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Siddig Hamza

E-learning offers a range of benefits to students and society as it is cheap and based on resources that are becoming more available on the African continent. Rather than solely relying on traditional education, Africa needs to leap forward and realize the potential of e-learning in creating innovators and curbing mass youth unemployment.

Several alternatives have been put across for Africa’s development agenda: industrialization, infrastructure, agriculture, universal primary education, universal secondary education, aid, trade and Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) among others. The debate continues, especially after the expiry of the MD Gs. The immediate context of this discussion is the UN Summit scheduled in September 2015 on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). I want to suggest a bold idea of promoting e-learning or distance learning at tertiary level based on the concept of ICT for innovation. By this I want to reduce the SDGs to one: quality and affordable education for job creation for all. We are living in an age of cyberspace where computer and mobile applications are spurring innovation in health, education, agriculture, commerce, banking and technological innovation. But for this ICT for innovation to succeed there is need for a paradigm shift in how tertiary education is conducted in Africa. The called for paradigm shift includes development of online or distance learning courses of high quality that are affordable, since there is less dependence on physical infrastructure, transport costs and hard copy learning materials.

The main argument I am making is that provision of affordable quality education that trains job creators rather than job seekers, other goals will be taken care of as well, like health care, employment, care for the environment, equality, governance, security, housing, food security and peace.


One of the most obvious manifestations of the much talked about process of globalization, that has brought about heightened interconnectedness across borders, is Information Communication Technology (ICT). Former president of the US, Bill Clinton, speaks of globalization in the following terms: “Our world is more interdependent than ever. Borders have become more like nets than walls, and while this means that wealth, ideas, information and talent can move freely around the globe, so can the negative forces shaping our shared fates.”[1] But the tragic reality of this globalized world is unequal access to ICT. For instance only 4% of households in Africa have internet access, with more than 50% having cell phones.

With the click of a button huge amounts of data can be transmitted across oceans. Mobile phones have revolutionalized business transactions with many people able to send and receive money by mobile phones- M-pesa in Kenya is the most dramatic example. Instead of spending valuable time looking for a person, all you need to do is give a call on a mobile phone, and you only meet people face to face when it is absolutely necessary. Then came the internet with google, facebook, twitter, etc. and millions of people are now connected via social media.

Everistus Ekuemeka describes virtual reality thus: “…cybernetics or cyberspace as the new world order within which the new generation play, study, and live.”[2] One can safely say that we now have a new “planet” called “cyberspace.”

Some call the age of Information Communication Technology the digital age. Analog has given way to digital. The world of Newtonian physics is long gone and we are trapped in cyberspace or virtual reality. Hollywood movie producers and Silicon Valley tech gurus are earning billions of dollars from entertainment based virtual reality.[3] Just to show how lucrative virtual reality is, Luckey (22) sold his company Oculus VR to Facebook in 2014 for $2.3 billion, and now employs more than 350 people in Silicon Valley, Seattle, Dallas, Austin, South Korea and Japan.[4]

Information is now a new source of power, both political and economic. A new political economy is on us. If we take cyberspace as a newly discovered planet, then the continents and countries that constitute this planet are: yahoo, google, facebook, twitter and Youtube. Many more will continue to emerge with increasing innovation in the tech industry. The concept of “soft power” that Joseph Nye coined is helpful in understanding the dynamics of the information age. None-state actors such as NGOs have rapidly increased thanks to the information revolution. By 1990s the number of formally registered NGOs had increased from 6,000 to roughly 26,000.[5]

With increasing ease and low cost of information flow, NGOs are able to do advocacy work or lobby for change of policies in business firms and governments. Some have huge budgets that rival that of state organizations. For instance, Greenpeace had a budget of $157 million in 2001, while the World Trade Organization had a budget of $90 million. Internet has helped NGOs to carry out networking and run projects at extremely low cost due to small staff. Borders of states can be penetrated easily through networks. States are more porous with information revolution. Online news outlets have grown to their tens of thousands across the globe.

For diaspora communities to influence elections and policies back home, they do not need to travel. All they need to do is to start online discussion groups and make a phone call back home. For countries that have repressive media policies, diaspora communities have found ways around the barriers, like radio, TV and online publications that provide a forum for exchange of views and ideas. Mary Kaldor who sees global civil society as an answer to war describes the role of global media with specific reference to the internet thus: “(…) the internet and email have become essential tools for organizing in the 1990s. Petitions are circulated through emails; networks are sustained through email lists; websites mobilize global demonstrations.”[6]

The teenager you see on the street of Nairobi or Kampala with earphones on, with a smart phone in the pocket, might be in close communication with an advocacy NGO as far as Paris, London or New York. Struggle for human rights, governance and social development have been made much easier by the cyberspace.

