In many countries, literacy, numeracy and digital literacy are basic rights, provided to every citizen. But what of a developing country like Kenya, where in some areas, highly heterogeneous groups of people need to be educated with little access to resources or infrastructure?

Meeting a crisis head-on

Enter Kakuma, a village near the northwestern border of Kenya. Situated in Kenya’s second-poorest region, Kakuma hosts both a settled community as well as thousands of refugees from neighbouring countries in the nearby UNHCR refugee camp. Most of the people of either community never had access to an education – or were forced by wars and famines to abandon their studies.

Partnering with Swisscontact, a renowned Swiss charity which has promoted economic, social and ecological development around the world for 58 years, it became clear to us that the people of Kakuma needed literacy, numeracy and digital literacy training in order to turn their fortunes around. Swisscontact knew this from experience, having already had major successes in 34 countries across the world with their large-scale development programmes.

Identifying the challenges

When we started developing a-ACADEMY into a literacy, numeracy and digital literacy teaching tool for Swisscontact’s Skills4Life project, we knew the setting and we knew the final goal. The real question was: How would we approach educating such an ethnically and linguistically heterogeneous group?

As Dr. Martina Amoth, Avallain Foundation’s Education Director for East Africa explains: “We designed a-ACADEMY Skills4Life aware of the nuances of adult literacy training. In order to develop a-ACADEMY Skills4Life we spent time with the end users both in the refugee and host communities. We aimed at understanding not just their needs but also their aspirations which, in spite of being a highly diverse group, are very similar. We wanted to create a digital product that would relate equally to both groups and enable the acquisition of skills that are crucial for development.” To this end, we identified four core elements which both the host and refugee communities had in common:

  • Neither community has a proficient level of English, the language of instruction and higher education in Kenya.
  • Both communities included learners with little or no literacy, numeracy or digital literacy skills.
  • The basic needs of both communities, such as providing nutrition and health for their families, were identical.
  • Both communities needed to use digital tools such as mobile phone digital payment software.

Creating a teaching strategy

We concluded that we needed to provide English-language literacy, numeracy and digital literacy education, relating to the very real needs of the people of Kakuma by using a strong storytelling approach. Visual multimedia elements representing common occurrences such as buying vegetables at the market would create relatable situations – the perfect backdrop for teaching both the English language as well as basic mathematics.

Both communities thus would acquire the skills required to potentially gain access to higher education. Anthony Murathi, Swisscontact Project Manager of the Skills4Life project in Kakuma has seen this approach succeed in many projects across the world: “a-ACADEMY Skills4Life and its literacy and numeracy apps are enabling members of both these communities to acquire skills that will allow them to take part in further learning and socio-economic functions in their day-to-day lives, such as vocational trainings.” He knows what is at stake: “Our goal is to provide skills that the beneficiaries need to improve their livelihoods either by taking on entrepreneurial initiatives, self-employing or obtaining a job.”

To reach this goal, we divided our digital lessons into four relatable areas of interest for learners to choose from. Many of our users, including Ayei Majok from Kakuma Camp 4 were thrilled with this decision: “The literacy and numeracy class has important areas which can help me support my family. I am very grateful.”

Food and nutrition

From learning the names of common crops to being able to understand complex cooking recipes and from counting individual pieces of fruit to multiplying weights – learning literacy and numeracy within the context of food and nutrition is immediately relatable for the people of Kakuma.

Health and hygiene

Everyday hygiene, disease treatment as well as child care are important topics, both in the homes of the native Kakuma inhabitants as well as the large refugee camp nearby. Our digital literacy app teaches them how to name and identify common diseases such as Malaria and HIV – as well as how they are treated and prevented.

Money and business

Both a guide to good communication skills in a shopping or business environment and a reference on monetary systems, financial services and digital currency, this area also teaches all the fundamentals needed to acquire and excel at a job, as Bahena Desire from Kakuma Camp 3 observes: “The lessons are very important to me as a person especially the topic of nutrition has helped me to run my business in the hotel and budgeting. More so I can use the little English to communicate to my customers.”

Internet and devices

Digital literacy is a core focus of a-ACADEMY Skills4Life. In the 21st century, success requires basic knowledge on how to use digital technology such as mobile phones or computers. a-ACADEMY is designed to teach digital literacy skills both with its storytelling elements as well as simply by giving learners an opportunity to interact with digital devices from laptops to tablets to mobile phones. Awal Myol from the Kalobeyei settlement is delighted: “I can now communicate in English and I am happy because I am not the same person who came on the first day.”

A learning experience on both sides

We have to admit, even with a highly competent partner such as Swisscontact, we were unsure whether our approach would work immediately. Would using English as a basis for digital teaching really be helpful? Would we be able to teach literacy as well as complex notions about disease prevention or digital technology to learners who were speaking entirely different languages in their daily lives?

Even our end users, like Awal, were sceptical at first: “When I started learning it was very challenging to work with the computers.” All of these doubts were dispelled, however, as the people of Kakuma quickly connected their own experiences with the digital multimedia elements of the learning materials we had provided. To increase the relevance of our digital materials to their lives, we had included over 5,000 audio elements as well as thousands of digital photos taken directly from their living environment and the results were apparent, as Jeane Kaneza from Kakuma town says: “The lessons are very friendly and the pictures help me to understand easily.”

This not only increased their interest in our blended learning materials, it also allowed them to mentally connect digital sounds and sights to the words and concepts we presented them with. As Miriam Ruiz, Executive Director of Avallain Foundation observes: “Creating a-ACADEMY Skills4Life has been an amazing and challenging experience. The literacy and numeracy apps had to work for users from very different and highly-challenging backgrounds and with different levels of literacy. After seeing the users have fun and learn with a-ACADEMY Skills4Life I am convinced that the skills they will acquire will empower them and unlock their potential.”

Literacy, numeracy and digital literacy achieved

In hindsight, we shouldn’t have been surprised. After all, many of them already knew from experience how to cut flatbread into exactly four pieces. All they needed to learn was that this real-life concept could be expressed in formal mathematical terms. As Noreen Chebet, Social Skills Coordinator at Swisscontact puts it: “With a-ACADEMY Skills4Life we can provide the beneficiaries with a digital tool that helps them to avoid being left behind in a rapidly digitizing world and acquire the needed skills to fulfill their aspirations of a better life.”

Or, in the words of Samira Mohamed from Kakuma Camp 1: “This learning is very helpful to me, my family and to my colleagues. There are so many things like greetings and counting which has made me confident at home.”


Miriam Ruiz