(Photo: Eneza Education/Facebook

Testing While Texting Takes Off in East Africa

A dumbphone-based SMS service makes it easy—and affordable—to study for Kenya’s high-stakes tests.
Sep 29, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Marc Herman is the author of The Wizard and the Volcano, The Shores of Tripoli, and Searching for El Dorado and a cofounder of Deca, a longform journalists' co-op. He lives in Barcelona.

As you try to bend your iPhone 6 back into shape, take a moment to consider Kenya’s Eneza, an education technology firm asserting that inexpensive “dumb” phones are good enough to raise test scores in distance learning programs, even in areas without Web access. Or iPhones.

The tiny Nairobi-based social enterprise has developed an SMS-based system that sends practice exams to kids whose families subscribe for the equivalent of 10 cents a week.

While broadband and smartphone technologies are out of reach for many rural Kenyan communities, “students who have less than $1 a day [nevertheless] have access to SMS,” said the app’s developer, Nairobi programmer Kago Kagichiri. (There are more than 820 million mobile phone subscriptions among Africa’s 1.08 billion people.) Older “feature phone” technology, which does not require a broadband signal, is still used in about half the world—47 percent of new phone purchases are dumbphones, according to IT consultancy Gartner—particularly in regions with low broadband penetration.

Kagichiri said that in two years, Eneza has reached 35,000 subscribers throughout Kenya; they have access to practice exams and tutoring material in five subjects, as well as unlimited text messaging to complete the exercises and have results texted back to them. The students can also access Wikipedia and pose individual questions to teachers whom Eneza contracts with. Kids being kids, some of these questions go beyond the scope of the original mission. “We have students that ask us about current affairs and also about relationships and that stuff,” Kagichiri said.

The company claims children using the service saw their national exam scores improve by an average of 5 percent after one year. That figure rose to 11 percent when Eneza was used in cooperation with teachers rather than individually at home.

The idea began when a teacher working in a school in Western Kenya, Toni Maraviglia, contacted Kagichiri, now 25, to see if there was a way to provide remote assistance to students preparing for Kenya’s high school entrance exam. Every Kenyan middle school student takes the test at age 12.

We have students that ask us about current affairs, and also about relationships and stuff.

Kago Kagichiri, education app developer

“At first we had five teachers, and Toni kind of held the ship together,” said Kagichiri. The son of a computer programmer, he said he’d been writing apps since he was seven. The real challenge, though, came after the development phase: Negotiating an affordable subscription service with Kenya’s mobile providers proved the most difficult part of Eneza’s ramp-up.

Kagichiri and Maraviglia thought it was important that customers be charged by the student rather than by usage, which isn’t the norm in East Africa. Most cell phone customers purchase service on a pay-as-you-go basis, but Kagichiri wanted students to be able to ask as many questions as they wanted without having to worry about paying for more texts. “We’re one of the only start-ups with this kind of subscription service,” he said.

Eneza’s curriculum follows existing Kenyan national primary school guidelines, but because it was classified as “out of school” activity, it didn’t have to cut through the red tape of Nairobi’s curriculum development process. That could have delayed its unveiling by years. The program was originally funded out of pocket but has since received funding from private investors. Eneza claims to reach 300,000 students via its 35,000 subscriptions, many of which are shared in families with multiple school-age children and among friends.

The app processed more than 34,000 exams in September and has recorded 2.5 million uses since its launch two years ago, said Kagichiri. The group is negotiating with mobile providers in neighboring Tanzania to create a high school program there.

“The social entrepreneur space is a hard nut to crack,” Kagichiri said. But there are at least 2 billion people worldwide with access to a dumbphone, which could make it a valuable—and unbendable—platform for education apps like Eneza.