The proof that a new paradigm has overtaken an old one is when new consciousness or knowledge gets transformed into new technologies, products and services. So, has ICT and cyberspace brought new technologies, products and services? Of course. Across Africa mobile applications are on the rise spearheaded by young entrepreneurs. Automated Teller Machines (ATMs) are seen along streets in African capital cities. Customers do bank transactions on mobile phones. In Kenya tech innovation has been introduced in paying bus fair, an innovation by Equity Bank and Google, known as BebaPay. High tech innovation can also be used to create jobs for unemployed youth, like the Digital Jobs Africa by the Rockefeller Foundation that has pledged $100 million to Africa’s digital sector. There are digital jobs like data entry, service center support, online research and web design.

Innovation in Africa has also been taken to the health sector and philanthropy. Uganda and Kenyan youth are in a class of their own when it comes to innovative apps. Malaria is a major menace to people in Africa, so three Makerere University students came up with the mobile app Matibabu that can be used to diagnose malaria patients. Likeise two African students created a malaria repellent soap called Faso Soap, made from traditional herbs. Innovation is also utilized in the area of philanthropy like the case of protégé, an app by Jomo Kenyatta University students that supports giving donations to charitable organizations all over the world. From these innovations one can define innovation as a daring, and original idea operationalized to solve a concrete human problem.

So, where does Africa’s comparative and competitive advantage lie when it comes to ICT and innovation? Africa has a lot of unemployed but educated youth who have done university studies in telecommunications, ICT, entrepreneurship and Business Administration. Africa’s youthful population (between 15 and 25) is estimated to be 60% of the entire population and accounts for about 45% of the total labour force. Even though it is estimated that 12.6 million young Africans are absorbed into the labour force per annum, 60% of the unemployed are youth. There is general agreement that the future of Africa lies in its youth, even though government policies do not reflect this reality. Youth unemployment is estimated to be around 20%. Some of these youth maybe just did computer studies at their A-levels and headed to the university to do journalism, economics, law, or even medicine. On failing to get employment, they try out things. At times idleness is the mother of invention just like necessity.

Faced with high unemployment rates in Africa, and given the fact that “…the informal sector contributes a projected 55% of sub-Saharan Africa’s GDS and constitutes some 80% of the labour force…”[7] Buddy Buruku rightly suggests that youth be endowed with skills and training that “…must focus on alternative forms of income generation rather than just traditional formal employment.”[8] This means that education needs to stress entrepreneurship skills at all levels. For this strategy to succeed we need public-private partnership in ensuring that youth can access soft loans and seed money for venture capital. Mentorship schemes should also be part of the package to enable youth acquire knowledge and skills for job creation.

The high rate of mobile connectivity in Africa is due to lack of landlines. So, Africa’s former liability has been turned into an asset. Rural Africa is now connected by mobile phones. With Africa’s abundant sunshine, mobile phones can be powered using solar energy. It comes as no surprise that the most known brands in Africa are telecommunications: MTN, Sarafaricom, Airtel, Sonatel, Telkom, Econet Wireless, Celtel, Orange, and Onatel. Africans are known for their oral culture. As the saying goes: “Africans like to talk and talk until cows come home.” With little reading culture, most information is transmitted by word of mouth or mobile phone. This is why mobile companies are making a killing in Africa. On streets of Kampala and Nairobi, one sees all kinds of kiosks selling airtime and SIM cards. On the same streets you find valuable second hand books but these do not attract as much attention as airtime and SIM cards. The equation to show the relationship between ICT and development is as follows: Information + Communication +Technology = Development (I+C+T=D). With this equation Africa is able to leapfrog in its development. Africa does not need to go through the two stages of industrial revolution (19th and 20th Century) that the West went through. The third industrial revolution in which Africa is a strategic player, is based on the internet, and renewable energy.


Can Africa now make a transition to e-learning given the paradigm shift ushered in by ICT? Is this the time for distance learning in Africa? The means for e-leaning are abundantly available but there is still lack of political will and change in mindset. All major cities and towns in Africa have internet connectivity. Internet cafes are all over cities and towns competing with bars, restaurants and shops. Surfing is considerably cheap and there are a lot of open access websites and free online resources. To acquire knowledge that was traditionally reserved for formal schools one only has to pay a visit to the cybercafé.

