Back in March, when people all over the world were stocking up on toilet paper to brace for Covid-19 lockdowns, George Cowell was stacking rolls of it against the walls of a spare office. Just a few days after Liberia issued its own lockdown to contain the virus, Cowell, the international director of Rising Academy Network, an education company that provides curriculum and teacher coaching in West Africa, knew his team needed to respond quickly.

Up until that point, nobody on the team of five people had been more than casual radio listeners. Rising decided to produce its own educational clips and team up with the Liberian Ministry of Education to ensure students could continue their education, despite the pandemic. So they built a makeshift recording studio. The rolls of toilet paper absorbed the echo of their voices.

Aaron Ballah and Krubo Solomon, two “performance managers,” who typically help schools in the network improve their curriculum, recorded 26-minute-long lessons that covered numeracy, literacy, and phonics (the sounding out of letters).  

“We were told to go into the studio and start to do some recording,” Solomon, a school performance manager, said of the assignment she was given with her colleague Ballah. “I hadn’t done that before,” she added, “but it was exciting.” 

In the early weeks of the pandemic, a U.S.-based development firm was part of a conversation involving Rising and the Ministry of Education in Ghana, to discuss what could be done. Cowell recalled the company saying that, if they were lucky, they’d be able to produce learning materials within five months. “And we were like, I hate to tell you this, but we were producing content in five days,” he said. 

The impact of a student’s socioeconomic status on their access to education during the pandemic is playing out globally, exposing just how closely tied internet access is to educational opportunity. In Sub-Saharan Africa, over 85% of households lack access to the internet at home and 89% of students do not have access to a computer outside of school. On the African continent, expensive and unreliable internet reaches only 40% of the population. When schools across the continent closed, families’ abilities to afford data for internet access became a strong determinant of a child’s academic prospects. 

Many governments, companies, and NGOs think that throwing millions of dollars behind providing tablets is the best way to improve the quality of education, but this impulse overlooks infrastructural issues like access to the internet, teacher training, and the cost of upkeep that students need to use the tablets in the first place. 

“Even if we did have a device for every student, they would have nowhere to charge them,” Reshma Patel, the executive director of Impact Network, a nonprofit that provides education for over 6,000 kids in rural Zambia through community schools, told Rest of World. Impact-run schools adapted Rising’s radio lessons, since a majority of their students live in homes without electricity. Faced with the shutdown of the 43 schools she supervises, Patel relied on the “forgotten stepchild of tech interventions” to reach students: radio. 

On the continent, radio has long been a window to the external world. Shoeshoe Qhu works as the station manager at Voice of Wits 88.1 FM, a university radio station in Johannesburg, South Africa. She grew up in a mountainous village of 100 homesteads without electricity or running water. While there wasn’t television, there was radio. As long as her family had access to batteries and a receiver, it was free. 

“If you wanted to hear what was happening everywhere else, you could only get it through the radio,” Qhu said. “I grew up with radio, and it gave me access to the world,” she added. “It meant everything.” 

In both urban and rural areas, battery-operated radios broadcast information to entire households. As cheap as $5, a radio is less energy-intensive than a television and can be shared more easily than a smartphone. The infrastructure was already there. All that educators needed was to adapt content. 

Students and teachers who had limited or no access to the internet had to be creative. Some countries had a head start on distance learning efforts due to past experiences navigating health crises. Six years earlier, West Africa had suffered through an Ebola crisis. Schools and businesses shut down, hoping to curb direct-contact transmissions, but national educational programs rolled out radio lessons so that children did not miss out on schooling. When Liberia and Sierra Leone reported their first coronavirus cases, radio lessons emerged as the most viable solution. 

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The Liberian government used a combination of 38 national and community radio stations to broadcast its lessons. “To the credit of the ministries here, there was muscle memory from Ebola,” Cowell said. This allowed Rising Academies to produce and air its lessons less than two weeks after schools closed.

In their new studio, Ballah and Solomon, the performance managers, recorded as many as 10 lessons each day. The hardest part was not being able to go home at the end of the day. The government only allowed travel from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., when Ballah tended to record. He lived in the recording studio for more than four months. He had to find creative ways to get food after work, such as asking others to buy meals and stocking up on Saturdays, when he and his colleague were not recording. Despite this, Ballah said that he would do it all over again. 

