Somali Distance Education and Literacy

Country Profile: Somali Democratic Republic


9,832,017 (2009)

Official Languages

Somali and Arabic

Primary School Net Enrolment/Attendance

9–22 % (2000–2007)

Adult Literacy Rate (15 years and over, 2000–2006)

Female: 25.8%
Male: 49.7%
Total: 37.8%


Programme Overview

Programme TitleSomali Distance Education and Literacy (SOMDEL)
Implementing OrganizationAfrica Educational Trust (AET) in partnership with BBC World Service (through the BBC World Service Trust)
Language of InstructionSomali
Programme PartnersDepartment for International Development (DFID, UK), the European Commission and Comic Relief
Date of Inception2001

Background and context

For more than two decades, Somalia has been an epicentre of a violent armed conflict. The ongoing civil war has severely damaged the country’s socioeconomic infrastructure including schools. Many children and young people have been forced to abandon school due to the prevailing high levels of insecurity. Estimates from 2000 to 2007 suggest that less than 25% of children had access to primary education while the net secondary school attendance or enrolment ratio for the same period was 6% (8% and 4% for males and females, respectively). In addition, the few functional schools lack basic resources and qualified teachers. Thus, the conflict-engendered problems have created a ‘missing generation’; hundreds of thousands of young people deprived of access to basic education with some now being ‘too old’ and unable or unwilling to attend formal schooling. In light of these challenges, attempts to address the problem of illiteracy in Somalia needed to involve innovative and flexible approaches to education which help people to receive basic education without compromising their security or livelihoods. It is with these considerations in mind that Africa Educational Trust (AET) in partnership with the BBC World Service introduced the Somali Distance Education and Literacy (SOMDEL) programme in 2001.

SOMDEL programme

SOMDEL is an intergenerational radio-based distance education and literacy programme which was developed through an extensive participatory impact assessment (PIA) process involving potential beneficiaries in Somalia as well as Somali and other professionals. The extensive PIA process was primarily intended to make the programme more relevant to, and therefore capable of addressing, local needs as well as to bring the programme to the levels of the formal primary education system. As a result of this consultative process, the programme produced a condensed curriculum based on four cross-cutting themes:

Having identified the thematic areas of study, Somali professionals (based in Nairobi and London) were engaged to produce the teaching-learning materials to be used for radio broadcasts and for home-based learning by participants. Overall, the extensive consultation process ensured that the programme had extensive local input and thus remained contextually and culturally relevant, while the involvement of professionals ensured that the programme maintained high educational standards.

Aims and objectives


The programme targets young men and women (aged 16 to 25 years) with limited access to education. Primary targets include those from socially disadvantaged backgrounds such as internally displaced people.

By targeting socially disadvantaged people, the programme endeavours to ensure that people in difficult circumstances, particularly girls, have access to high quality literacy, numeracy and life skills training services which will improve their opportunities for sustainable livelihoods in rural and other post-conflict areas in Somalia.

Programme implementation: Approaches and methodologies

Recruitment and training of facilitators

Although radio broadcasts play a central role in the implementation of the programme, the role of teachers or facilitators is equally important. Programme facilitators or teachers are normally nominated by and recruited from within their communities either after contacting AET or other local partner NGOs or after being recommended by their communities.

Usually, facilitators are recruited from a pool of qualified but un-/underemployed teachers as well as from a large number of young people who have secondary education but because of the ongoing conflict have not been able to go to college or to find employment. To date, the programme has engaged about 500 teachers.


The teachers are not paid a salary and the work is seen as the communities’ contribution to the programme. However, teachers receive stipends amounting to about US$100 per year. Each teacher is expected to serve about 20 learners although the teacher-learner ratio often rises to as much as one to 40 in some cities.

Enrolment of learners

Radio broadcasts play a key role in enrolling learners. In addition, community leaders and programme facilitators are encouraged to promote the importance of literacy and to encourage community members to enroll.

Teaching-learning methods

The implementation of the SOMDEL programme is based on the flexible and integrated use of three basic distance teaching approaches or strategies: 50 weekly 30-minute radio broadcasts, structured print materials and weekly community-based face-to-face tutorials/instruction.

The radio programmes (known locally in Somali as Macallinka Raddiya or Radio Teacher) are broadcast by the BBC Somali Service. Accordingly, the learning materials, as well as teachers’ instruction manuals, are directly linked to the radio programmes in order to enable learners to follow the radio lessons and to allow the teachers to effectively mentor the learners. In addition, linking radio broadcasts with written materials also enables learners to study on their own (home-based learning).


The radio programmes are supplemented with face-to-face classes or tutorials which are provided by volunteer teachers. Teachers often use taped radio broadcasts which enable them to assist learners in areas without radio signals, and offer tutorials at a time and place that is most convenient to learners. This strategy has proved particularly important for women and girls, who are often expected to do household chores during conventional school hours.

The use of these teaching-learning strategies is not only meant to overcome the challenges posed by the severe shortage of resources including the lack of qualified teachers but also to empower local communities to independently implement basic literacy and life skills programmes. Hence, the strategies also promote a culture of reading outside the formal schooling system.

