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Laptops project: Quick rethink needed after latest hurdle

By The Standard Editorial | September 26th 2014

NAIROBI, KENYA: A ruling by High Court Judges on Wednesday this week put to an end a procurement process that was faulty right from its inception.

The primary school laptops project has been mired in controversy, with bidders instituting court cases against each other, demanding the right to be the suppliers of the gadgets even when certain pre-set conditions appeared not to have been met.

In what might be a blessing in disguise to the Jubilee government, which appears to be having financial constraints, a new bidding process will take upwards of six months to complete.

But it comes as a great disappointment to Standard One pupils who will be in the second year of primary schooling, assuming the project is eventually actualised in the coming year.

The promise of laptops to all 2014 Standard One primary school pupils helped popularise the Jubilee campaign in the run-up to the March 2013 General Election.

Even when the project appeared to be doomed, the President and his deputy publicly maintained that it was on course and that they had every intention to make it a reality.

At the moment, the least they can do is to expedite the process while remaining within the rules that govern procurement.

Despite the strict guidelines that the Constitution lays down on the modalities of procurement in Government, little has been done to streamline the process, to help keep it above board.

Because it is an opaque process, corruption still reigns therefore making the less competitive bids win and where prices are often inflated.

The price that Olive Technologies quoted for the supply of the laptops was Sh23.1 billion, a figure that was later raised to Sh24.5 billion.

Consequently, upon the High Court's ruling, the Kenya National Union of Teachers has called on the Government to instead use the money set aside for the laptops to hire more teachers.

Knut contends there is a shortfall of 80,000 teachers in the country.

The shortage of teachers has been a constant source of friction between the Government and teachers' unions.

In reality, the shortage and unfair staffing practices have compromised the quality of education in our schools.

By the end of this month, the vexing problem of salaries will still be haunting the Government and teachers have vowed to down their tools by then if their demands are not fully met.

With that in mind and the court's ruling, it will be interesting to see how Government will address both issues.  It might be necessary for the Government to seriously consider hiring more teachers to raise the quality of education while obviating the perennial teacher's recourse to industrial action.

Now that the laptop project faces a lot of challenges, it might also be necessary, as a stop-gap measure, for the Government to consider setting up computer labs in all schools across the country.

This, apart from being cost-effective, will serve a larger group as opposed to the laptops which only target Standard One pupils.

But this is not to say the laptop project should be discarded altogether.

Far from the fact that it was a key campaign promise on which the Jubilee team will be judged, it throws up a host of possibilities such as connecting thousands of schools to the National Grid, not to mention acquainting the young ones with the kind of technology needed in the 21st century.

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