The radio waves were not used only to transmit school lessons. The curriculum always included the national Covid-19 jingle, reminded kids to wash their hands, and provided a number they could text with questions.

Rising also made its radio lessons available as a podcast and published generic scripts that were free to download and adapt to a local context. In Zambia, for example, “apples aren’t common,” Patel said, “so any counting example using apples gets switched to mangoes.” 

Impact Network substituted context-specific language and translated Rising’s script to Nyanja, a local language spoken by more than 7 million people. They negotiated airtime with local radio stations that had previously broadcasted scores from the girls netball league. 

Liberian President George Weah sings through the coronavirus jingle featured in radio lessons.

Finding a time slot wasn’t easy, though. “You don’t want something in the morning, largely because our populations are farming populations,” Patel said. “It couldn’t be in the evening because the sun sets at 5:30. So if we wanted students to be writing or practicing at home they wouldn’t have light.” Eventually they settled on a time between 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. 

Mary Phiri, a 36-year-old farmer in Joel Village in eastern Zambia, has five children in grades two to 12. Her work keeps her so busy that making sure her kids continued their schooling during the pandemic had to be a family-wide effort. Her older children would also tune in to assist their younger sibling with her schoolwork. With radio lessons, her children, normally shy at school, could ask their parents or siblings the difficult questions that might have gone unasked in the classroom. 

In addition to adapting the radio lessons from Rising, Impact Network instructors went door to door to visit their students at home while wearing masks. During these visits, teachers delivered packets of school supplies, made sure that home radios had batteries, and explained homework instructions to parents who couldn’t read. They also checked in on students, asking questions about corporal punishment, sexual abuse, or pressure for early marriage — all topics they would normally discuss in school. This, Patel said, was a touch point for students, meant “to remind them that someone cares about them and that we want them to come back to school.” 

Bernard Phiri (no relation to Mary) is a 14-year-old student in grade 7 at David Seidenfeld School in Joel Village. When schools closed for the pandemic, he tuned in to Impact Network’s radio lessons. 

“When it was very hot then we would sit outside to listen to the radio together with my parents and friends, but if it’s cold we would sit in the house,” Phiri told Rest of World. He liked the songs in the radio lessons best, because they reminded him of singing in school. 

Radio is an imperfect solution — students who are deaf or hard of hearing cannot access it. Broadcasting a phonics lesson on the air doesn’t mean that all students are able to listen. Even though radios cost less than a tablet or data bundle, some people still cannot afford upkeep. 

This is sometimes the case for Esau Tembo, a 41-year-old farmer in Kabiliwili Village, some 480 kilometers east of Lusaka, with four children in preschool to grade 6. At home, there is no electricity. While Tembo has a radio, he emphasized that radios are expensive. “And if we have one, it’s difficult to charge them, because we don’t have electricity, and also to buy the batteries, which we used to put in the radio. It’s difficult, especially when there is no money,” he said.

In rural communities, some children are untethered to technology or the clock, without the structure of the school day. As Patel explained, students “just don’t know what date it is.” 

Still, the students who did listen to the lessons were engaged. Rising reports that of those who tuned in from Sierra Leone, 58% listened five days a week. 

Radio wasn’t the only offline solution that Africans implemented during the pandemic. Eneza Education, an SMS learning company founded in 2011 in Kenya, tailored its study guides to bite-sized messages. Eneza says it has assisted over 10 million learners in revising material offline and has expanded to Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire, and Rwanda.

In order to access the service, parents subscribe via their telecom companies. They purchase air time (an offline equivalent of an internet bundle) for daily or weekly access to unlimited texting with Eneza. The daily rate is $0.03. On average, students subscribed to the service interact with the platform three times a week. Eneza’s SMS conversations provide automated lesson plans, simulate multiple choice quizzes, and allow for Wikipedia searches. Many of these services are available even when the student is not currently connected to the internet. Students can also text questions to certified teachers. 

Joan Njogu, head of commercial operations at Eneza, said that SMS is often considered “outdated” and “unsexy.” But during the pandemic, the technology was able to reach many students at home, and Eneza’s number of users tripled. 

Meanwhile, in Zambia, kids went back to school in September. But the radio curriculum is far from over. “We are planning on using the radio lessons over breaks,” Patel said. During holiday periods when students generally aren’t learning, they’ll be able to tune in for a few lessons a week to brush up on their skills.