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Does a 40% breakage rate for Kindles in Africa matter?

By Wayan Vota on August 13, 2012


Recently, I was sharing one of the more striking results from the USAID-funded WorldReader e-Reader Ghana Pilot assessment that should give anyone in ICT4D pause:

E-reader breakages were much higher than anticipated: Over the course of the study, breakage rates reached 40.5%, reducing both the educational impact and cost effectiveness of the e-reader. The long-term sustainability will hinge on solutions that directly address the primary causes of breakages, such as dust and fragile e-reader screens.

When I mentioned the 40% breakage rate to an educator, I received a surprising response: “So what? 40% of everything breaks.” She went on to explain that in a book publishing program she worked on, 50% of the text books she distributed were not in use the next year due to water & insect damage, student damage, and loss. She figured a 40% breakage rate was actually an improvement, especially if a majority of those Kindles could be repaired.

In even better news, Worldreader is learning from their iREAD pilot results and is reinforcing Kindle screens, using stronger protective cases, and better user trainings to significantly reduce their breakage rates:

We see a clear downward trend in the breakage rate in iREAD. In addition to the dramatic improvement seen with the reinforced screen devices, our more recent programs have experienced much lower breakage rates: our one-year-old program in Kilgoris, Kenya, has a 6% breakage rate while our 5-month-old program in Uganda hasn’t had any breakages at all. The same goes for our newest fourth-grade classroom in Ghana, rolled out in mid-May 2012: we’ve had zero broken e-readers so far, even though the students in that class (like the others in our Ghana program) take the e-readers home every night. We’re applying those same learnings across our programs now, and teaching our partners as well.

One thing this should teach us is that breakage rates should be looked at relative to other solutions, even when there isn’t an obvious “breakage” to be had. The most cost-effective solution may be counter-intuitive. So yes, breakage rates matter, but not as much as you might think.


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Written by
Wayan Vota co-founded ICTworks. He also co-founded Technology Salon, MERL Tech, ICTforAg, ICT4Djobs, ICT4Drinks, JadedAid, Kurante, OLPC News and a few other things. Opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of his employer, any of its entities, or any ICTWorks sponsor.
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5 Comments to “Does a 40% breakage rate for Kindles in Africa matter?”

  1. Weh Yeoh says:

    I find the comment by the educator pretty surprising. So books were distributed and they had a success rate of 50%. The Kindles were distributed and had a success rate of 60% (assuming there were not other problems apart from breakage that would stop them being used). In other words, the educator is saying that she experienced a 10% improvement, and that justifies the use of Kindles. And that’s it? End of argument?

    Shouldn’t the fundamental question be: “in switching from books to Kindles, did the benefits outweigh the costs?” In other words, is a 10% improvement justified?

  2. Tim Denny says:

    I constantly tell everyone that ICT-education deployments require about 50% concentration on maintenance. Of course the percentage is just a guess, but a substantial amount of output in deploying ICT should be about maintaining the devices. We need to be sure that 50% of resources are allocated to maintenance, yet in reality often 0% is allocated thus ICT is often a failure for oversight alone. In the case exemplified I can see they learned their lesson and subsequently built in substantial resources to learning how the devices fail, solutions to the failure and a maintenance program to ensure the devices continue to run smoothly.


  3. Bankelele says:

    I think we are going to see a lot more local shops doing repairs for such devices in Africa, so that should go down with time

  4. Mika Välitalo says:

    Has iRead published any “business case” or TOC information on their project. Would be interesting to know what is the current cost per student per year (when calculating all the involved costs e.g. device investments, training, user support, maintenance and content fees.) Once the cost per student per year at school is known, it’s useful to compare that to the overall budget of any participating school. How many % would the TOC expenses use of the school budget (even when excluding the initial hardware costs).

  5. Ben Parkinson says:

    When we first started our computer centre for kids in 2009, problems were rife. Computers were stolen, broken, misused etc.

    Over the last 12 months by comparison, we have had no thefts breakages on our equipment, including the very fragile cameras from the Centre in a Kampala slum district.

    It’s achieved by empowering the children to be the ones who are responsible for safeguarding the equipment. Teaching and training them and then giving them the power to stop others misusing or breaking equipment has been a lifeline, which has meant we have been able to continue giving computer services.

    Children are taught by their peers how to look after the computers and they learn because they are not permitted to use the computers by their peers unless they can use them properly.

    I accept dust is an issue and we have lost some function as a result on the disk drives, but all in all I am pleased with the respect that has been shown, considering the constant usage the computers have.

    A similar approach with Kindles could be taken, where responsible children are given them and then given the responsibility to take care of the training of others.

    Trust is an important thing and African children are rarely entrusted with expensive things and so they have little experience. However, they can learn just as well as anyone and we have found that their peers are the best teachers.