Travel and rent expenses are now irrelevant as far as learning is concerned. E-learning is affordable, briefly stated. Just to give an illustration. A graduate with Bachelor of Commerce running a cybercafé with one computer can do the following: offer secretarial services, internet services, photocopying, binding, at the same time do online courses.

The major challenge for e-learning is power shortages and slow internet connectivity. Also the quality of online materials is still an issue. It requires a discerning mind to detect junk material online. Since e-learning is still new, standards are yet to be established on how to use online materials.

The other challenge is perception. To most people virtual learning is equated with poor quality learning. Lack of human interaction is another challenge. Being absorbed on the internet or on the phone tends to create a sense of isolation and individualism.

Digital divide is still an issue. Computer literacy is still a preserve of the few lucky ones in urban areas. The majority of rural folks, even though they have mobile phones, are still not equipped with computer literacy skills.

Even though e-learning is on the rise, teachers with skills for distance learning are still few. Apart from UNISA in South Africa, there are few high quality institutions offering distance learning courses in Africa. This is a work in progress. Traditional formal schools will first offer some resistance and stiff competition with distance education model. Sensitization will have to be carried out aggressively to educate the general public and policy makers on the benefits of e-learning.


A hybrid approach is necessary. Combining e-learning and conventional methods is the way to go. It is important to establish personal contact between student and teacher even if it is for a few times during the course of the program. Hybrid approach is also needed with regard to materials for instruction. Online resources would be supplemented by hard copies and books at some learning centers.

Since distance learning requires highly motivated students; it is important to make the admission criteria slightly more demanding and rigorous. Only those students who demonstrate strong commitment and are self-motivated should be admitted to e-learning programs. Regular email communication can also help to keep students focused on the learning process. This is also implies that those to pursue distance learning should be graduates from recognized and high quality higher institutions, as well as the faculty offering the courses.

In terms of methodology, e-learning also needs to be quite flexible and innovative. Memorizing does not seem appropriate for e-learning since after all the materials are available online. Better to stress skills of creative and critical thinking and find concrete solutions to problems. One strategy to use is to challenge students to come up with innovative projects that are uniquely theirs. In that case there is little room for plagiarism and reproducing works by other scholars. Also more creative course work and writing should be encouraged. Asking one’s opinions would be more helpful than asking true or false questions. Analyzing case studies is another methodology that would help students to think creatively instead of just trying to understand what others have said. The overall goal is to train students in innovative thinking rather than checking understanding and memorized answers. The steps in innovative pedagogy are as follows: 1. Understand the problem; 2. Critique what others have said about the problem; 3. Come up with one’s own creative and innovative solutions.

Equally important in e-learning is the role of highly qualified lecturers. The teachers must be fully convinced of the necessity and benefits of e-learning. These teachers should above all be mentors who can motivate young innovators to pursue their dreams and guide them appropriately. While the teachers deserve decent remuneration, they should be motivated by the need to be affluent from teaching. Those who desire to be very rich should join business not teaching.

E-learning requires liaison offices where students and lectures can meet from time to time. The ideal situation is whereby one open university or distance learning university can serve a region covering about five countries. It is preferable that a good number of lecturers of a distance learning university be accredited to credible universities where students can go to use library resources and meet with their respective lecturers.

Without being excessively bureaucratic an open university that offers distance learning should have some clear governance structures that include: Board of Trustees, University Council, Vice Chancellors, Deputy Vice Chancellors (2), Heads of Faculties, Registrar, Liaison Officers (for each country), and Administrative Secretary.

Since quality is given priority over quantity, care should be taken to admit fewer students that can be given good attention and mentoring. Each lecturer should not handle more than 20 students for Post-Graduate Diploma and Certificate students, and not more than 6 for MA/MSC students, and not more than 3 for doctoral students. The main challenge facing African universities is mass production of graduates that are half-baked. Universities have been turned into markets where knowledge and academic degrees are the main products for sell.


Courses should be designed in such a way that they stimulate innovative thinking among students. In their letter of intent, students are supposed to state clearly what they hope to achieve through the program they are applying for. Special attention should be paid to what specific problem or challenge will need a prospective address. And most importantly, a student should demonstrate ability or some insight into how the stated challenge will be addressed concretely by way of a proposed project. It is then the task of the lecturer to help the student address the issues identified. It is not the teacher to who should provide the solution but rather the student.

