Kago Kagichiri, the college dropout who ‘invented’ a virtual library

What can a college dropout do? Well, a lot if we go by the examples set by Bill Gates of Microsoft, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Steve Jobs of Apple – all world innovation A-listers.

And at 27-years of age, Kago Kagichiri is blazing a trail in his own way through an SMS-based innovation that puts a library in the palm of your hand.

27-year-old Kago Kagichiri is the brains behind the virtual library dubbed Shupavu 291. (PHOTO: GARDY CHACHA/STANDARD)
It all began in 2009 when Kago, then a Third Year student pursuing a bachelor’s degree in IT, decided to take a sabbatical from his studies and concentrate on “a more promising project”.

“I had been talking to my friend Toni Maraviglia who at the time was teaching at Wiser Bridge in Muhuru Bay, Kenya.

She told me the students had no library where they could conduct their research and all she had was a pack of revision cards,” Kago says.

While the pack of study cards was a noble idea, it did not solve the problem in its entirety because it could only serve one student at a time. This is where Kago’s expertise came in handy.

“She is the teacher who hated technology and I am the techie who hated teaching but together we would end up with this brilliant idea. A solution that knows not where a pupil comes from or the kind of school they attend,” Kago says with a smile.

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Kago began learning about software development at the age of seven. His father had just opened a cyber café and every time he went there, he would sit at a keyboard and bang away at codes.

After high school, Kago joined Jomo Kenyatta University of Science and Technology but felt trapped by a system that seemed to hold him back “from acquiring more knowledge.”

He was in his first year but already had the science of text messages and USSD codes all figured out.

It is this knowledge that led him to distill in the finest detail, how to recreate Toni’s revision cards.

“We created an SMS-based automated system through which students in primary and secondary schools can revise for any subject.

We called it Eneza Education and it worked really well in the trial stages,” Kago recalls.

The mobile-based application allows students to register and take quizzes and compete with other students from other schools.

It allows students to select a subject or topic to revise and then sends quizzes in by text. The students answer and the system sends the next question plus an explanation.

With this initial success, Kago decided to take his innovation a step further and sought to partner with telecommunications giant Safaricom.

“Kago and his colleague approached us in 2012. We studied their idea and determined that it was worth investing in,” Edward Kiiru, a senior officer in the social innovations department at Safaricom admits. “It was the first of its kind.”

The selling point, Edward says, was the fact that people in rural places had very limited access to a library.

“A man in Turkana may not have a library close to him but chances are that he may have a phone.

What Eneza Education did is put a full library on his phone so that his son or daughter can receive the kind of knowledge that a student in Nairobi has physical access to.”

Safaricom renamed the product Shupavu 291 and made it such that for as little as Sh10 every week, a student can access the library and explore all its resources.

Apart from education material, Shupavu also offers advice on life’s issues, which are tackled by professionals who factor in a person’s age.

Since its official launch in March 2014, Shupavu has accumulated over 370,000 active users and today, Kago sits on the fourth floor of an office along Ngong Road.

He is the chief technology officer for the parent Eneza Education company. Someday he might go back to school, but only if he will feels that there is something new to discover.

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