DMZ startup combats Ebola crisis with tablet donations

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A Ryerson start-up is sending tablets overseas to aid schools in Ebola-stricken countries, where education has taken a backseat to fighting illness. (Courtesy Rumie)

Sending a digital tablet to a country devastated by Ebola might seem like an unusual — and unnecessary — venture.

But the rippling effects of Ebola extend beyond health when services like schools have been closed since July.The closure has affected more than 1.5 million children in Liberia alone, according to a UNICEF report in September.

“You have a country where kids have been out of school for almost half a year,” said Tariq Fancy, founder of the Toronto based non-profit organization Rumie.

Rumie is a Digital Media Zone (DMZ) startup and is launching a program called Education Over Ebola.

Tablets will be sent to Liberia and five other countries. They will be loaded with thousands of educational materials for children who no longer have access to schools.

“There is no question that Ebola needs to be contained but that does not mean that people shouldn’t be carrying on normal lives,” said Fancy.

Fancy, whose family is from Kenya, had spent a career in finance as a technology investment banker.

He knew it would be difficult to get a radical new form of education in countries with very little resources. But he had some experience.

His first success was with cellphones in 2004 when he made the argument in front of an investment committee in New York that farmers in Ghana would use mobile phones.

Fancy then led investments to bring the technology into emerging markets.

“To go to your investment committee and say people in Ghana are going to adopt technology that we just adopted four years ago sounded crazy,” Fancy explained. “They didn’t even have landlines yet.”

The knowledge that people in Ghana and most of Africa did adopt the use of cellphones sparked an idea for another new hot tech tool: the tablet.

“That was what inspired me. I found that we could produce something with cutting edge economics that would have a library for the cost of a book. And every day, the content for this is exploding,” Fancy said.

Fancy learned the tablet could load more than 13,000 books and educational materials for free and that this technology could revolutionize education. All he had to wait for, as had been the case with the cellphones, was for the price to drop.

“You have people who spend such a high percentage of their disposable income on the basics of life that there is not that much room. They want to get something like this and it’s a question of affordability,” said Fancy.

With the cell phone, Fancy watched as the market price dropped down from $100 to $50 before they exploded in emerging markets. According to Fancy, $50 is the magic price point.

Fancy knew he had to work with those who knew Liberia best to get the tablets into the hands of children.

“Sometimes people, especially when they are enamoured with technology, think it can solve all problems everywhere,” said Fancy.

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Children in Liberia enduring an Ebola epidemic pose with tablets, as efforts to combat the illness have transcended schooling in recent months. (Courtesy Rumie)

“I think it can take us a lot of the way, but to make it sustainable and culturally respectful, you need local partners.”

Rumie initially provided tablets in Liberia for a child soldier recovery program. When this program was cancelled – and all schools closed due to the epidemic – the program leader B. Abel Learwellie decided to use the tablets to teach kids that were unable to go to school.

Learweille, an ex-child soldier, was personally affected by the school closure due to Ebola. He watched his mother die as her medical needs were set aside with trying to control the outbreak of Ebola.

“The Ebola virus has not only taken a toll on our population, but it has disrupted our freedom,” he wrote to Fancy. “It has committed an education suicide to our already weak educational system struggling to resurrect after 14 years of civil unrest.”

Building schools is the traditional model for non-profit groups working on the education system in Liberia.

Textbooks, teachers and volunteer programs were the typical development model initiatives and cost a lot more than a $50 tablet.

With a tablet, there is no Wi-Fi necessary, no textbooks, no library, no building of schools that remain teacherless and no long hours spent in transit.

“The premise is that they are probably not going to replicate libraries but they can go to something cheaper, better and faster,” said Fancy.

“Our central mission is not technology for the sake of it. It’s that it allows us to lower the economic barriers to an affordable education.”

An important aspect of the tablet that those traditional models can’t provide is that they can monitor the tablet using analytics to see trends in the use of education from any distance.

Fancy and his team are sending the tablets packed with education materials for math, science, and English courses, along with games to encourage children to learn.

Ten tablets were sent to Liberia before the border was closed, but the team plans to send more to the country when the border opens up.

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