What is the role of academic materials in e-learning that is student-centered? Ideas from other people are to serve as catalysts or stimulus for creative thinking. And as Professor Calestous Juma has rightly argued, “Africa is saddled with higher education systems that were created in the early 1960s to train functionaries. Very few of the universities have curricula or use teaching methods that promote innovation.”[9] The new model of higher education institutions should ensure that teaching, research and entrepreneurship can be carried out in one and the same institutions. But also each student should demonstrate ability to learn, do research and deliver an innovative product on completing the course. Calestous Juma is once again right in suggesting that “It is time to move away from post-colonial university models that train people in fields that have no immediate relevance.”[10]

The often quoted saying that “Rather than give a fish, teach someone to fish” is still relevant as far as e-learning is concerned. Africa has been given fish for decades, it is time to teach Africa how to fish. In fact one can add that student-centered learning is about the student being taught how to learn to fish by one self. To say that you are going to teach someone how to fish is already to undermine innovative thinking. E-learning therefore is teaching a student how to teach himself or herself.

Nothing has been said about the courses to teach in this e-learning. It looks like a contradiction to say that you want to teach innovation or entrepreneurship. In fact most famous innovators dropped out of school! A look at most African villages will demonstrate how very successful entrepreneurs who supply food, brew local beer, rent land, rent houses, supply fire wood, charcoal and building materials, construct houses, make clay stoves, design clothes, manufacture iron tools and weave baskets, hardly went beyond primary 3! Uganda, the most enterprising country on planet earth (it was ranked no 1 in entrepreneurship), even had a president who had only completed primary three—Field Marshal Idi Amin Dada. The truth about innovation is that great entrepreneurs think outside the box and stick with an idea and bring it to its practical conclusion.

Uganda’s best entrepreneurial skills are seen on the streets of Kampala: roadside vendors selling all manner of merchandise (this makes Kampala rather chaotic and crowded); women selling cooked food (the famous Matoke or bananas) to offices in Kampala’s central business distric, a swam of boda bodas (Motorcycles) that help beat the nasty traffic jam; numerous forex bureaus; and finally street preachers who take advantage of heavy traffic jams to spread the word of God! More structured Ugandan innovators include educationalists who have set up innovative universities such as Victoria University, Kampala International University (dubbed Kenyans in Uganda because of the large percentage of Kenyan students who study there), East Africa International University, St. Augustine’s International University, St. Lawrence University, that are offering alternative programs to the old universities such as Makerere University.

The financial sector has had its share of innovators brining on board unique products and services. Those that stand out are the Catholic Church’s Centenary Bank (arguably the fastest growing private Bank in Uganda that has taken advantage of the catholic population of about 45% of the entire country). A joke has been made that most customers prefer the catholic bank because they believe that if you invest in it, God will bless you abundantly and you earn more! Self-fulfilling prophecy— when more customers flock to Centenary Bank, there is more money for loans! Centenary Bank has actually spread across the country with branches in almost every District of Uganda. It is rumored that Equity Bank, that has almost caught up with Centenary Bank in Uganda (Kenya-based) in geographical coverage and clientele, borrowed some innovative strategies from Centenary Bank. Innovation is contagious. With all these illustrations of innovation we can define innovation as imagination with productivity. The equation for innovation would then be: Imagination + Productivity = Innovation (I+P=I). Innovation is ability to find a simple solution for a complex problem.

The many innovators across Africa, if they were given an enabling environment, would have turned their ideas into lasting solutions for Africa’s persistent challenges of poverty, unemployment, shortage of food, and poor health facilities. Lack of pedagogy for innovation is Africa’s greatest obstacle to development. It is not lack of resources. The numerous innovators who have succeeded need to have their strategies studied and documented for wider use to help other upcoming innovators who need inspiration.

So what disciplines should be taught in distance learning? No reinventing the wheel. Traditional disciplines are still relevant but they need a different approach. In teaching hard sciences such as chemistry, physics, engineering, and biology, the intention is to help a student come up with practical solutions using standard scientific principles. For instance one doing chemistry should be able to manufacture medicines using natural remedies or soap using plants. Similarly, one doing engineering should be able to design simple bridges and houses using local materials.

Those doing humanities and social sciences like philosophy, politics, ethics, economics, and linguistics, should also apply their theoretical knowledge to come up with practical solutions such as: peace programs, leadership skills, language for tourism, policies for social development. Management sciences are quite obvious when it comes to application: designing and implementing projects, starting small businesses, training people in business skills. ICT is equally obvious when it comes to application: web design, creating tech applications, training people in basic computer skills, etc.


