With a GDP per capita of approximately $555 and annual national government expenditure per person at $109, Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world. This means spending on virtually everything in Malawi is low, including education. Even though Malawi spent almost 23% of total government expenditure on education from 2017-2019, this amounted to just $52 per capita. To put this in perspective, the United States’ GDP per capita is more than $76,000, federal government spending per person is roughly $30,000, and public education expenditure per student is $15,633.  Yet somehow it is in Malawi that a literacy and numeracy revolution is happening.

Over the past several years, Imagine Worldwide, an education technology nonprofit organization whose mission is to empower “children around the globe to build the literacy and numeracy skills needed to achieve their full potential,” has been working to transform how children learn in Malawi. I learned about Imagine Worldwide’s work through my colleague, friend, and co-founder of the Christensen Institute, Michael Horn (he sits on the board of Imagine Worldwide). The organization is “laser focused” on teaching literacy and numeracy skills to provide a pathway for people to lead better lives. 

Imagine Worldwide (Imagine) collaborates closely with governments, local organizations, and communities to create a context specific technology solution with long-term sustainability at its core. Their solution comprises a portable tablet equipped with software that offers a research-based curriculum which has shown significant learning in literacy and math skills. This curriculum adapts to each child’s pace, progress, as well as their cultural and linguistic context. The tablet does not require Internet connectivity and can be charged via solar power. 

But this isn’t the first time technology has promised to transform education in resource-poor countries. The failure of the One Laptop Per Child initiative and Intel’s Classmate PC program come to mind. Yet there is something uniquely intriguing about Imagine’s solution that gives me hope. 

First, the solution is built and deployed with the child at the heart and the local context in mind. Consider the cost, for instance. Imagine’s solution costs less than $7 per child annually. This cost includes the hardware, software, accessories, shipping, support, and continues to decline as the organization works to scale its operation. In contrast, the One Laptop Per Child and Intel Classmate PC products cost a couple hundred dollars per computer. In addition, I’m not aware of the specific problem the computers were solving other than the belief that computers in the hands is a good thing. In Malawi, where the government spends just $52 per capita on education, a solution like Imagine’s makes sense from both a cost perspective and a teacher shortage standpoint. Imagine is currently working to deploy one million tablets in the next five years in Malawi.

Second, Imagine’s solution is more than just providing a tablet with software to children in a school or community. It is about building an ecosystem that ensures its innovation is sustainable within the context it finds itself. As such, the organization is deploying more than 6,000 solar systems in Malawi and also working with local technicians so they can fix and maintain the tablets. In a blog written by the organization’s co-CEOs, they note, “By cultivating local repair networks, we not only reduce costs and e-waste but also create technically-oriented jobs in severely economically-challenged regions. If we do this well, we will drive down unit costs to well under $5 per child per year while ensuring the longevity of our impact, stimulating the economy, and protecting the environment.”

This willingness to build an ecosystem to support the very specific goal of improving literacy and numeracy in resource-poor settings is consistent with market-creating innovations. Market-creating innovations transform complicated and expensive products into simple and affordable ones making them accessible to a whole new population of people who couldn’t afford existing products on the market. These innovations are more than products or services. They are entire systems that result in a paradigm shift in how a society produces and consumes a particular product or service. 

Consider how Henry Ford changed how we produce and consume cars. Before Ford’s Model T, which made cars affordable, cars were toys for the rich. But Ford didn’t only make the Model T affordable, he built an entire ecosystem that supported the car’s production, consumption, and service. From building glass, paint, and tire factories to operating gas stations and service centers, Ford needed to build an entire infrastructure that made the long-term sustainability of this new innovation possible. This is similar to what Imagine is doing. By building local repair networks, solar power infrastructure, and continuing to reduce cost as the product scales, Imagine is creating a new market that could solve the literacy and numeracy problems in both Malawi and other parts of Africa.

Development is difficult and leaders in poor countries often wish they had access to resources present in wealthier economies. But I’m reminded by what Yuen Yuen Ang, a political scientist I deeply admire, says about development: the first step in development is using what you have, not what you want. This is a big first step for Malawi.


  • Efosa Ojomo
    Efosa Ojomo

    Efosa Ojomo is a senior research fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, and co-author of The Prosperity Paradox: How Innovation Can Lift Nations Out of Poverty. Efosa researches, writes, and speaks about ways in which innovation can transform organizations and create inclusive prosperity for many in emerging markets.