US firm hopes to standardize pupil-book ration amid reports that reading materials are costly in Kenya due to piracy and procurement flaws.
Pupils yell inside a classroom in Kathwana, Tharaka-Nithi County, as they tackle a mid-morning maths assignment.
They aren’t fighting but scrambling over a shared text book. Stocks in the school library aren’t enough for a classroom set, and the commotion during lessons is almost normal.
Scarcity of books and other reading material remains a key concern for learning institutions in Kenya, despite systemic reforms over the years.
Since the introduction of free primary education in 2002 and free day secondary education in 2008, books supplied have been a mere fraction of what is required.
Last year, Education CS Fred Matiang’i admitted books weren’t available in schools yet the government had spent more than Sh10 billion on reading materials in three years.
According to the World Bank, while textbooks are not the only factor influencing learning outcomes, their unavailability deprives learners of a resource and opportunity to develop good reading habits.
“Lack of textbooks also deprives teachers of much-needed teaching support. The scale of the problem is worsened because of rapid student population growth. The supply of textbooks is simply unable to keep up with demand, and costs can be prohibitive for low-income families,” the bank says in a 2016 report.
And according to a recent global education monitoring report by Unesco, Kenya, Malawi and Namibia have had a sharp enrollment growth, but availability of books hasn’t quite kept pace.
In most rural areas, the Unesco report shows, less than 5 per cent of students have access to the right books even in core subjects such as mathematics, sciences and languages. Some books in use are old and only held together with adhesive tapes.
In what appeared to irk the Kenya Book Sellers Association, Matiang’I last year hinted at a possible change of government policy on the purchase of school books to address corruption claims and wastage, saying: “My visits to schools show 12 pupils share a text book in some institutions. In others, it is five while some schools have achieved the 1:1 ratio.”
It isn’t just learners who are affected but teachers too and so are the parents and donors.
In the US, however, a non-profit organisation is scaling up efforts to address this crisis by mobilising individuals and groups to donate books to schools, colleges and universities. Books For Africa (BFA) ships donated text and library books to Kenya and 48 other countries.
With a mission to end the ‘book famine’ in Africa, it has supplied more than 39 million books, offering a major relief to Kenya where reading materials cost at least 2.5 times more than other countries due to piracy and procurement flaws.
Kenyan Ambassador to the US Robinson Githae, who recently presided over a roundtable with officials of Books For Africa in Minneapolis, US, said since the launch of the project, Kenya has been among the top beneficiaries.
"When I was in school, I was sharing one textbook with 10 other students. One person wants to study chapter one, another chapter five, and another chapter ten. It was a nightmare. When I meet with people with a vision to make a difference, truly I am grateful," said Githae.
This year, 227,000 books were delivered to Kenyan institutions free of charge from Books For Africa. In previous years, Kenya received 2,186,000 books.
The recipients included Mukuru Primary, Sachangwan Seconday School, St Charles Lwanga, Kisii, Maua Girls’, Karatina University, Kisii University, Muranga University, St Paul’s University, Jaramogi Oginga Odinga University, Presbyterian University of East Africa among others.
“We urge Kenyans both at home and in the diaspora to partner with Books For Africa to help address the biting book shortage at home. Anyone should contribute in their own ways to make a difference. Kenyans out here should even adopt their village schools back home,” Githae told Saturday Standard.
On top of books, the organisation donated 154 computers and 64 e-readers containing 467,000 digital books, as well as 10 new law and human rights libraries. It works with 13,000 volunteers and has raised more than $2.5 million to ship books in the remainder of this year.
“Books are at the foundation of a strong educational system. For many children in Africa, the gift of books is a gift of hope,” says Books For Africa director Patrick Plonski.
Plonski says they supply sea containers of books to school libraries, orphanages, adult literacy programmes, and community resource centers. They receive requests for supplies from institutions and then scout for book donors. Some donors as well as users themselves meet the shipping costs.
“We want to establish community education centers. It is my belief that your organisation aims at transforming education in Africa through book donation. It is with this optimism that I submit this letter of inquiry for assistance,” says one request from Sierra Leone to Books For Africa.
Mr Tom Gitaa, a Kenyan in the US who has served in the board of Books For Africa, said the idea was instrumental in supplementing efforts of parents and the government to stock school libraries.
“We urge our diaspora colleagues to support these kinds of initiatives,” Gitaa, who is the publisher of ‘Mshale’, an African newspaper in the US, told Saturday Standard.
“We collect, sort, ship, and distribute books to African students of all ages. With your help, we will help create a culture of literacy,” the group, founded by Mr Tom Warth in 1988 with book warehouses in Minnesota and Atlanta, says in a note to donors. Shipping a single container to Kenya costs $12,000.
South African envoy Mninwa Mahlangu said: “No government has all the necessary resources to effectively address the educational challenge – and this is where the impact of Books For Africa is so significant”.
Other top beneficiaries are Cameroon, Burkina Faso, Gambia, Chad, DRC, Ethiopia, Gabon, Lesotho, Liberia, Nigeria, South Sudan among other.