by Siddhanth Sequeira on

“I don’t care who you are, what gender you identify with, what race you are, what religion you are – there are people out there that care for you,” said Janan Loh, chief operating officer of local social enterprise The Patatas.

A group of social innovators that uses cutting-edge technology to provide e-learning tools for underprivileged communities around the world, The Patatas is a subsidiary of the Singapore-based Potato Productions, an organisation that supports social enterprises.

Tablet by tablet, The Patatas is equipping teachers in disadvantaged Asian countries – Philippines, Myanmar, Bangladesh, among others – with the gift of technology to uplift their communities. Their pilot project, Project Digi-Eskwela, focuses on providing digital learning tools, such as digital tablets, to private teachers and rural schools in the Philippines.

Launched in 2014, Project Digi-Eskwela partnered with NGOs that are dedicated to improving education in rural areas in the Philippines. The programme, which is also The Patatas’ longest-running effort, found its legs in the provincial city of Legazpi, in partnership with Filipino charity Tiwala Kids and Communities.

Loh said: “At first, we gave five tablets to the teachers who distributed them among 25 children. In just three months of providing (our) first digital tablets to the schools, we were informed that 150 children had been using them. We then upgraded to 10. With 10 tablets, we got to 300 children. With 20 tablets, we reached 500 children.”

The Patatas’ reach grew rapidly. While it initially started with private teachers, the movement of e-learning expanded to the local schools in the Legazpi area. The Patatas hopes that improving education in these communities will be a first step in moving poorer families out of poverty.

Since 2014, 1,200 students have participated in Project Digi-Eskwela. In just a five-year period, the impacted communities have seen a 50 per cent improvement in literacy skills and 54 per cent improvement in numeracy skills.

Teachers and principals also report that their students are more punctual, attentive and engaged since being introduced to the e-learning tools that The Patatas has provided.

Speaking to The Pride, Loh said that their primary goal is to supply teachers with the tools of digital literacy, and not so much to teach the kids directly, as he’s conscious of not causing further emotional or psychological distress to the already vulnerable children by continually moving in and out of their communities.

Image Source: Janan Loh / The Patatas

He explained: “They might think ‘why are these people coming in, building a relationship with me, and then abandoning me? Is it because I’m worthless?’”

Hence, The Patatas’ ethos of offering backend support for front-end problems.

According to Loh, technology and social change must work in tandem because of the world’s rapid digital evolution.

“The world is moving ahead into the digital stream and unfortunately the underprivileged and underrepresented communities do not have the finances to own digital devices. And in a way, the world is leaving them behind,” he said.

The Patatas aims to adapt their processes to the communities they impact, rather than expecting the teachers to fit into “first-world” biases. The partnering teachers, for example, have full autonomy of their curriculum, methods and style of teaching.

To Loh, both the organisation and the communities they help can learn greatly from one and other. And the result of this ground-up learning was both a social and technological epiphany in the form of their most recent invention, the CaseStudy.

Image Source: Janan Loh / The Patatas

“What we learned from the ground after visiting (the Philippines) in 2017, was that these rural schools did, in fact, have a computer lab. But I use this term very loosely. It is not the fancy, air-conditioned labs in Singapore with 40 computers. In many instances, these ‘labs’ either did not have any internet connection or it was extremely slow. There are around two to three computers there that are old and have been donated to the school.

“However, (many) of these computer labs were either destroyed by a flood, hurricane or some other situation. So, we started thinking about how we can make our devices more robust – that’s why we created the CaseStudy.”

Built in an effort to make e-learning accessible, adaptive and customisable, the CaseStudy prototype is a portable water-proof and shock-proof unit that houses digital e-learning devices. It is a “cost-effective digital solution” that battles fragile infrastructure and undulating road conditions to make its way to vulnerable communities.

Comprising a mini computer, air mouse and keyboard, tablets, projector screen, solar panel power unit, speakers and a projector, the set is tailor-made to aid learning in any physical condition.

But more than just providing the tools needed for learning, The Patatas’ work has also been instrumental in reshaping the dialogue surrounding education in rural Philippines.

From left: Loh with Gilbert Sadsad, Philippines’ Regional Director of the Department of Education, and Emmylou Hallig, director of charity Tiwala Kids and Communities. Image Source: Janan Loh / The Patatas

“Just last week, we met with the Regional Director of the Department of Education (of the Bicol region in the Philippines) and he actually endorsed our project along with our teachers. This means that our projects are supported by the government on a local level,” Loh said.

But running the business isn’t always smooth sailing.

As many of The Patatas’ partners are non-profit organisations in poorer communities, the lack of funding by local Filipino beneficiaries remains a financial reality. Furthermore, the organisation struggles with finding partners who are willing to contribute content, such as basic phonetic English and mathematics lessons, for the CaseStudy.

Loh also expanded on how battling a culture is sometimes greater than the financial obstacles.

“When the project first started, the teachers had to hold these (digital) classes in different locations,” he explained, as the e-learning tools have not been implemented in all schools in the region. “The parents were the ones who weren’t interested. They said that they’d rather have their children go to work rather than study.”

Despite these challenges, however, Loh finds his work rewarding, especially when he witnesses a tangible change in the culture of education.

Image Source: Janan Loh / The Patatas

“As the project progressed, there was a shift in the mindset of the parents. Once they saw that their children were actually improving, more and more parents started putting in a little money to send their children for this education if it was conducted in a location slightly further away. From a poorer community that prioritises work over education, to make a mindset shift, I think it was a huge point of validation.”

Through his efforts with The Patatas, Loh hopes to remind us that social change is a long-term effort. Not only is his team working for our current generation, but also for generations in the future, ones that they may never see.

When asked about the legacy he wants to leave behind, Loh drew upon a memorable quote from the founder of Potato Productions, Lee Han Shih.

“He said, ‘I do not need to leave any legacy behind, I do not need any statues of me. My legacy is knowing that after I’m gone, the people I’ve left behind are still helping people’. And I think that’s something that I’m trying to emulate as well.”