In Zimbabwe, students take field trips through virtual reality
A tech startup in Zimbabwe creates virtual reality field trips for students who otherwise wouldn’t have opportunities to get out of their classrooms.
May 07, 2019 by Nkosana Butholenkosi Masuku, Phenomenon Technologies|
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Learner experiences a virtual trip of Victoria falls.
CREDIT: Phenomenon Technologies

This is blog post is part of the collaborative effort between the African Union and the Global Partnership for Education to give visibility to innovators recognized at this year’s AU Expo.

My name is Nkosana Butholenkosi Masuku. I am the 24-year-old founder and CEO of Phenomenon Technologies, an education technology start-up from Zimbabwe.

When I was a teacher working in schools located in rural areas, I was shocked and saddened to see that my students had never gone on school trips and that a majority of them did not know what an excursion was. This was the start of my journey as an innovator.

This led me to investigate if the situation was the same for other rural schools and to my dismay, I found out that most schools were not offering educational field trips.

No field trips

In Zimbabwe, a primary school learner can finish Grade 7 without having visited any of the educational tourist sites in the country such as Matopo Hills, Great Zimbabwe or Victoria Falls.

Other field trips to industrial sites for example don’t take place either. The failure to go on excursions often leads to a poor appreciation of the importance of education by the students.

This prompted me to further research the possible reasons for this problem: I learned that excursions were too expensive for schools in rural areas and even for some urban schools.

This challenged me to come up with a solution on how to better conduct school trips in an inexpensive way, leading to the creation of Phenomenon Technologies and the development of FundoVR.

Bringing field trips to schools through virtual reality

FundoVR offers low-cost excursions to schools in Zimbabwe through the use of virtual reality, which immerses learners in the environment as if they were there themselves. Virtual reality (VR) is an artificial environment that is created with 360° cameras and presented to the user in such a way that the user suspends belief and accepts it as a real environment.  

Children therefore get an opportunity to virtually explore an industry, a chemical plant or even space without leaving the classroom.

After developing a sample (multiple 360° images of Victoria Falls) that we tested in a few schools, the feedback was very positive, so I set out to form a full-fledged team and develop the service.

I was part of a start-up hub based in Bulawayo (Zimbabwe’s second largest city) called the TechVillage. There, my mentor encouraged me to apply for the African Union’s Innovating Education in Africa Expo, the flagship event to showcase technical and social innovations in every area of education and training.

The purpose of the AU Expo was to establish a multisectoral platform to share experiences on innovations that address education challenges in Africa. 

I applied and a few weeks later, my innovation was selected to be showcased at the expo in Dakar, Senegal. When I won the AU Innovating Education in Africa Expo prize, I knew I had to pursue it with all I had.

The author taking learners through virtual field trips. Credit: Phenomenon Technologies
The author taking learners through virtual field trips.
CREDIT: Phenomenon Technologies

AU Expo prize kickstarts expansion

Winning the prize proved the value and potential that my innovation has to enhance quality education in Zimbabwe and elsewhere on the continent.

Due to the recognition by the African Union, Phenomenon Technologies has since been recognized by the UN World Tourism Organization and NEPAD as a top 5 tourism tech startup in Africa  (see NEPAD publication here) thanks to our efforts to promote low cost educational tourism experiences for disadvantaged learners.

Winning the AU prize also helped increase our market from 15 registered schools to over 200 schools, meaning that thousands of learners will be able to take our virtual excursions and to experience the various destinations.

Edgar Moyo, the Deputy Minister of Primary and Secondary Education of Zimbabwe, who was present at the Expo, was delighted to see my innovation being rewarded. His office has since promoted the use of the innovation in Zimbabwean schools.  For example, he facilitated our invitation to the National Association of Primary School Heads conference held in Victoria Falls, during which I was able to demonstrate my innovation to thousands of school directors. The ministry has also offered clearance for us to conduct the virtual excursions to schools in Matopo district.

FundoVR is now being accepted in the communities by the district school inspectors, provincial education directors, headmasters and teachers.

I hope to see more communities welcoming our innovation as we aim to be the leaders in low cost educative virtual experiences.

What’s next: more VR field trips

The prize money of $4000 is helping us to scale up. Over the next 12 months, I hope to see the FUNDOVR service available in more schools throughout the country. I am seeking additional funding from investors as more schools keep on registering for our platform due to the cheap educative experience it brings for learners.

The whole team at Phenomenon Technologies will strive to create more experiences for Zimbabwean schools, cutting across all subjects. We ask that all interested investors get in touch with us to help us scale up even more.

I would like to encourage African leaders to support and fund innovations such as those presented at the AU Expo, as I believe they can greatly help improve African education.

Innovation is critical to develop education and bring it into the world of digital technologies. It is crucial that Africa plays a leading role in innovation. The best way to support Sustainable Development Goal 4 for education is by making sure that the innovations developed are supported by our leaders.

I encourage other innovators in the education field to engage with the African Union and its Expo, which will be held every year. This is a great platform to meet other innovators, to share with each other and to improve each other’s ideas.

Moreover, the AU allows innovators to gain exposure, which is vital in implementing our innovations. I’m certainly glad I participated this year!

Read the other posts in this series:

 

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Sub-Saharan Africa: Zimbabwe

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