Digital storytelling: A surprising solution to Kenya’s developmental challenge

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Kenya has made huge strides in education over the past ten years. And the numbers are here to prove it. According to UNESCO, 87.8% of the adult population was literate in 2018. While, 81% of children ages 6 to 13 were said to be in school in 2012. 

However, the quality of education still has a ways to go. Many students suffer from overcrowded classrooms and from a lack of support at home. Teachers, on the other hand, often don’t have the training or resources to properly teach their students. As a result, students fall behind in their studies compared to the rest of the world. And this can end up costing them for life. 

In fact, the Human Capital Index estimates that, because of the gaps in their schooling, children in Kenya are 50% less productive once they enter the workforce. This loss of productivity not only decreases individuals’ job opportunities and salaries. But, it also takes a major toll on Kenya’s institutions and economy. 

There is good news though, a long term solution may be in sight.

Technology: A promising solution

Recent innovations in digital technology have revolutionized nearly every aspect of our lives. We’ve all, in some way or another, benefited from the remarkable abilities of these innovations. Whether it be keeping us connected with the rest of the world, providing unlimited amounts of information at our fingertips, or even facilitating day-to-day tasks. The possibilities seem endless. 

That’s why many are looking to digital technology to fill the gaps in Kenya’s education system. They believe that technology will help Kenyan students access a wider variety of tailored content – content that consequently enables them to learn more effectively. 

Education and literacy have an unparalleled impact on a country. So, this begs the question: Can digital reading help further Kenya’s development? 

Which is exactly what led to the inception of DRIVE (Digital Reading for Inclusivity, Versatility and Engagement).

What is DRIVE?: A peek into the UKRI funded network

Put simply, DRIVE is a network. It’s one of 24 funded by the UKRI’s Global Challenges Research Fund. The network brought together people from various backgrounds in Africa and the UK. And, it looked at how digital technologies could increase reading in Kenya. 

The project was spearheaded by Professor Bronwen Thomas of Bournemouth University. It follows several years of research on storytelling in digital spaces and the impact of digital technology on readers. It also succeeds three other UKRI funded projects on similar topics led by Professor Thomas. 

So why does DRIVE matter?

Of course, research has already been done on digital reading in developing countries. Which was one of the main challenges faced by the DRIVE team. 

Professor Thomas and her partners were eager to distinguish the network. That’s why they decided on a unique, more holistic approach. 

For instance, while other projects have largely been limited to the classroom, the network chose to focus on readers’ broader lives and on people who aren’t necessarily in school. 

As part of this holistic approach, DRIVE also employed a distinctive storytelling angle. So, instead of using questionnaires, it drew on people’s personal stories. This then helped DRIVE delve deeper into people’s relationship to reading. 

Despite these unconventional methods, however, the network was still strongly guided by sustainable development goals. It created partnerships with academics, NGOs, policymakers and practitioners to ensure lasting change. The network was additionally committed to promoting gender equality and social inclusion of people with disabilities. And through these goals, it aimed to keep Kenyans reading and help the country further progress in the long run. 

Worldreader’s role and the influence of the Anasoma project

So where does Worldreader come in? 

Worldreader played a key role in shaping DRIVE’s work through its Anasoma project. The project was launched by Worldreader in Kenya five years ago. It seeks to empower women and promote gender equality through digital reading. To do this, we encouraged more girls and women to read on mobile devices. We also exposed them to positive female portrayals through stories. 

DRIVE shared some of these same goals. Namely, they also wanted to understand if digital reading could increase literacy and promote gender equality. And that’s how Worldreader became one of DRIVE’s main partners. 

Through this role, Worldreader offered insights from the Anasoma project, including expertise on digital reading. These insights then strongly influenced the direction DRIVE took with its own work. 

For example, the network wanted differentiate itself from the Anasoma project. So, they decided to go with a complementary approach. Meaning, that it focused on a broader audience and on storytelling to gain different insights into readers. 

In spite of these contrasting approaches, Worldreader still remained very much involved throughout the project and helped mobilize participants through our network.

How DRIVE promoted literacy through digital storytelling

DRIVE’s work culminated in a digital storytelling project. A project that combined the team’s interests in digital reading and storytelling. 

Digital storytelling, as its name suggests, involves the creation of short videos that tell stories. The network chose to focus on the creation of these videos because it breaks the division between reader and writer. This consequently allowed DRIVE to creatively engage readers while learning more about the impact of (digital) reading on their lives.

Between May 2020 and April 2021, facilitators and participants around Kenya took part in trainings and created their own digital stories. Facilitators first showed participants how to use the iPads provided by the network and helped participants understand how stories work through games and exercises. 

Participants then used what they had learned to write their own stories and create videos on the iPads. When they were done, they shared their work with friends and family or on social media. 

The results of the project

The stories all explore the participants’ experience with reading. They range from a young man’s empowerment through books to a mother’s changed relationship to reading after her son’s birth. 

In one of the videos, Upon this Day, Kelvin Gwuma, the SAIDE Community librarian, recounts the life-changing moment he received his first book. Against the backdrop of a father and son, Kelvin explains that his father, who had just graduated from college, knew how much he liked to read and gifted him his very first book My Life in Crime. He recalls his excitement as an eight-year-old at receiving the book and describes his experience reading the enthralling thriller in a single sitting. The video then shifts from pictures of the book to Kelvin reading as he ends the video revealing the lasting impression this day had on him and how it continually reminds him of the power of books.

Looking forward: DRIVE’s impact and legacy

These digital stories ultimately produced new diverse and inclusive content by amplifying the marginalized voices of many participants. 

The process of creating the stories also provided insight into underrepresented groups. Particularly, into how technology creates new ways for them to engage with reading and express themselves. 

One of the participants even said that she previously disliked reading. But, thanks to this experience, she was going to continue reading to her son using her iPad. 

As part of its legacy, DRIVE hopes that its participants will keep on creating digital stories and encourage others to do the same. So, Kenyans from diverse backgrounds can have the tools to tell new stories and keep reading in the future. 

Read more about DRIVE and its work on the DRIVE website.