Artificial Intelligence ( AI) is part of everyday conversation because of ChatGPT and Google’s Bard. As we discuss how AI could transform our lives and work, we sometimes forget that not everyone has access to such technology.
Yes, currently, we don’t officially have access to ChatGPT in Zimbabwe. That may or may not change in the near future but we do have access to the Edge browser which will be somewhat powered by ChatGPT. As for Bard, I believe Zimbabwe will make it on the list.
So, as we wait for official access, or as we fiddle with VPNs and virtual phone numbers to get access, we take it for granted that we are able to do this.
What one needs to experience this tech of the future is a computer that’s connected to the internet. Millions of Zimbabweans still don’t have that, especially in the rural areas.
It is with this in mind that I looked at the Zimbabwe government’s rural computerisation drive. The latest news on that front is that computer laboratories were commissioned at 12 rural schools in Matebeleland South yesterday. Apparently, 50 more are to be commissioned next month. This initiative is part of the National Development Strategy 1 (NDS1).
There is yet another initiative, the GIGA initiative, to increase connectivity in schools that is being ‘led by the government and complemented by Unicef.’ We talked about it here.
It’s not clear whether GIGA is involved with the 12 labs commissioned in rural Matebeleland. It doesn’t matter much for the schools involved. Government, Unicef, some well-wisher, it really doesn’t matter.
It does matter to the voter though. We need to know who is actually helping to build our country. Are our elected officials doing their jobs?
The pressing need
GIGA was launched in 2019 and Zimbabwe is only one of many countries in the program. Soon after GIGA was launched, the Covid pandemic hit and the importance of the program couldn’t be clearer.
Around 69% of schools in Zimbabwe do not have access to the internet.
For a time, remote learning was the order of the day, and it was clear that some children were being left behind. Kids are back in school but some will not be able to make up for the year or so they lost.
We cannot rest on our laurels that kids are now back in classrooms. We could have another disturbance that makes meeting physically impossible. So, we have to make sure that should that happen again, no one gets left behind.
That’s an extreme scenario but we need computer and internet access in schools even if that weren’t to happen. If you have tried to help a Primary student with their homework recently, then you know that the new curriculum is nigh impossible to get through without a little Googling.
All the information you need is one search away, and most of it is not behind any paywall, it’s free. When education ceases to be about acquiring information but about applying the information that we know is readily available, that’s when it can transform nations.
In Zimbabwe, we have another problem to solve for – electricity. It’s not enough to get computers and an internet connection, a solution to the erratic Zesa supply is needed. The national grid does not even reach some of the schools we want to computerise. Solar power is the obvious solution.
What’s been happening?
In December 2022 we found out that since the GIGA program commenced, 32 schools have been equipped with solar panels.
To be honest, that doesn’t sound impressive. There are close to 10,000 schools in Zimbabwe and more are being established at a rate of 300 per year apparently. So, to hear that a program that commenced in 2019 has equipped 32 schools with solar panels does not sound impressive.
However, when you consider that we are talking about thousands of students benefitting, you appreciate it a little more. Should we have done more? Probably, but it’s something I guess.
So, we haven’t made significant strides in electrifying schools. Did we at least get them the computers?
Unfortunately, there isn’t much in terms of transparency on the progress we have made on NDS1.
What we know from GIGA’s 2020 research is that it would take US$36 million to reach the 6,600 or so schools that do not have connectivity. It would cost an additional US$40.8 million annually to keep them connected.
Most of these schools cannot afford to do this themselves. Hence why the government’s NDS1 and GIGA’s work is important. What is US$36 million to a nation? It’s a lot apparently.
GIGA started work in Zimbabwe in February 2020. We know that they cannot do anything without buy-in from the government and they have been engaged since 2020.
What we have from both the government’s solo efforts and GIGA’s are scattered reports of some schools getting computers and labs. Two schools get some, six get labs and free internet and other such reports.
The Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe then gave us the totals for 2022,
We have equipped 1 117 school laboratories this year and that includes universities which did not have gadgets. In 2021 there were very few, just above 20, because of lockdown and in 2023, our plans in terms of laboratories is around 695
That is quite the progress. Remember we saw that there were about 6600 unconnected schools in 2020. So, Potraz is saying we got to 17% of them in 2022 alone. If we get another 695 connected in 2023, we would have reached over 27% since the program began. It started out slowly but we can get behind these new figures.
Potraz also connected 955 clinics in 2022 and that’s good to hear but back to the schools.
First, we have to remind ourselves that Potraz is a government agency, so we have to take what they report with a grain of salt. They say a model computer lab has 30 computers and so we are to assume that’s what’s being equipped on the ground.
We cannot verify that Potraz did indeed equip 1100 schools with 30-computer labs in 2022. Let’s assume that is accurate for now.
The timing and the opportunity
Even if it is accurate, we have to consider the timing. We went from equipping about 20 schools in 2021 to 1117 in the year preceding the election year. There has to be a connection there.
This all shows us that we are most powerful as citizens come election time. Work gets done when there are votes to be won. When there are progress reports to stuff.
So, should we let this power we have just go to waste or should we all demand more from our government? This power we yield expires upon voting and will only be returned to us in the year before the next election. So, we might want to use it wisely.
We knew as kids that if you ask for stuff from your parents in front of people, you would get it more often than not. Of course, you were risking a ‘talking-to’ when the company left but sometimes it was worth it. It could be worth it to push our representatives to give us what our communities need whilst we still can.