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February 19, 2019

New move to open exciting world of technology to kids

Safaricom Foundation chairman Joseph Ogutu speaks during the launch of the first eBoks at Ndundu Primary school.
Safaricom Foundation chairman Joseph Ogutu speaks during the launch of the first eBoks at Ndundu Primary school.

Right from infancy, Martin Muckle could be called a world traveller. Somehow his many voyages kept bringing him to Kenya. At first, he was a child and his father’s job necessitated the move to the country. As an adult Muckle travelled the world, settled for a time in the UK then decided that Kenya is where he wanted to be.

A few years ago, schoolgoing children were overjoyed at the promise of brand new laptops for every one of them on the condition that the nation votes in a certain way. Although there was a hot debate about whether the laptops are what children really need, the nation obliged. The promise is yet to be fulfilled.

Muckle, with 15 years experience in the teaching profession, agrees that computer literacy is essential for children but in his opinion, buying them laptops is not the way to go. “The idea of getting IT to children is the right thing to do but I’m not convinced that the actual technology is the right choice,” he said.

As a young boy, Muckle went to boarding school in the UK and spent his holidays in Kenya where his father worked as the county director and project manager of the Food and Agricultural Organisation. He and his siblings were often in the back of a land rover touring the country, accompanying their father on his many projects. His father’s job was in intermediate and appropriate technology in Africa, an area that he has had a passion for since his adventure-filled childhood.

Muckle left his job as a teacher at Kenton College, with a mission to improve access to computer literacy in Kenyan schools. For him, “it was always to get appropriate computers into schools with the right software and the right power source and no running costs.”

An angel investor bought into his idea and gave him enough funds to start a company that would make this a reality, and in 2011 Muckle founded Stonehouse Ltd. He was given funding, including for rent, for a year. The year came to an end, the money came to an end and he began struggling. His was not an easy undertaking, but he soldiered on. “It’s always been in the back of my mind that if we get PCs in the hands of these kids, someone will find the cure for cancer,” he said.

The experienced maths, science and IT teacher came up with a clever design that offers children in rural Kenya access to the world of information technology in a sustainable and environmentally friendly way. He created the eBoks — a fully equipped solar powered IT lab.

The eBoks is not merely the housing bit of the computer labs. It comes as a complete kit containing 11 computers, tables, benches, a smart interactive whiteboard, and Edubuntu software, an educational variant of the Ubuntu operating system which is free of charge and virus free. It also runs digitised content of the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development. The complete kit is flat-packed and delivered to schools. Once there, it takes a little over a week to erect the structure and put it in all other components.

The eBoks contains 10 pupil stations and a single workstation for the teacher. All these are powered by the Aleutia T1 energy efficient computer. The network of computers in the lab operates through a multi-user system. This means that only one computer is needed to run all 10 pupil stations. In this way, the cost of computer hardware is kept at a minimum. Moreover the use of energy efficient computers keeps solar power costs low.

Stonehouse Ltd is Kenya’s exclusive importer of Aleutia computers which come from London. In addition to being solar-powered, the machines have no moving parts, making them heat and dust resistant, ideal for many rural parts of the country.

The eBoks structure is similar to a shipping container, but it is designed specifically for human habitation. Several subtleties in the design make it a conducive space for teaching and learning. The lab has desktop monitors lined up on the sides of the structure so students sit facing the walls, creating an isle through which the teacher can comfortably reach any of the students. It is light and airy due to the passive cooling system design in all the walls, the floor and the ceiling. There are also two windows to provide light.

To ensure that the equipment in the eBoks is safe, its design features a heavy metal door and discrete mesh over the windows.

His impressive design gradually attracted attention and in September 2014, Stonehouse was awarded the contract to build 45 eBoks units for the 47IN1 project by Safaricom. The initiative will set up one computer lab in each of the 47 counties. Stonehouse will build 45 of the labs, and the other two will be built by another company. The goal of this project — to equip young Kenyans with technology for learning — fits perfectly with Muckle’s vision for the education of children in the country.

Stonehouse outsourced the building of eBoks units to TechnoConstruct, which uses light gauge steel technology for that purpose. The entire construction and assembly is done in Kenya by Kenyans.

The first eBoks built for the 47IN1 project is complete and was launched at Ndundu Primary School on September 8. With 44 more units to go, Muckle is as enthusiastic as ever to welcome thousands of children to the exciting world of information technology.

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