Notes from the field: Creating a mobile information literacy program in Kenya

In November 2016, TASCHA Research Analyst Chris Rothschild and I visited Kenya to explore working with EIFL and Kenya National Library Services (KNLS) to develop mobile information literacy curriculum and training for Kenya’s public library staff and patrons.

Our visit was a jam-packed week full of meetings with EIFL and KNLS staff, various individuals and organizations working with public libraries, information and communication technologies (ICTs), and digital and information skills training programs, and nearly a dozen public library visits where we spoke with library staff, patrons, and community members.

We had much to digest and learned a great amount about how we’ll move forward in creating relevant and useful mobile information literacy materials and training. Here are our main takeaways from the first trip.

  • Public libraries are heavily used and thriving in Kenya: The libraries in Kenya we visited were packed and humming with activity. We visited during the school holiday so, counter-intuitively to us, the libraries were full of children and students. Library staff said that this was normal during holiday breaks as students come to the library to read and prepare for exams. The libraries often serve as a sort of unofficial day care. Patrons of all ages were reading print books, using new eReaders courtesy of a partnership with WorldReader, taking advantage of the newish computers and internet (wifi too!), and seeking assistance from library staff. We saw this in almost every library we visited, regardless of size, region, and whether it was in an urban or rural setting.
  • There are many ICT-related initiatives happening in Kenya: Perhaps not a surprise given the thriving technology industry in Kenya, there are many investments being made in access to ICT and ICT skills training. The Communications Authority of Kenya has partnered with KNLS to provide free internet access and create eResource centers in Kenyan public libraries. Mozilla Clubs are popping up around the country, and the Mozilla Foundation has launched their Digital Skills Observatory project, which provides smartphone skills training and explores how first-time smartphone owners use their phones. Intel, Microsoft, Goethe-Institut, and WorldReader have all made investments in providing technology training through public libraries in Kenya.
  • Ownership of smartphones and use of mobile internet is…complicated: While recent statistics suggest that Kenya enjoys a 90% mobile penetration rate and a 44% smartphone penetration rate, actual smartphone ownership and use in Kenya seems much more nuanced. Many professionals in urban areas seem to have multiple smartphones and use them for different things. People will have two phones or dual-SIM phones –  using their first Safaricom SIM and number for voice and text, but adding Airtel SIM cards for activities requiring data, such as What’sApp and Facebook, as Airtel’s data packages are cheaper. One person having multiple SIM cards inflates the penetration rates estimated, as those are often based on SIM registrations. The increase in smartphone penetration rate is often attributed to the availability of cheaper, more affordable phones, but we found these devices often break or stop working 6 months in and they usually aren’t replaced. People may buy these cheaper devices and carry them around to take pictures, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they are using the internet on them.
  • Social learning with active participation is important for any training: We heard from many people that Kenyans are very social and value learning from each other. We also witnessed this first-hand during our library visits as we saw patrons helping other patrons at the computers, with eReaders, and even reading print materials together. This is important for us as we consider training delivery methods for our curriculum, as we want the materials and methods to be as beneficial as possible. When we undertook a similar project in Myanmar, we chose a very traditional classroom based approach to our training delivery, but we discovered that a more hands-on, active learning approach will be better received in Kenya.
  • Local content is needed and vital to success of any program: We heard over and over again from the stakeholders we met with, library staff, and others working on similar initiatives that any curriculum and training material should highlight content that is useful and relevant for the users. By using local content that is of interest and directly applicable to how people do and will use their mobile phones, interest and engagement in training programs will increase.
  • Any curriculum and training developed need to be flexible and adaptable for the diversity reflected in various regions and communities across Kenya: We visited libraries in several different communities in both Nairobi and the Great Rift Valley region of Kenya. During our library visits, we learned of innovative ways KNLS library staff are meeting community needs. For example, the library in Narok makes it easier for Maasai herdsmen to use the library by allowing their cows to graze in the library grass and the library in Gilgil created a dedicated health section and related programs to address the community interest in health and HIV education. What is apparent is that while there are similarities, there are great differences from community to community as well. Local industries and economies vary, as do socioeconomic attributes and levels of ICT awareness and skills. We learned that the curriculum materials we create must take this into account and allow for the library staff and trainers to adapt materials to make them relevant, interesting, and useful for their local communities.
  • WhatsApp, Facebook, and taking photos seem to dominate smartphone use while SMS, M-Pesa, and Twitter are popular on feature phones and smartphones alike: While Facebook was THE thing in Myanmar when we developed our curriculum there, other applications in addition to Facebook are widely used in Kenya, such as WhatsApp and to a lesser extent, Twitter. As with pretty much anywhere, people love taking and sharing photos with their smartphones as well. SMS and M-Pesa enjoy much use across both smartphone and feature phone users.
  • KNLS library staff are eager to take on new projects and engaged with the communities they serve: As noted above, public library staff in Kenya are very busy and already have many exciting programs they run. We found that despite this, they are eager and excited to participate in mobile information literacy training and provide it for their users and communities. It was also apparent that the staff genuinely know the communities they serve and care about meeting the local needs, even if they hadn’t been working at that library long. The feeling is mutual – it seems that many communities are invested in their local public library and value its presence.

Armed with our rich learnings from the trip, we are now busy working on developing and designing mobile information literacy curriculum for Kenya public libraries, with plans to test the  curriculum during a pilot training with about a dozen library staff later this spring. The final curriculum will be made available later this year. We look forward to sharing our progress as we go and welcome any feedback along the way.