or proof can be solved by technology.
But Edwin Ikaria from Thura Boys High School is hesitant to acknowledge Brian’s worldview.
“I love tech but it is causing harm to us. Thieves are using it to steal, they hack banks and social media accounts for money and private user data,” he laments.
He however believes that to unchain the country from the shackles of corruption, technology will come in handy.
“I am angered by the corruption scandals that happen in Kenya. One day, I believe a technology to detect, profile and prosecute corrupt individuals will be created to tame this monster,” he says.
He notes that technology can reduce duration for judicial processes for cases, adding that there have been cases where assault victims later die just because it takes too long to process a P3 form, and hence get treated.
At the age of 18, Edwin is scared that technology could create mass unemployment especially through robotics. But Elizabeth Wanjiru, a class 8 pupil at St Paul's Academy believes otherwise.
“I value technology for its potential to change lives. Robots cannot work without human control, people should just learn how to manage them,” says 13-year-old student.
She empathises with fellow pupils whose parents struggle to pay fees and says a way should be found to use technology to address this challenge.
“No matter the financial status of parents, all children should receive quality education. Parents with low earnings can be helped to clear fees arrears by well wishers via online crowdfunding,” she explains.
Elizabeth wants to be an actress, and given the opportunity, she says, she can create a global platform where all film talent can be nurtured and that ensures they receive their royalties in time.
Jasmine Nkatha, a Form One student at Kaaga Girls High School is in love with journalism and says she sees herself anchoring news to a global audience one day.
She notes that technology should be used to enable people in remote areas access TV or any other digital content.
Code Mashinani’s chief executive Jesse Muchai says the core aim of his initiative is to help kids learn how to think creatively and reason systematically.
“Humans don’t learn well under pressure. We invested in kids because they only think of the opportunities and love exploring new adventures. They believe what they are taught,” he says.
"We try not to teach them how to create tech apps but to understand the thinking behind their creation. If you understand where it starts and how it works from a young age then it becomes easier to identify a gap a bridge it.”
He adds: “The key aim is to invoke questions in the brains of pupils and students because to develop the best software, you must have fine ideas for that technology.”
However, it is an uphill task explaining to parents what code clubs are. “They think we teach game development or apps. They wonder why their kids don’t become software engineers,” says Mr Muchai.
His co-founder Peris Waithera says the initiative also empowers girls tech-wise, and attempts to ensure there is a ratio of 1:1 in all code cafes.
“Women are technophobic, they are afraid of exploring Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) topics. We try to eliminate that phobia and help them understand why they need technology to solve the challenges they face like female genital mutilation,” she says.
They also face the hurdle of accessing schools to spread the innovation gospel.
“Most school heads only have a small glimpse of what technology can do and thus find no use in explaining it to parents,” she says.
Tech experts say it is important that children are exposed to various innovations in order to have a firm grounding on technology. This, they say, is a global trend.
In China, for instance, kids are taught how to code from the early age of five to give them a leg up in the global job market. Alongside mastering mathematics and Chinese, the youngsters are equipped with technology skills.
Austria, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, France, Hungary, Ireland, Lithuania, Malta, Spain, Poland, Portugal, Finland, Slovakia and the UK have integrated coding in their primary and secondary school curriculum.
The United States of America’s Silicon Valley showed that though difficult, it is possible to incorporate coding into classroom lessons, when it helped persuade 24 states to change their education policies and laws, and allow computational classes in public schools.
Associate professor at the University of Nairobi's School of Business, Bitange Ndemo says initiatives like Code Mashinani are good for the continent but he adds that the state should start teaching kids the real codes behind computer and mobile programs.