Plans are underway for government to provide at least 10 million radio sets to every household and 137,466 solar-powered television sets to villages in Uganda as the country awaits guidelines for holding the 2021 General Election.
An emergency Cabinet meeting that sat on the eve of budget reading last week weighed options before re-opening schools as they discussed a report of the Education committee on virtual learning.
The meeting resolved to keep all schools shut but virtual learning must continue as government monitors the Covid-19 curve.
In the meeting, Foreign Affairs minister Sam Kutesa asked President Museveni to announce a dead year for all educational institutions as a drastic measure to keep learners safe.
Other ministers, however, rejected Mr Kutesa’s suggestion and asked Mr Matia Kasaija of Finance to look for funds in the 2020/21 budget for buying radios and TV sets for the 15 million learners.
While the planned distribution of free radios and TV sets was never intended to assist virtual political campaigns but ease access to distance learning and teaching across Uganda, sources in Cabinet talked of “killing two birds with one stone”.
The reference to “two birds” embodies the debate on the anticipated virtual political campaigns ahead of the February polls.
Rules out election involvement
Information minister Judith Nabakooba confirmed the meeting at the weekend, and the planned procurement of radio sets and TV sets.
She, however, said the distribution of radio sets and TV had nothing to do with the anticipated virtual political campaigns.
“The focus is on virtual learning not 2021 campaigns. The two issues are different. Campaigns are managed by Electoral Commission (EC) and they have not come to Cabinet. It is only the Ministry of Education which came to Cabinet and we took a decision to buy radios to ensure children continue with learning while at home,” Ms Nabakooba said.
“We had agreed to buy nine million radio sets and TVs because seeing is believing. The good thing ICT is at its peak and 95 per cent have access to radio. But access doesn’t mean ownership and we want to ensure every child is not left behind. This is why government decided to come in and ensure that every household has a radio set for education purposes,” she added.
And on whether radios and TV should be used for campaigns, the minister said: “We have to go by the new normal according to the scientists’ guidance. We have to exercise our rights while being mindful of the deadly virus.”
Insiders say as consultations continue, the scientists have called for a hybrid methods - the use of virtual and other means.
They are in the process of developing standard operating procedures with EC, and in consultation with Health ministry.
Dr Arthur Bainomugisha, the executive director of Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment (Acode), and other analysts have questioned the rationale of buying radios and TV sets for households without access to electricity, money for buying batteries and struggling to feed themselves in the face of the pandemic.
“The strategy is good but Cabinet is monopolising education, they need to broaden the discussion so that there is support by parents and all stakeholders. Some of those ideas may backfire yet we want our children to be affected by the pandemic. I don’t know whether government has the funds when they are cutting budgets for sectors,” Dr Bainomugisha said.
On the issue of electricity and batteries, sources told Daily Monitor that the President instructed that all the radios and TV sets must be solar-powered and must be made in Uganda.
He also instructed Mr Kasaija and officials in the Education ministry to deliver the required radio sets within two months.
The deadline for provision of at least two solar-powered TV sets per village has not been determined.
Mr Mubarak Kirunda Nkutu, the director of membership services at Uganda Manufacturers Association, at the weekend said two companies are involved in manufacturing radios and television in the country.
“We have Saachi, which is based in Ntinda and Zhang Group in Bulogolobi, Kampala,” Mr Nkutu said.
It is not clear whether these two companies will deliver the required gadgets within the agreed deadlines.
At an estimated cost of Shs38,000 per radio set, government will required Shs380b to supply 10 million radios for all the households in Uganda.
Since the government plan is to give each of the 68,733 villages at least two TV sets, 137,466 TV sets will be bought for learning purposes. The price for each TV sets has not been discussed.
According to another Cabinet source, the President also told Cabinet that since Education requires only two senses - listening and seeing, the planned distribution of free government TV sets and radios will boost distance learning infrastructure, a teaching strategy needed to combat the spread of the Coronavirus pandemic.
Under the proposed radio and TV based learning strategy, more than 15 million learners particularly in primary and secondary schools, will study remotely without regular face-to-face contact with teachers in the classrooms or lecture rooms.
At undergraduate level, Cabinet said distance learning will involve students engaging with learning materials at home or work.
They also get tutorial support via a virtual learning environment, such as phone, email, or electronic means such as teleconferencing and zoom technology.
During the State-of-the-Nation Address recently, Mr Museveni postponed the partial reopening of schools for another one month but said “children must continue studying under the distance learning programme” .
“Radios are simpler, you can give each house its radio, but the problem with a radio is that you hear but you don’t see, with TV it’s like you are in a classroom, you hear and see,” Mr Museveni said.