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News, 5/16/2017

Coding helps people escape poverty in Kibera

The Tunapanda Institute teaches ICT skills which are indispensable in today’s world. Mick Larson, the founder of the institute, wants as many Kenyan girls to discover the potential of information technology. Finland supports the institute through the Embassy of Finland in Nairobi.

It is difficult to say which is brighter: the glowing yellow sun or the blue light of computer screens. Nelly Beizu and Sheila Achiena grew up in the poor Kibera area in Nairobi, the capital of Kenya. They know the sun well, so they are more interested in the world behind the computer screen and all its possibilities.

“When I started, I knew nothing but I wanted to learn everything,” Beizu says.

Koodausta Kiberassa1
Nelly Beizu (left) and Sheila Achiena hope they learn ICT so well that they can work in graphic design. They want to show their families that women can work in the ICT sector as well as men. Photo: Juho Paavola.

Both Beizu and Achiena, who have only just turned 20 years, learn ICT skills at the Tunapanda Institute together with some twenty other young women. Tunapanda was founded by two American brothers, Mick and Jay Larson, in 2012.

“Young people have little opportunities to learn ICT, especially if their families are poor. Many schools teaching ICT are expensive, which is why we are trying to create a model that would be easy and cheap to replicate elsewhere,” Mick Larson says.

Two in three students find work

The Larson brothers established their first IT classrooms in the Kenyan countryside in 2013, and a year later they founded the learning centre in Kibera. Larson emphasises that digital literacy is a basic skill in today’s world. It opens up opportunities, while the lack of it closes them down.

“Everyone needs ICT, but it’s still dominated by men in many societies. It’s important to show girls that they, too, have a role in the ICT sector, just as boys,” Larson says.

In a backroom at the Tunapanda Institute the girls sit at their computer screens with headphones on. They are learning to code movie soundscapes in the Sonic Pi programming environment.

“I want to work as a web developer once I finish my training. I believe it’s possible to find work if you just keep on looking,” Mary Mwikali says.

It could indeed be possible. Larson says that some 200 people have graduated from Tunapanda, and 60–70 per cent of them have found work. Youth unemployment is about 35 per cent in Kenya.

“On average our graduates earn some 300 per cent more than they earned before they started with us,” Larson explains.

Mick Larson
Mick Larson founded the Tunapanda Institute together with his brother Jay because there is a great demand for high-quality ICT teaching in Kenya. “Even the young people who are lucky enough to learn ICT at school have to wrestle with hopelessly outdated curricula.” Photo: Juho Paavola.

Proceeds from selling services is replacing cooperation aid

Students attending the three-month basic training at the Tunapanda Institute get lunch every day and a small scholarship after each week in school. Larson says this is absolutely necessary.

“In poor areas the young people have to do something every day to meet their basic needs. We give the student lunch and scholarships because we want them to study full time.”

Tunapanda was established with the help of donations, and Finland for example has supported the institute through its Embassy in Nairobi. Larson wants to create a sustainable model that would enable Tunapanda to operate without external help. Last year already 93 per cent of the institute’s funding came from customers buying services.

“Most of our teachers are graduates from our own programme. Along with teaching, they also create websites and provide training and user-centred designing for companies who pay for the service. The parents believe when they see it happen.”

Mick Larson has one dream.

“I want to increase people’s freedom and self-expression through studies. My dream is that as many people as possible can benefit from our training programmes,” he says.

Sheila Achiena and Nelly Beizu have also a dream. They want to learn a profession, but they also want to show their families that a girl with a computer can be an impressive combination in today’s world. Achiena has it easier at home now that her parents have seen what she can do, but Beizu’s parents are still sceptical. They think they daughter would be better suited to a secretary’s work, for example.

“I want to show them the benefits of my training here. They don’t believe it when I tell them, but they will believe it when they see it,” Beizu says.

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Renice Owino (right) and Jacky Kimani teach young women in the Tunapanda Institute. “Information technology can give a voice to women. I think it’s amazing,” Kimani says. Photo: Juho Paavola.

CodeBus gave new ideas for studying

CodeBus Africa is a prominent part of Finland’s 100 centenary in Africa. As the CodeBus travels around Africa, current and former students of the Aalto University are teaching coding skills to young people in Africa.

When the CodeBus was in Nairobi in March, Mick Larson’s Tunapanda joined in on the effort. For two days the Aalto students together with Tunapanda’s people taught around 80 children and young people the basic coding skills.

“I think the CodeBus is a fantastic idea, and its teaching style makes learning fun. Many of the young participants got excited about coding and are interested in learning more in Tunapanda after their schooldays,” says Mick Larson, the founder of Tunapanda.

“We are currently investigating together with Finland’s Embassy in Nairobi how we could continue here with the same training and same teaching methods even in the future,” Larson says.

Juho Paavola

The writer is a journalist who visited Kenya.

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