DIREQLEARN: DELIVERING SOLUTIONS INTO SCHOOLS ACROSS THE CONTINENT

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NEPAD has set ambitious targets to get computers into Africa’s schools. There is a widespread consensus that unless the next generation learn computer skills Africa will fall further behind. The question has always been how will the computers be delivered. The answer is not just about hardware but also training and appropriate software. A new breed of social entrepreneurs has sprung up to fill this gap who believe that doing good can be combined with doing business. Russell Southwood talks to Denis Brandjes of DireqLearn.

What does the company do?

We’re interested in delivering more effective learning outcomes through using technologies. These can be computers, broadcast, even lego (whatever’s most appropriate) to develop critical teaching and learning skills.

It’s a for profit company with a developmental perspective. Particularly if you’re involved in the development sector, it has to be about making a difference.

When did you start the company?

It was started in August 2001 with 2 people. Right now we have 29 staff in 3 countries: Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa. The largest of our operations is in Nigeria and Kenya is a start-up.

What were your reasons for starting the company?

It was about understanding the need in the education sector. If we educate our people, this will lead to economic empowerment on the continent. The small part we can play is about how technology can play a role in bringing that about.

My history is with non-profit organisations. There certain things that they don’t do well and we found that we needed other organisations to deliver certain things. In this way, I realised there was a gap in the market. Schoolnet is doing a great job in attracting attention to education and technology issues. It needs to make a reality of these dreams and to power its initiatives with a quality of service delivery.

In the not-for-profit sector, we had no ability to test technologies before we rolled them out. We needed things like licences and companies to take on things like the distribution of licences.

What’s your commitment in Nigeria?

We have an office in Abuja and it’s been in operation since the start of DireqLearn.

What do you actually deliver?

We do two main things:

1. We roll-out turnkey-type solutions. We help identify the schools. We prepare the rooms and provide the full infrastructure including PCs and VSAT connectivity. We offer the DireqLearn Open Lab which is based on a linux thin client solution.

2. The thin-client solution has found takers in other markets. It’s found its way into the cyber-café market and we’re grappling with how we might take it into other market. There are a number of cyber-cafes, particularly in Abuja who use it.

We also do a range of other things. We’ve done an I-Management time tool that also enables schools to operate as cyber-cafes ‘out-of-hours’. We now have 35 schools in Nigeria in seven states. It’s part of each of the plans that those schools have. Each has a cyber-café element in their plan.

We’ve also developed a call centre technology for our own purposes and Schoolnet Namibia has ordered it for their use.

We’re also working with Mindset (

www.activateonline.co.za

DireqLearn is the sole end user logistics provider. We provide both the equipment and the training to use it. We’re seeing a deployment of this into a large number of schools in South Africa and we’re taking it out into the rest of the continent and looking at other channels. It’s not just intended for use in a passive way: we don’t want them to simply leave the kids watching it. So we need to work with teachers and supply media training.

How was your Nigeria work funded?

The main funding came from the Education Tax Fund. Nigeria taxes a percentage of company profits and these go into the Fund. It’s focused on providing education infrastructure: school buildings, ICT infrastructure, etc

So what are you doing in South Africa?

Well, initially we focused on Nigeria but now we’re developing South Africa as its own business. It will become profitable by next month.

We’ve been selling DireqLearn Open Labs on a school by school basis into Mauritius, Zimbabwe and Namibia. The latters’s Schoolnet has taken the stance of supporting linux-based thin client solutions and we’re doing upgrades on 100 sites. This is very significant as firstly it’s a whole country going wholesale down this road and secondly, they had played with linux thin client but they needed a package that could deliver it.

Which countries are the most far forward with their use of ICT in schools?

There’s a grouping of countries that have rolled-out in a significant number of schools including: Nigeria, South Africa, Egypt and Namibia.

There’s then a second tier. Places where WorldLinks is working like Uganda, Ghana, Zimbabwe, Senegal, Mozambique and Botswana.

Then there are what we might call the ‘start-ups’: places like Kenya, Malawi, Zambia, Mali and Cote D’Ivoire.

NEPAD is working closely with Schoolnet to deliver its schools and ICT objectives and there is an initiative to get 1 million refurbished computers into African schools spearhed by Joris Komen of Schoolnet Namibia and Simbo Ntiro from Tanzania.