By Shinovene Immanuel and Sakeus Iikela | 7 August 2020
THE education ministry has shortlisted Telecom Namibia and MTN Namibia for a contract to provide an internet-based education platform and connectivity to more than 400 000 pupils.
The e-learning contract – advertised after Namibia’s first lockdown around April this year – could be valued at more than N$400 million (N$1 000 per learning tablet for 400 000 pupils).
However, telecommunication provider MTC is secretly fuming that the tender process favoured MTN Namibia which is co-owned by businessman Vaino Nghipondoka. MTC says MTN Namibia lacked the infrastructure to implement this project, allegations denied by the new entrant company.
MTN insists that they can use networks of other companies.
E-learning includes an online learning platform for pupils, turning schools into smart classrooms where paper books and chalkboards are abandoned.
Instead, pupils learn through an internet based platform supported by a tablet.
Namibia has about 804 000 pupils and 30 766 teachers across 1 920 public and private schools in the country.
Under this project, the government wants to introduce an online teaching and learning platform for about 400 000 pupils in Grades 8 to 12, within the next two years.
The government has accelerated the e-learning process because of the disruption of schools caused by the coronavirus.
Education executive director Sanet Steenkamp confirmed to The Namibian yesterday that the government had shortlisted Telecom Namibia and MTN Namibia for the main contract.
In the meantime, the ministry has agreed to give MTN Namibia permission to implement a pilot project in four regions targeting 9 000 pupils and 600 teachers.
This is for Grade 10, 11 and 12 in Omusati, Ohangwena, Oshana and Erongo before the government rolls out the project to the rest of the country.
Steenkamp said MTN was picked because the company offered a favourable package, “which included data volume, devices and other value add-ons”.
“It should be strongly noted that this pilot project is not an awarding of a contract to MTN Namibia, but rather proof of concept exercise and a decision will be made upon the findings from this piloting project,” Steenkamp said.
She said the government has no budget for the main contract but the pilot project would cost around N$14 million.
The government tried to roll out e-learning as part of its contingency plan against the coronavirus lockdown this year.
However, pupils across the country struggled to access various platforms introduced due to constraints including connectivity.
The pupils in rural areas were the most affected with less than 2% of the 804 000 pupils in state and private schools in the country accessing the system in the first month of its introduction.
This is because many schools in the regions do not have network connectivity (32%) and others have no electricity (18%).
Since the coronavirus lockdown, Steenkamp said the ministry had been bombarded with requests for possible relief measures to enable the education sector to deliver.
As a result, Steenkamp said the ministry documented challenges ranging from access to connectivity, devices and electricity for both pupils and teachers, with exceptions to those in the main centres and private schools.
“Delivering our teaching and learning programmes online will surely bring about more challenges and will undoubtedly put teachers and pupils under pressure. Hence the need to develop strong mechanisms to support pupils to cope with the unusually huge workloads,” she said.
The pilot project is just a fraction of the main contract, estimated to be valued at N$400 million.
Not all the mobile operators are happy with the education ministry’s decision to pick MTN.
Steenkamp dismissed claims that some companies were given preferential treatment for this contract: “All companies and individuals were accorded the same opportunities in this regard.”
MTN’s proposal has been received with scepticism from MTC which has ruled the mobile telecommunication market for the past 25 years.
The Namibian understands MTC’s main concern is that MTN Namibia does not have a network in Namibia.
“I’m suspecting they will use this deal to raise funds to build their network. That’s what they have been struggling with, a business case with customers to sell to a banker,” a person familiar with this matter said.
MTC sources said MTN were favoured and given several opportunities to present their proposal.
“We submitted proposals months ago; only to hear MTN has been busy doing resubmissions internally. It seems the operators are being played,” a source familiar with this matter said.
“We’ve been waiting for months to get e-learning up but they’ve been quiet. Someone leaked our offers to them and they came with a counter offer to present privately to the ministry.
MTN co-owner Nghipondoka declined to comment yesterday.
An MTN source said their main goal is not money but to get as many subscribers as possible.
The e-learning deal could give MTN more than 300 000 subscribers, a number that the telecom company would have taken more than 10 years to secure.
According to people familiar with MTN Namibia’s strategy, the company believes MTC is getting nervous and feels threatened by their entrance into the market.
MTC is said to have asked for N$30 million to cater for 30 000 pupils. This includes internet data and a tablet and brought the cost at around N$1 000 per pupil.
Telecom Namibia allegedly asked N$650 for 5 gigabyte per month while Paratus Telecom quoted around N$150 for 15Gb once-off and forced recharges every three months.
It’s unclear if these figures include bandwidth.
MTC’s spokesperson, Tim Ekandjo, confirmed that they were among the companies competing for the e-learning contract.
He said MTC submitted a competitive and comprehensive bid for the contract.
He, however, said rolling out e-learning wont be cheap.
“There are a lot of challenges to roll out e-learning and it won’t come cheap but we are very committed to the process. We are awaiting response on our bid so we engage our partner in education to kick-start the process,” Ekandjo said.
He added that this opportunity would be “mutually beneficial for both parties, seeing we have vast experience and infrastructure across the country”.
MTN Namibia submitted two options, including its own funding and subsidised finance from the government.
One includes a N$1 700 fee per year for a pupil. This fee includes an eight inch electronic tablet (N$1 400) and 180 gigabyte data per year.
MTN has several conditions to their offer which includes a so-called eRate.
MTN will allow traffic between pupils and the e-learning platform to be zero-rated, meaning that the data consumed by accessing it will be free of charge.
“Hardware and data need to be procured together as a bundle for optimum pricing. A minimum number of 280 000 pupils is required for break-even,” MTN said in its presentation.
The company suggested a hybrid model of public funding, private corporate social investment, and funding from parents in partnership with the education ministry.
MTN proposed a minimum contract of three years with devices being replaced every three years.
“We can aid the ministry in the sourcing and/or development of rich content based on the Namibian syllabus (MyZone, SimplyPass),” the company said.
The presentation said MTN has been engaging various stakeholders in the market such as publishers (MacMillan, Pearson), MTN Group and e-learning platform providers.
MTN also offered to build three community centres that include a solar-backed clinic, water purification plant, and 13 classrooms.
“We would like to establish a long-term relationship. We propose a minimum term of three years, extending up to 10 years to be partners in Namibia’s educational future,” the proposal said.