Solar-Powered Kiosks Bring Free Education To Communities That Can’t Afford Teachers

A machine could–theoretically–replace teachers in places where schools are scarce.

Seven months after terrorists kidnapped nearly 300 schoolgirls in Nigeria, many local students are afraid to go to school. In other parts of the country, children don’t go to school because schools don’t exist; cities and villages can’t afford enough teachers. Across the nation, more than 10.5 million children aren’t in school, more than in any other part of the world.


One Nigerian city now has a prototype of a new type of education that doesn’t involve a school or teachers. The Hello Hub is an outdoor computer kiosk hooked up to free, solar-powered Internet and filled with hundreds of educational games. It’s rugged enough to handle dust storms, rain, and thousands of users. Built and owned by the community, it’s available for anyone–adults or children–to use anytime.

“If you look at how much money is attributed to education, if you add it all up and apply it to all of the schools and teachers, it doesn’t even come close to serving all children,” says Katrin MacMillan, founder and CEO of Projects for All, the organization that created the Hello Hub. “We decided that a new paradigm for education was essential, one that really can reach every child in need.”

The project was inspired in part by Sugata Mitra, the 2013 TED Prize winner who argues that schools as we know them are obsolete. Mitra has shown in experiments that self-directed learning works; children in slums or remote locations who were given a computer, and zero instruction, were able to teach themselves things like English and even the basics of biotechnology. In those experiments, the computers were eventually lost or broken, so the Hello Hubs take a different approach.

“We don’t show up in a community and build a Hello Hub for them,” says MacMillan. “If we were to do that, it would take a day to knock up a Hello Hub, put it on Facebook, and get out. But it wouldn’t last, and I don’t think people would value it or use it as much as they do. I think it would be likely to go unmaintained after a while–that’s what Mitra’s research shows.”

Instead of giving a donation, the project involves the entire community. “We take parts of the tech and the expertise, but we don’t have what we need to complete it,” MacMillan explains. The community has to help negotiate for the solar power, find the land, feed and transport the visitors from the organization–and help build the computer kiosk from scratch, sometimes building and taking apart the server several times so everyone who wants to can learn how it works.

“They’ve given a huge chunk of their time for this project,” MacMillan says. “And they know, when we leave, that it really is their Hello Hub. They build it, they are capable of maintaining it, they understand and value it. We built the first Hello Hub over a year ago in an extremely poor part of Nigeria, in the middle of the Boko Haram violence. So we chose pretty much the hardest place to start. And the Hello Hub is not only still standing, but it’s been maintained and repaired and even improved.”


The organization plans to bring Hello Hubs to communities around the world without access to schools, including refugee camps. They already have plans to build in Tanzania, Rwanda, Kenya, Ghana, India, Peru, and Haiti.

The plans to build a Hello Hub are open source, and all of the technology is readily available, low cost, and durable. “It’s very easy in a place like a NASA laboratory to put together tech that can last through a dust storm or a monsoon and supply digital education,” says MacMillan. “But it’s very hard to do that in a way that’s affordable and that anyone can build. So you could order any piece of this equipment very easily, and it means that you could build one in your hometown.”

As one community learns in detail how to build a Hello Hub–spending weeks or even months in the process–they will eventually be able to help other communities do the same. “In Nigeria, the team that we trained will come down to train other teams,” MacMillan says. “In that way, we don’t have to be at every single build. It can start to scale and sustain itself without us.”


About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.