TAMPA — Six students from the universities of Tampa and South Florida were in New York Saturday night as finalists in a prestigious competition for a $1 million award in connection with their work educating young children in Nigeria via cellphones over the summer.
The Tembo Education Group was the brainchild of a clutch of undergraduate and graduate students at the colleges who entered the annual Clinton Global Initiative Hult Prize. The students from Tembo, which means "elephant" in Swahili, were the only team from the United States who advanced to the finals out of the more than 20,000 students in the competition.
Ultimately, a university team from Taipei, Taiwan, won the overall trophy Saturday night.
The aim of the yearly event is to test the brightest entrepreneurial minds on the planet. The 2015 challenge was to create programs that would help provide basic educational needs by 2020 to 10 million children 6 years old and younger living in the urban slums of developing countries, according to Ulixes Hawili of Team Tembo. He said his group targeted Africa because its research indicated a basic need to educate children across sub-Saharan Africa.
"We started to come up with a conceptual framework for our project," said Hawili, 19, an economics and mathematics major at the University of Tampa. "We needed to identify why there were problems with early childhood education — especially in Nigeria and sub-Saharan Africa. We saw cellphones as the solution."
Cellphone use is booming in Africa and, according to a 2014 Gallup global technology analysis, the continent is the fastest-growing and second-largest mobile phone market. Even small towns in Chad, Niger and Mali have mobile phones. That was a defining moment for Tembo, Hawili said.
Motivating parents through technology, the Tembo team saw the mobile phone as a vehicle to disseminate a curriculum across sub-Saharan Africa. So they set out to test their program. Currently it relies on donations. But team members plan to become a self-reliant for-profit company.
It works like this: Tembo sends text messages with academic lessons to a parent and to a local home educator who lives and works in the parent's community as a kind of outreach specialist. They both have the same text-lesson curriculum, with the home educator teaching the parent that particular lesson every other week or so. Then it is up to the parent to teach that lesson to the child.
After the lesson, a quiz is sent to the parent to ensure that he or she is teaching the child correctly. If the parent passes the quiz, then that parent is rewarded with more cellphone credits, called "air time" in many African nations, for free. This gives the parent an incentive to make sure the child is learning, according to Hawili.
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"And if it can work in Nigeria, where there is a well-known level of corruption, it can work anywhere," he said.
Their unique cognitive-based curriculum approach — focusing on language development, problem solving and deductive reasoning skills — is a parallel method to one used by HIPPY, a decades-old nonprofit with a chapter at the University of South Florida's campus. HIPPY — Home Instruction for Parents of Preschool Youngsters — helps show parents how to better teach their young children.
Former President Bill Clinton, who was the presenter at the awards ceremony in New York, mentioned HIPPY in his remarks prior to handing out the award, eliciting cheers from the more than 100 supporters who turned out for a live, up-link viewing party at the University of Tampa campus Saturday night.
One of Tembo's members, Eric Biel, who is a part-time graduate student at USF's Muma College of Business, has worked for HIPPY for nine years.
"HIPPY's model fits well with the Tembo mission because HIPPY has been assisting parents in targeted neighborhoods with early-childhood, evidence-based home instruction for 46 years," said Biel, 33, on Thursday. "I create online training programs, taking them from paper and implementing them into electronic form."
Tembo plans to expand to Liberia, Ghana, Kenya and Uganda over the next five years. So far, its program provides services to around 100 children.
"The whole idea of using airtime as a currency is huge," Rebecca White, director of the Lowth Entrepreneurship Center at the University of Tampa, said on Thursday. "When most people think about launching education initiatives (in developing nations) they think about building a school, the infrastructure, and that can be expensive. What (Tembo) has done is an elegant solution to a real problem."