Journey within Afghanistan: Inside Creative’s digital book tracking system

By Natalie Lovenburg

September 6, 2017

In Ghaza school in the remote Shakardara district of Kabul province in eastern Afghanistan, teachers eagerly await 12 large cardboard boxes filled with newly printed textbooks and learning materials. The school administrators have anticipated the delivery but they were uncertain whether it would arrive.

Afghanistan’s ongoing conflict has many negative effects, and its education system is not immune to the disruption.

Teshome Begna, Ph.D., Senior Education Advisor for Afghan Children Read, a five-year, primary education project working in Afghanistan, says that by “thinking outside the box” and using innovative approaches the project can tackle learning barriers in complex environments.

“Education a basic human right,” adds Begna. “It is a fundamental for a better future for students, communities and Afghanistan as whole.”

In a fragile state like Afghanistan, security risks complicate the delivery of books and teaching materials to hard-to-reach schools; the most efficient routes may also be the most dangerous for drivers.

In addition to security risks, insufficient storage facilities, a lack of organization and a corrupted supply chains where textbooks are sold on the black market keeps textbooks out of the hands of students eager to learn.

“Primary students in Afghanistan often have to learn how to read and write with textbooks that are in poor condition and outdated, or they don’t have access to textbooks at all,” explains Susan Ayari, Senior Associate in Education in Conflict at Creative Associates International.

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Education plays a vital role in rebuilding conflict and crisis-affected communities in Afghanistan and preparing students for a peaceful and successful future. Photo by Ali Dariosh Shirzad.

Fortunately, a new book tracking system is minimizing the interference in deliveries and ensuring that textbooks find their way to the students and teachers who need them the most.

Implemented by Creative’s Development Lab, the innovative “Track and Trace” technology system is identifying and resolving distribution system gaps for the Afghan Children Read project working in four provinces: Herat, Kabul, Nangarhar and Laghman.

Funded the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Afghan Children Read project works to ensure quality education service delivery through an evidence-based early grade reading program for grades one to three students. Creative is implementing the project with its partners, the International Rescue Committee, Equal Access and SIL LEAD.

Last March, the Track and Trace technology system was launched in 293 schools and Community-Based Education Centers. In the launch phase, 139,284 student textbooks, activity books, teacher guides and continuous assessment books were delivered in two provinces: Herat and Kabul.

Overcoming delivery obstacles is essential to achieving the project’s goals and helping young learners succeed, says Ayari, who serves as Project Director for Afghan Children Read and has 30 years of classroom experience, including in conflict-affected countries.

“Providing access to learning and teaching materials, which are founded on effective early grade reading principles, is crucial in ensuring that children have a strong start to life,” says Ayari.

Innovative education delivery

“To date, this is one of the largest Track and Trace deployments in international education.”

Ayan Kishore, Director, Creative’s Technology for Development

“Across the book value chain in Afghanistan, there is a lot of leakage,” explains Ayan Kishore, Director of Creative’s Technology for Development, a team of design-thinkers and technology strategists bringing innovative tools and solutions like Track and Trace to Creative’s projects.

Track and Trace can detect this leakage and identify at which stage of the delivery process it is occurring, he says.

“Track and Trace technology is a practical solution in extracting the status of a shipment using bar codes and text messaging, and addressing issues in a timely manner,” says Kishore.

To date, this is one of the largest Track and Trace deployments in international education, says Kishore.

The rollout applied a blend of mobile application-based and Short Message Service (SMS or text message) data collection systems. Drivers, delivery teams and educators use the application and SMS tools to confirm the location and delivery of materials at each step of the way.

From the printer to the school, the streamlined monitoring process has four key elements:

  • Label design, which coaches the printer through accurate labeling of all shipments based to the final school destination;
  • Book tracker mobile app, which enables Afghan Children Read staff to confirm the shipment and location of boxes as they move through delivery routes;
  • SMS-enabled interaction, which facilitates confirmation of delivery by school principals and motamids (stock keepers) through text messaging;
  • Automatic reporting and notifications, which provides real-time status reports and feedback to the Afghan Children Read staff.

Accurate data collection and effective textbook-demand forecasting with Creative’s Track and Trace is improving the book value chain and the likelihood of schools receiving the correct number and type of books so that students can get a quality education.

“Investing more in this scalable operational technology will help increase visibility in supply chains, reduce corruption, and in turn save money and amplify impact,” says Kishore.

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Cate Johnson, of Creative’s Technology for Development team, leads the Afghan Children Read Track and Trace implementation and trains project staff, school principals and motamids (stock keepers) to use the technology. Photo by Ayan Kishore.

Overcoming interruptions in student development

Fortunately, the students at the Ghaza school received the 12 boxes of their much-anticipated textbooks.

The school books—combined with teacher training provided by the Afghan Children Read project—mean the students are learning to read and write better now than ever before, says Elaha Sadat, a grade one teacher at Ghaza school.

“In the past, students in grade one were forced to read a very difficult word with no understanding of its meaning,” says Sadat, who leads a class of 35 students.

“I feel that things are improving very well in terms of reading knowledge and understanding. Students are very excited when pronouncing a word, and they feel very enthusiastic to read more stories.”

Elaha Sadat, a grade one teacher, Ghaza school, Kabul province

She says that the arrival of new learning and teaching materials and receiving professional teacher training from Afghan Children Read on how to apply the curriculum in the classroom is providing a new excitement for the school and village.

“I feel that things are improving very well in terms of reading knowledge and understanding,” says Sadat. “Students are very excited when pronouncing a word, and they feel very enthusiastic to read more stories.”

After witnessing their children engage in new and exciting learning activities at home and in school, parents have shifted their mindsets about education, are more confident in their children’s schooling and are growing to value education, she says.

Better oversight of book delivery through Track and Trace technology system is helping to reduce the effects of corrupt practices plaguing education in Afghanistan and empower teachers like Sadat to engage parents and communities through new learning materials.

Shafiulhaq Rahimi, Deputy Chief of Party of Afghan Children Read, says the new technology is truly enhancing the project’s ability to make sure the project’s literacy activities stay on course.

“For the national educational system to be strong in Afghanistan, we must have high-quality learning and teaching materials,” says Rahimi. “The book delivery technology is helping the project strengthen processes and educate thousands of children in remote areas of the country.”

Based on the Track and Trace rollout’s success, Afghan Children Read is expanding the technology for textbook deliveries in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar and Laghman provinces in fall 2017.

Along with Afghanistan, the technology will be used for education projects in sub-Saharan Africa, reaching more classrooms around the globe and ensuring that even more learners have access to the books they need to learn and succeed.

With reporting by Ali Dariosh Shirzad in Kabul.

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