We live in a highly competitive world both locally and globally. So, any innovator has to be aware that there are competitors out there offering better options. Strategy is key. Innovators have to learn to revitalize their organizational culture and system. Strategy requires foresight—the future can be anticipated. One has to establish strategic intent and rally the team around this intent. One has to leverage resources since resources are limited. One has to develop core competences. Finally, one has to be imaginative and creative.

Learning techniques for analyzing industries and competitors is crucial. There are other numerous innovators out there, and one has to demonstrate that the innovative products he or she is offering are better than what others are offering. Then strategic marketing will follow.

Key to strategic thinking is forecasting or foresight. This is an elusive skill of looking into the future. Futures Thinking is now part of strategic management and many companies engage in scenario setting. Great innovators have the ability to anticipate future needs and trends. Let us take the example of Nokia of Finland that became the no. 1 mobile phone manufacturer before Samsung took over. To invest in mobile phone production Nokia must have anticipated that telecommunication was to be the main trend of the 21st century. Few people know that Nokia started off in 1865 as a logging company, until 1960 when the electronics division was founded. Samsung of South Korea another giant mobile phone company started off modestly by exporting fish, vegetables and fruit as way back as 1938. Then followed sugar refining and textiles, and went into electronics in 1983. What lessons can be drawn from these two global giants in electronics? First, that innovation starts from humble beginnings. Second, that innovation is about persistence. Three, that branding is key to innovation. There are millions of innovators in Africa who started humbly, but failed the second and third tests—persistence and branding. Do we know who made the first canoe in Africa? Do we know who coined the thousands of proverbs that many people quote in local languages? Do we know who discovered the herbal medicines that over 80% of rural folks rely on to cure most common ailments?

Fahamu and its affiliates have been offering support to civil society organizations and NGOs that address issues of social justice and human rights using ICT for some time. This is an example of how collaboration can make an impact in transforming society using limited resources. Fahamu’s model can be emulated across the continent. It is high time that Fahamu with its affiliates reinforced and consolidated its capacity building and training programs by engaging emerging tertiary education institutions that are using e-learning. The sky is the limit. But since we are in cyberspace not even the sky is the limit.


In today’s globalized world, ICT offers unique opportunities for innovation across Africa. But for this innovation to succeed there is need for e-learning or distance learning whereby upcoming innovators can be given space to think more creatively instead of the traditional post-colonial model of education. In this model of e-learning the goal is not to impact knowledge to be memorized, but rather it is to stimulate creativity that will in turn produce practical solutions. In this way, education will be to train job-creators and not job-seekers.

There are examples of innovation across Africa as exemplified by recent computer and mobile phone application in banking, and health. But these cases of innovation have yet to be incorporated in educational institutions. This is why it is time for distance learning universities to rise up to the occasion. To invest in distance or e-learning there is need for change in mindset and to engage both private and public sectors. Principles to guide e-learning include flexibility, collaboration and commitment to quality. E-learning is a concept whose time has come. As we start to examine ways to promote sustainable development, after the MDGs, let distance or e-learning be one of the sustainable goals.

* Odomaro Mubangizi (PhD) teaches philosophy and theology at the Institute of Philosophy and Theology in Addis, where he is also Dean of Philosophy Department. He is Editor of the Justice, Peace and Environment Bulletin.


[1] Bill Clinton, “The Case for Optimism: From Technology to equality, five ways the world is getting better all the time”, in Time October1, 2012, p. 26.
[2] Evaristus Ekuemeka, S.J. “Cybernetics and Emergent Personalities in the Wake of ICT in Africa” in Chiedza, Arrupe College Journal, May 2012, p. 47.
[3] For a detailed report on how virtual reality has taken hold in entertainment see, Joel Stain :Inside the Box” in Time August 17, 2015, pp. 34-41.
[4] Ibid. 34.
[5] Josephy S. Nye, Jr. , Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics (New York, 2004), p. 90.
[6] Mary Kaldor, Global Civil Society: An Answer to War (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2003), p. 106.
[7] Buddy Buruku “How to support youth entrepreneurship in Africa” in African Business, July 2015, p. 74.
[8] Ibid., 74.
[9] Calestous Juma, “Universities as Engines of Innovation” in New African, July 2015, p. 78.
[10] Ibid.



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