Niani Diarra: Future President of Mali

In Mali, digitizing school attendance is helping produce accurate data – and helping children return to school

By Anne Kennedy
Niani Diarra with her father Danzine Diarra, behind
UNICEF Mali/2019/Kenedy
19 February 2020

Looking down occasionally, but speaking clearly, through a smile, 12-year-old Niani Diarra is clearly comfortable answering questions: a trait that will come in handy when she has achieved her ambition to become the President of Mali.

Her father, Danzine Diarra, the current President of the Parents Committee of Kénèkolo village, nods in proud agreement behind her. It is a bold ambition for any child, but Niani's school is part of a project that calls for such boldness. To help their children and to help their education system, in 2020, Niani's school will digitize their school attendance system. The exact, up-to-date information will allow informed decisions to be made regionally and nationally by education authorities.

Niani’s father, Danzine Diarra President of the Parents Committee of Kénèkolo village holds up his card.
UNICEF Mali/2019/Kenedy

That large numbers of children in Mali who are not in school is well known. It is estimated today that 1.2 million children aged seven to twelve are out of school throughout Mali, meaning nearly 50% of children that should be benefitting from primary school education are currently out of school. Niani’s father is deeply involved with the school, and he knows exactly why each parent who keeps a child from school does so. The most common reasons are that the parents do not think education is as important for girls as learning housework. Parents may also find the yearly contributions requested by the school, at 1500 XOF a year per enrolled student (about USD2.50), too much. Keeping girls home can save money for parents and in turn, the girls help look after their brothers.

“Education opens students’ minds”

On top of his job as principal of the Kénèkolo school, Moïse Sagara, also teaches two classes, of thirty and forty students each. He admits himself that sometimes roll taking can be left undone between all his priorities and although he tries to visit the parents of children who have dropped out of school, he sometimes just does not have time. “I tell them children should be sent to school,” he says. “Because education opens students’ minds. But it’s not easy.”

Every year, the number of children enrolled in the school increases. But dropouts are also common. Sometimes, absenteeism of children is only temporary, but sometimes it turns into actual dropout, making it hard to keep accurate records of school attendance.

This data disconnect is repeated across Mali. Precious information isolated in remote areas until it is outdated. And then lost.

A new project in Mali aims to change that by making enrollment figures easy for teachers to collect, while also making them readily available to the Ministry of Education. As part of the PAIS project, each family in the target areas has been given an electronic card, with each child registered on it. As they attend school, the card is scanned by the principal onto a tablet, creating a simple, easy and cost-effective way of taking attendance. The hardest part is getting the data uploaded, as internet connections can be slow or non-existent. But even in remote Kénèkolo it is possible at least once a month.

Funded by the European Union, the PAIS project aims to return 250,000 Malian children to school by 2022. A partnership between UNICEF, the World Food Programme, International Rescue Committee and the Norwegian Refugee Council, the project started by conducting a survey on children of school-going age. The reasons for dropouts in Mali are complex. While insecurity is correctly listed as a cause for some, other reasons can range from child marriage, to a lack of gender-separated toilets and water in schools, or families’ views on the importance of education. The door-to-door survey and the issuing of electronic cards are part of a mix of traditional and technology solutions UNICEF is using to support children’s return to schools. Other solutions include community dialogue, the distribution of school kits to vulnerable children, and using mobile phones technology to identify out-of-school children in communities.

VooLinks, a local company, devised and implemented a survey of over 22,000 families across four key regions - Kayes, Koulikoro, Segou and Sikasso - to identify and locate children out of school, or at risk of being out of school.

The 14 children Danzine Diarra is responsible for: Omu Jara; Drissa, Modibo, Boureima, Founé, Ousmane, Sira, Awa, Abou, Konimba, Soungala and Niani Diarra; Macdiè and Djô Coulibaly with him, the Voolinks surveyor Souleymane Dembélé and Moïse Sagara Principale of the Kénèkolo village school, Koulikoro, Mali.
UNICEF Mali/2019/Kenedy

Cultural differences are important to absorb into any system, but especially in the digitizing of systems. In Mali, responsibilities in extended families are divided. In the case of Niani, her father Danzine Diarra is responsible for all the extended family’s children. His dedication to education was felt by the village, and he was also nominated the President of the Parents Committee, set up by UNICEF.

Each child is asked directly, not just through their parents, if they agree to having their name on the card. During the first visit that the PAIS surveyor made, Danzine was registered as the family representative for a total of ten children. During the second visit of the project, four more children that he is in charge of, agreed to be added to his card. Through multiple visits, the survey has already interviewed 25,000 households and identified over 49,000 children aged between 6 - 15 years old who are out of school and who can be helped during the 2019-2020 school year.

Niani believes everyone should go to school, and work hard at it. Her favorite subject is reading and reciting. Her teacher, Moïse, admits she still needs to make progress, but that she shows strong determination. “There is knowledge to be gained,” he says. And for adults too, finally being able to connect remote schools to education authorities in the capital will allow vital knowledge to be gained, and vital solutions to emerge.