To enhance the effectiveness and sustainability of the SOMDEL programme, actual teaching-learning activities are always tailored to the specific context. For example, since most young people, especially young women, work during the ‘school day’ the course is delivered in the afternoon at a time and a local location which suits their needs.


The learners’ examination scripts are marked by their teachers and the results are forwarded to the regional AET office for moderation.

In addition, AET also engages external experts to evaluate its activities. To date, two external evaluations, Fentiman (2003) and Thomas (2006), have been undertaken. The reports indicated that the SOMDEL programme has been a major success as indicated below.



Overall, as noted in a key evaluation report ‘SOMDEL has a lot of promise to deliver literacy, numeracy and life skills to thousands of disadvantaged people. SOMDEL is a flexible and adaptable approach to literacy and empowerment and in the long term it is hoped that SOMDEL will assist in the alleviation of poverty through access to basic education for all’ (Fentiman, 2003).

In order to clearly highlight the impact of the programme on beneficiaries and their families and communities, the following testimonies are instructive.

  1. Ali Jama (age 18, water seller): ‘Previously I didn’t know exactly how much money I was collecting for the water and I think I was losing money. Now I know the names of the people and write the amounts in the books…now I know how much they should pay.’
  2. Fatima (age 18): ‘I can read letters and write for my family and neighbours. Before I was ignorant and they weren’t interested, they said I knew nothing. But now that I can read and write, they ask me to help them.’
  3. Mahamed, (age 18): ‘Now when I get a letter from my friends or family, I can read it. Previously, I had to ask someone to read it for me. Now when I want to send a letter I can say anything – no-one knows but me. Before, the person who wrote the letter would tell everyone and every neighbour would know my private things, but I didn't have any choice...’
  4. Halimo (age 60) lives in Hargeisa with her husband and her three youngest children. She began a tailoring business in 1995 when her husband became sick and was forced to give up work. Having been given no other educational opportunities, Halimo was keen to be enrolled on the SOMDEL programme so that she could become literate and better provide for her family. She started attending the SOMDEL classes in 2004, and has now completed both Level 1 and Level 2. Halimo reported that attending the SOMDEL classes had benefited her household's livelihood security because she is now able to more accurately measure out cloth, keep accounts and maintain records of monies owed to her by customers. She is also able to help her children with their school work and feels that she has gained respect from her husband and family.
  5. Mahamed (age 18): For most of his childhood, Mahamed worked as a livestock herder near Las Anod. In 2003 he moved to Burao to live with his uncle. Although his uncle owned a shop, he did not allow Mahamed to work for him because he was illiterate. However, since completing SOMDEL Level 1 in April 2006, his uncle has asked him to assist him in the shop so that he can spend more time caring for his elderly father.

Because Mahamed is able to read and has gained basic numeracy skills, he is able to keep records and accounts, resulting in an increase in profits in the shop. Although Mahamed is not paid, he feels that he has gained the trust and respect of his uncle and has increased his sense of purpose and responsibility. He is hopeful that his work experience will earn him a good reputation among other shop keepers in Burao, and enable him to secure paid employment in the future.




The sustainability of the programme is based on three principal factors. First and foremost, there is high motivation among young Somalis for education and literacy training. As such, most participants often use their own resources to purchase radios in order to listen to AET educational broadcasts. Community support is also very strong as education is viewed as one of the most important strategies in keeping young people out of the conflict as well as for promoting socioeconomic development. Accordingly, ordinary provide the infrastructure for community-based classes.

Secondly, the programme is also supported by the government. For example, in Somaliland, AET qualifications are officially recognised and the Ministry of Education signs the certificates offered to graduates. This enhances the credibility of the programme as graduates can use their qualifications for further education.

Finally, the programme is cheap to implement. Apart from radio broadcasts, teachers also receive audio cassettes which they use as teaching aides especially for teaching people in areas with limited radio signals or with limited access to radios.

Lessons learned

The importance of timing radio broadcasts to suit local needs is critical for the success and effectiveness of radio-based distance education programmes. There is also a need to disseminate information about distance and non-formal education to create a better understanding in the local population and avoid the misconception that non-formal education is second rate, girls’ education. It is also important to ensure that the ‘footprint’ of the broadcasts is assessed so that, if good quality short wave reception cannot be received, alternatives can be arranged, e.g. broadcasting through local FM stations or transferring broadcasts to cassettes. The difficulties of distributing print materials in hard to reach areas must be addressed from the outset to reduce problems later on. Finally, long term solutions to power and battery supplies should be considered such as the use of solar powered or wind-up radios.

Distance education programmes are likely to be more effective when the community is involved. In the case of the SOMDEL programme, the course content is based on what the community wanted and was developed with close community input. In addition, the radio broadcasts incorporate key ideas and life skills which are accessible both to students and the general listening population. This provision of quality course materials, produced externally but delivered locally, is a key element in the success of distance education programmes.



Dr Michael Brophy

18 Hand Court
London, WC1V 6JF

Tel: +44 (0)20 7831 3283
Fax: +44 (0)20 7242 3265

Email: m.brophy (at) / m.brophy (at)


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