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Here in Sudan, I had an idea

I was gleefully celebrating my 31st birthday in the early hours and then BOOM! It hit me. Funnily enough, It was just after I’d belted out a passionate rendition of Enrique Englassius’s Hero. Was it a sign or merely a coincidence? I’m not afraid to admit it. Never mind. I’ve had ideas before and let them pass. This time was different. This idea had struck me with such tremendous force; immediately I had to go acquire a pen and paper to get it written it down. Never mind secluding myself from my birthday shindig. This idea had to get out of my head and put onto something tangible.

Birthdays always make me retrospective. At about 2 and a half hours into my 31st year I had this deep seated realization. What the actual fuck have I done with my life? Have I had an impact? Am I leaving a legacy or I am just selfishly soaking up all my Earth time to myself without sharing my gifts to the world?

Let’s add some background to the story. I’d been in the capital of Sudan, Khartoum, for 3 days. I’d arranged myself a volunteering spot teaching English. This would be the FIRST time I’d actually really ever volunteered for anything significant. How shameful right? I knew I’d be teaching for 3 weeks and I knew I’d be starting on Monday. Early Saturday morning was when the idea had hit me. I’d have about 50 hours to execute and get the idea validated before my first class started. I had to apply my talent and leverage my strengths. (Another birthday derived retrospection – dem feels that I’ve been wasting my potential and not performing to my fullest).

4am Saturday morning and the party was over, politely as you do. Now it was time to get to get manic and flow. Be sleep deprived and operate at full throttle thoughts and heavy cognition, hooning through my head. Get to work and test that idea. Make it better. Tweak it. Rename it. Give it another #hashtag. If you’re not familiar with my project as yet, the idea is simply this –

Have students make an app to teach themselves English


Because it’s near on impossible to learn anything when you’re in a class of 60 – the typical standard in the developing world and what I would be facing come Monday. 60 teenage boys from Sudan (although many were from South Sudan because you know, fleeing from civil war and such). How much could 60 teenage boys really learn from yours truly, sat in a cramped classroom with just an old blackboard and a stick of chalk? There had to be a better way. I had to gift them with a better way…

60 freaking kids in a classroom is not uncommon in the developing world. It’s pretty standard.  I’d also experienced classes this in Thailand as a green teacher and I’ve heard similar experiences from other English teachers from around the world. How can you even learn anything like this? It’s near on impossible to get a class of 60 just to be silent and pay attention.

There must be a better way. We can do better

Fast forward to the present and so far I’ve found 3 students in one of my Khartoum classes that can’t even read. They’re 16+ years old. This system of schooling has failed them. No doubt there are countless others who’ve slipped through the cracks. A hopeless product of a failed education system. It can’t be like this. I need to change the system. We need to do better. We CAN do better.

That coming Monday, I ran the idea by the school and TOLD them what I would be doing (don’t even bother to seek permission, just go ahead and do whatever it is you want to do). “Oh great you have initiative” followed by that standard African handshake was the response I got. All systems are go, the school was cool with it. It’s getting done. We’re building an app with student development.

So I get home Monday afternoon and hit the launch campaign button. (I’d pre-prepared over the weekend for this campaign, had to meet the school first for you know formalities et cetera ). History began exactly on October 13, 5:13 pm. Check the Chuffed page if you don’t believe me, http://www.chuffed.org/project/99tablets

Get the idea validated. Then you can execute

Getting students to develop an app was only half the idea. How are they going to download and learn from an app that they helped create without a device? I can solve this problem. I decided to test the goodwill I have with my peers. I hit up the Facebook and annoyed 1200+ friends telling them about this project. I got a few early believers (super thanks) and this really got me motivated. I had my first 3 ‘customers’ within an hour hence the idea was ‘sold’. VALIDATION.

The first 2 days after launch we raised $1k. Wow! Momentum. I’d set a goal to raise $9900 (99 Tablets x $100 = www.99tablets.org). In 2 days we were on target to hit it. Giggity. Alas, however, a week later, momentum has unflatteringly tailed off. But that’s okay. It was never really about getting tablet computers. That is just a side bonus to this project. The main idea is getting the student developed English learning app mainstream in the developing world.

Hitting the mainstream

And it seems the idea has hit the mainstream, a little bit. Enough to keep me still excited… I heart metrics, we can use them to measure a tangible level of success. To me, success for this project is getting the idea out. Getting publicity, likes, shares and tweets and such (tangible metrics). To get it out there you need to hustle and play the media game (I do have a degree in PR after all…). So I slapped a dirty press release together (http://99tablets.org/media.html). IT News Africa picked it up. Hooray. It was their cover story for a day. Double hooray. Never mind they copied what I’d written verbatim (most internet news is anyway!) It still made it past their editorial team and the story has been shared by a few other African media in Kenya, Nigeria to name a few. Still waiting for Mashable to pick up the story though. That would be my dream…

I can haz social media strategy?

