A Malagasy camp for kids is operating its sports meets tech project on a shoestring budget.
On Saturday mornings, Patrick Andriamahenina takes a group of 14 excited Malagasy kids through their basketball paces. But these are no ordinary lessons: Most have never touched a basketball before, and Andriamahenina is not using the lesson to teach them sport; he's trying to teach them to code.
"We're drawing out the similarities between basketball and coding," Andriamahenina, a local Malagasy basketball coach, told me in French over the phone. "For example, while playing Scratch (a free programming language), kids have to think strategically and make quick decisions. It's pretty much the same thing in basketball."
Dream Camp—where 42 kids are currently receiving lessons—is a project geared to teach underprivileged Malagasy kids coding, conservation, sport, and hygiene. It was set up in November 2015 by Chris Corbett, the founder of Human Development League (HDL), a non-profit organization based in Madagascar. The Malagasy are an ethnic group that forms almost the entire population in Madagascar.
The camp provides training to kids aged between seven and 12. To set up the pilot operations, Corbett teamed up with Andriamahenina, Malagasy coding guru Sahaza Marline, and basketball coach Cray Bony, who has run basketball camps in both the USA and Tanzania. The training venue is at the local technical high school, which has a basketball court but only five very old computers for roughly 1,000 students.
"We really wanted to give these kids some coding skills that could help with future employment," Corbett told me. In a report, UNICEF states that out of the 100 children that attend primary school only 60 percent graduate, and only 25 percent go on to complete junior high school.When kids play with Scratch they create animations, stories, and characters by snapping blocks together. Corbett and his team took this methodology and moved it onto the basketball court, getting the kids to give instructions to one another, envision they were blocks, and move along the court accordingly. The idea is to build a symbiotic learning relationship between the games that they conduct in the real and virtual worlds.
Corbett developed his ideas of using sport as an educative platform by attending various events across Africa that promoted development via sporting activities.
"Everyone believes that sport has inherent benefits as it promotes team work, but there is this other model which basically uses sport-based activities as metaphors to teach concepts, so that it's more than just sport," he said.
As Corbett planned to upscale his sports development projects by finding funders and partners, Madagascar was plunged into a political crisis in 2009, which resulted in street protests and dozens of deaths in Antananarivo, the city's capital. Following the 2009 political coup, economic sanctions were placed on Madagascar, bringing an already feeble economy to its knees.
Not to be defeated, Corbett continued to make connections with the local sporting, conservation, and tech community in Madagascar, until he had enough manpower to start the Dream Camp pilot project last November 2015. His first batch of students have just completed their first round of courses, and Corbett hopes to bring in more students and provide more advanced courses to his existing students.
Madagascar is currently home to a nascent tech community, boasting a modest innovation hub dubbed Habaka and a CoderDojo (a global movement of free coding clubs for kids) in Toamasina, a town on the east coast of Madagascar. According to Corbett, though there are companies in Madagascar looking for employees, access to investment and talent is still scarce. He launched Dream Camp out of his own pocket and is currently looking for funding in order to sustain and expand it.
While Corbett and his team are making up the Dream Camp curriculum as they go on with feedback from the kids, they have high hopes for what it could be in the future with the help of more partners and equipment. At the moment, the camp is operating with seven donated laptops.
"Our hope is that we can maintain these kids in our programme for multiple years, and that we can maybe link them up to our partners and companies so that they get get internships, or more advanced training," said Corbett. "We'd like to rebrand Madagascar as Silicon Island and bring in contacts from Silicon Valley and give Madagascar more visibility."