Bringing Coding + Makerspaces to Kenya’s Largest Womens’ Prison
A look into ChangeHub Innovation Centre’s mission to provide female inmates with technology skills and how you can help them
I met Aggrey Mokaya, ChangeHub’s founder last October at FabLearn, a Stanford conference that focuses on bringing makerspaces and fabrication labs into education. ChangeHub extends these skills to enable the most marginalized among us — prisoners. ChangeHub teaches design thinking, coding, and 3D printing to women in Lang’ata Prison, Kenya’s largest women’s prison. The sustainable technical skills they learn in class will enable them to find digital self-employment post release.
By day, Aggrey is a part-time lecturer at Daystar University, and also runs his own consulting company. Aggrey’s smile is infectious, and he’s filled with practical hope about technology in the prison educational system. Aggrey’s research on the effects of alcoholism and drug abuse inspired him to found ChangeHub.
“It’s important because these women have been cast aside, many by their families. Their families may not even think they have any use to them anymore. I work in public health, I work with people with depression, alcoholism — so I know what it does to people when they don’t feel like they have any value. But seeing that motivation — enabling that motivation is exciting.”
In the US, a criminal history is a stain that forever impedes one’s ability to get a job. I was unsurprised to find that the same sentiment held true in Kenya. However, thanks to M-Pesa, Kenya’s hugely-successful mobile money transfer system, remote work is on the rise and is creating more flexible opportunities for workers with prison history.
Aggrey says that he himself doesn’t meet most of his consulting clients, he does the work, and they pay him via M-Pesa straight to his bank account. ChangeHub enables the women to do the same — establish a name for themselves via remote work and allow their work to speak for itself before ever stepping into an office.
What the Inmates are Learning
In the past year and a half, ChangeHub’s program has grown from 6 to 16 students across 3 cohorts. The women are in different stages of their imprisonment and spread across the maximum and medium security wards. Two wardens too take the courses, learning side-by-side with inmates helps build rapport and empathy: “Innovations come from communities, and the prison IS a type of community. They help each other out,” says Aggrey.
The students are taught HTML & CSS coding from CodeAcademy, and learn TinkerCAD for 3D printing. The classes have been going on since April 2016, and are taught by graduates of local universities. The students attend class 3x a week for 3 hours, and have the opportunity to become paid teaching assistants for the next cohort.
What’s mind-boggling to me is that most of the women who are now programming had never seen a computer before ChangeHub.
“The best part is having someone teach you, who you had started teaching. There was one inmate who was very good with the 3D printer early on. She was so good that she started troubleshooting the problems by herself when the machine malfunctioned. The scared-ness is gone, they’re no longer scared of computers.”
Initial Success: A Website Built by the Students
Until a month ago, ChangeHub didn’t have a website. I had to go on a wild goose chase to reconnect with Aggrey; I eventually found him through Facebook. When I mentioned this, he apologized and said that he didn’t want a website until the students built one themselves.
“That will be the success of phase one. I have $300 saved in my bank account for the day when they build the ChangeHub website, and I will pay them the going rate.”
In September 2017, the students hit this milestone. They built and launched the official ChangeHub website.
The next milestone is for the women who succeed in the program to become teaching assistants for future classes, and are able to earn money to send to their families.
One of Aggrey’s larger goals is for consulting companies like his own to hire ChangeHub graduates after their release from prison. A company betting its reputation on inmates skill would be a true testament to the program’s value.
A Sustainable Model
There are many operational costs associated with ChangeHub’s courses. Everything from electricity to internet is provided by ChangeHub’s funding. However, Aggrey’s plan for a sustainable model will cover the operational costs of running the educational program.
He’s pursuing local companies that will hire ChangeHub to produce hardware and technology solutions. ChangeHub will pay 50% of the amount directly to the inmates that work on each product, and the rest will be used by ChangeHub to cover operational costs.
Aggrey’s even in discussions with the prison to build an e-commerce site where inmates can sell the handicrafts they already make. I didn’t know this, but apparently the best furniture in Kenya is made by prisoners as part of an effort to unlock their creative side, and practice vocational training.
The purpose is not to for ChageHub to become a consulting agency, but to allow it to sustain itself and grow its teaching efforts. Most importantly, this model allows each woman to be a contributing member of the family and take pride in sending money to their loved ones.
As with any undertaking this big, there are incredible challenges: funding, teacher retention, and lack of laptops are the three biggest.
A Funding Crisis
The team needs investment as it looks towards becoming a self-sustaining endeavor. The initial funding from International Development Innovation Network (IDIN) from MIT, ran out in September 2017, but the team is running a scaled-down operation to continue classes until March 2018. Aggrey has a stellar accountant that stretches every dime, but a “huge concern is being unable to continue operations even at the scale we are right now.”
Aggrey spends much of his time writing proposals to NGOs, but but says it’s been harder to secure funding recently due to the international political climate. Projects like IDIN have scaled back their grant-funding programs, and opportunities that used to be available are now harder to come by.
Some local funding is available, but it’s difficult to get — social impact investors in Kenya look for quick returns on their investment and education is a long-term undertaking. Since ChangeHub is an early stage project, it is focused on sustainability, not profit. It’s difficult to communicate that the project requires a longer integration period before the benefits of the education can be felt.
Teacher retention is difficult
Because Aggrey cannot afford to pay the market rate for the teachers, ChangeHub is having trouble keeping its teachers long term. The instructors, who are graduates from local universities, often get better paying jobs.
Recently, two software developers, Brian Keya Osiemo and Joel Olago have come on board and have taken ownership of the curriculum. They have devoted “100% of their time to teaching inmates IT skills for survival once they finish their jail term,” even though they could make more money working as developers. In addition to coding, they also teach the inmates design thinking and soft skills.
Lack of laptops is limiting the number of students
Because teacher salaries are a recurring cost, Aggrey can’t hire more teachers, but if he can fund more laptops, he can get more students into each class.
A few months ago, the team found a few old computers at the prison. They decided to make an activity out of upgrading the old relics— they updated the RAM, got new keyboards, mice and monitors. Aggrey was then able to add 6 more students into the class. The target class size however, is 20, so finding old computers won’t work out in the long term. Ten refurbished laptops are on Aggrey’s wishlist.
How to Help
ChangeHub has seen a lot of success in the past year and a half, but its future depends on securing funding — Aggrey needs to retain teachers and buy refurbished laptops to continue the courses and show the program’s longer term benefits. While I am angry that less funding opportunities are available due to the current political climate, Aggrey and organizations like ChangeHub give me hope. They’re resourceful, responsible, and play the long game.
To support Aggrey, and the incredible work ChangeHub is doing, please donate to our fundraiser on Indiegogo.
The ChangeHub team is looking to secure $8,000 to run for 6 more months. Here are some things they will put the money towards:
10 Refurbished Chromebooks — $100 per laptop
Teacher Salary Support — $300 per month
Internet — 3G or whatever is available
Furniture — Chairs, tables, extension boxes
Assorted Electrical Components, Consumables — Soldering Iron, LED bulbs, resistors, sensors, bread boards, Arduino Kits, LEDS, wires, etc.
Assorted Tools for Computer Repair — Hammers, Wire Cutters, Hacksaw, Woodsaw, Philips Head Screw Drivers, Drill Bit Sets, etc.
Even given the limited resources, Aggrey is excited about the future. He wants to continue the momentum in Lang’ata Prison, and hopes to extend the program to other prisons in the next few years.