The social media success story? I hammered Twitter really hard. 300 odd tweets in one weekend. Not sure if that strategy was worthwhile but last time I checked, the website had been shared 200+ times. Great. That means it has gone viral. Yeah but so what? Viral hasn’t converted into donations. I wouldn’t call that a super successful strategy. Lack of conversions could have something to do with web design and layout. Every day I am optimizing the site, using analytics from SumoMe and Google Analytics to guide my thought process. Here in Sudan Google Analytics is actually blocked. Have to get access to it via VPN or proxy. WTF right? Why would you block that?

Sanctions don’t work. Work arounds. People are smarter then Governments

Because sanctions there are other things blocked in Sudan that will affect this project.

– Master Card

– Visa

– PayPal

– Google Play

None of these things are going to stop the project; we’ll just have to deploy some clever little work-arounds. We’ll cross the financial transactions bridge when we get there. I’m thinking with the donated funds, we’ll probably send the money via PayPal direct to the tablet supplier in China. In regards to Google Play being blocked and the retarded ability to download apps, there’s an app for that. Third party app stores we can use. Here in Sudan, 1 Mobile Market is the most popular. No problem. No worries!

Back to analytics and design… I found about half the traffic to the 99 Tablets page was coming from mobile. The mobile site was ugly. I fixed it. Looked better but still no conversions. Keep trying… At this stage I am still not sure if my strategy should be focusing solely on getting traffic to the http://www.chuffed.org/project/99tablets page or the 99 Tablets web page? Maybe I need to work on optimizing the donation page? I have a goal in mind for the http://99tablets.org/ site to get a thousand hits of traffics because then I can use free advertising credit with Perfect Audience to run a retargeting campaign.

Long term app solutions to fix education for the broken

But, like I said before, I am not too worried about getting money to supply tablets to students. Having access to the internet will change their lives as students no doubt but I am more concerned with the process of creating a useful app that has been co-developed by students.  We’ll make an app that is going to help them and their peers improve their English ability. I am also more concerned, in the longer term, with developing an app teaching program that can be replicated in other schools across the developing world. Education eradicates poverty.

For example, those 3 students in my class who can’t read. What kind of future are they going to have? I asked one of them what we wanted to be when he grows up. He said he wanted to be a donkey rider. An ass on an ass. What a shitty future. We should be doing better for students like him. If we can lift the education standard of the lower performing students then we will do HUGE things for their future and maybe prevent them from being donkey riders.

Apps to help with trouble makers

This week we began the app making process with a group of students from one of my classes. I recognize some of their faces (how many faces or names can you remember in a class of 60 in 1 week???). Two of the students involved in this project I had identified as trouble makers from my class. I bet you’re familiar with them. They’re the ones that sit at the back of the classroom and screw around, interrupting the lesson for everybody. They have shown great interested in this project and it is those 2 that I am confident will benefit mostly from this project. They’re the kind of students I want learning how to develop an app. You target the ring leaders, you control the whole group.

It’s not about the money, it’s about the fame.

In the week and a bit since launching this idea, I’ve had an interesting response. People from Liberia to Zimbabwe have expressed their intentions to partner in this initiative later on in the future. I think it would be a great fit. The beauty with apps (especially Android) is that they can easily be customized for different purposes. I envision that this pilot app in Sudan can be replicated in other markets and adapted to local conditions. It can be tailored to suit individual schools. It can even be fashioned and branded to an individual teacher. Heck, we could even run a different language learning program instead of English. There is great potential because it can be delivered low cost.

Africa is a mobile only market

The online language learning market hasn’t taken off in Africa. You won’t see masses of students sitting in front of a computer to learn a language. Reason: there is a distinct lack of computers on the continent. Africa will skip the desktop computer age entirely. It will always be a predominately mobile market. And that’s a good thing. Mobile is better. More intimate. More personable. That is why this language learning app is such a great fit for the African market. You won’t have to sit in a class of 60 students and struggle to learn. Your teacher will be in your pocket inside your smartphone or tablet.

And then the education revolution begins

So the app pilot program from that classroom in Khartoum should be finishing up by the end of October sometime. Judging by our success, then maybe we’ll have our education revolution across the entire African continent. Wish us luck!

2 Responses to Here in Sudan, I had an idea

  1. Well .. first congrats on such idea and i really like your goal , its about time we change the education process. anyhow am a Sudanese software Eng- in sudan now and am willing to voluntarily work or provide any type of help you need in developing such an app . i hope your project see the light , drop me an email for further discussions.

    • Thanks Hassan!

      The app is already live and available to download from 1Mobile Market http://www.1mobile.tw/sudaship-2143401.html

      The students also have a wordpress website to learn about that goes with the project http://www.sudaship.com/

      They are still working on adding content to the app but the basic functions are there. It’s a work in progress…

      The other half of the 99 Tablets project is in transit. 25 tablet computers left Shenzhen, China today and will arrive in 8 days.

      Administrating the use of tablets is the next fun part of the project!

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