6 December 2012

Africa: A Desk for Every Child

"Given the infrastructure shortages that many African countries are facing, there isn't enough classroom space available to provide a traditional school desk for every pupil."

The Millennium Development Goals have focused everyone's attention on primary school enrolment rates. Although they are faced with the additional challenge of high rates of population growth, sub Saharan African countries have made substantial progress, increasing enrolment rates from 58-76 percent between 1999 and 2010. However, as the Brookings/This Is Africa Learning Barometer shows, 50 percent of primary school aged children in Sub Saharan Africa today will grow up to be illiterate adults. Attendance rates aren't enough; we must focus on the quality of education that children are receiving.

As primary enrollment rates have risen, infrastructure development hasn't been able to keep up. One school in Mozambique that we have worked with has 4,500 students enrolled and only 10 classrooms. The students are taught in 3 platoons of 1,500 each and still, with only 10 classrooms, the option is either overcrowded classrooms, or sitting under a tree outside. This means that these children don't have the benefit of a classroom desk. Looking across sub Saharan Africa, over 40 percent of children who go to school every day don't have the benefit of a classroom desk. This is equivalent to over 95 million children.

In order to write there must be pressure between the pen and the paper, but without a solid surface to lean on, this is difficult to achieve. When a child has to bend forwards to write on the ground, or perhaps balance an unstable book on their lap, their handwriting, both in terms of legibility and speed is severely affected. The challenge is that, given the infrastructure shortages that many African countries are facing, there isn't enough classroom space available to provide a traditional school desk for every pupil. Instead, an alternative solution needs to be considered.

Tutudesk is a very simple solution, a portable writing surface. You simply place the Tutudesk on your lap, whether you are sitting on the floor or a chair. The desks have an immediate and lasting impact, with the added benefit that the child can carry it home at the end of the day to complete their homework.

Recent independent research showed a wide range of impacts, including improvements in handwriting, both in terms of legibility and speed, concentration in class, motivation and homework delivery. This ultimately leads to improvements in their literacy skills and overall academic performance.

Governments have recognised the potential for Tutudesk to have large-scale impact, particularly given its scope for rapid mass production and deployment.

Beyond its primary purpose as a crucial piece of educational infrastructure, the Tutudesk is also a communications platform. We offer companies the opportunity to sponsor the desks and by printing their logo and educational messaging on the surface they have a unique way to engage with the local community. For example, 10,000 Tutudesks would be seen nearly 25m times over the course of one year. Previously, Old Mutual have sponsored desks to coincide with the launch of a new range of products, Maq washing powder distributed them into a particularly competitive market and Goldfields provided them to the schools that their employees' children attend.

To date over one million desks have been distributed. Our vision is to see 100 percent literacy in sub-Saharan Africa. The Tutudesk Campaign is the first step and our goal is to provide 20m more Tutudesks to 20m children by the end of 2015.

Rebecca Sweetman is CEO, Tutudesk UK.

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