Alumni & Donors

Kabul Entrepreneur Seeks Solution for Literacy Through Technology

A Fulbright scholar from Afghanistan, Bahadur Hellali M.S. ’12 had one of the world’s great cities – New York – within his sight and grasp while at Castle Point. Opportunities lay literally outside his window.

But whether the future computer scientist was speaking with his professors after class, or contemplating in his quieter moments, his thoughts always returned to Afghanistan.

“It always gives me a lot of motivation that my work would have an impact on the country where I live,” he says. “The whole motivation is to make a change. We are moved to be a part of that change.”

In Kabul, Hellali is a full partner with JS Consultancy Services, where he is a program development director working with clients such as the American University of Afghanistan (overhauling their website) and with the government’s education and energy ministries, doing data analysis and enterprise research planning.

But as he helps to advance the economy and governance of his war-torn nation, Hellali is also fulfilling the promise of his Fulbright — to find solutions to international problems. Hellali has decided to tackle the country’s low literacy rate, among the lowest in the world, and confront what may seem like a national problem that actually has much broader impact.

He’s seeking a solution through technology.

Afghanistan’s national literacy rate is 31 percent, according to UNESCO, and significantly lower than that among women. Working with a four-person team — an education expert, a researcher, an assistant researcher/tech support person, with himself as the technology expert – Hellali plans to launch a pilot literacy program that will use an Android smart tablet to bring a mobile literacy program to those who otherwise wouldn’t have access to it.

The project, supported by the team’s own private fundraising, will recruit 20 Afghans of different backgrounds who can neither read nor write. Using literacy materials developed by the country’s education ministry, the team will customize a series of reading exercises that students complete each week over an eight-week period. Much of the material would be customized to include words that apply to each student’s line of work. The advantage of using a mobile device is that students can hold down jobs to support their families while developing their literacy skills during their free time, since literacy classes in the country tend to be offered only during daytime work hours.

The goal is for students to learn to read basic words by the end of eight weeks, and that the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and other partners will provide funding.

“We are hoping, sure, that we’ll get good results, donors will be interested, and that we’ll have an impact on our society,” Hellali says during a phone interview from his apartment in Kabul.

He also mentions another project — a system to help improve maternal and infant health and reduce death and disease in the country’s remote villages. Women and newborns in these areas often lack proper medical care, and mortality rates are high.

Currently, community health workers use pen and paper to record data on these deceased patients, and it can take months for the data to be collected and analyzed. Hellali has helped develop an automated verbal autopsy tool through which workers would report the data by simply dialing a number on their phones and the system would automatically collect the data and make it ready for analysis. Timely data analysis will not only improve maternal and infant health but will also help in lowering the mortality and morbidity rate among this population, Hellali says. A high-level prototype has been developed to shop to donors.

Hellali, with a B.S. in computer science from Kabul University, brings long technical experience to these challenges. He founded LEMA Network, which offers in-house web and desktop data base services, in 2007 and also worked as a software developer in Kabul with the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund/International Relief and Development, under a World Bank Monitoring Program.

Hellali, who left Afghanistan in 1997 for Pakistan, fleeing both civil war, returned to his country in late 2002. He lives in Kabul with his wife and seven-month-old daughter.

Photo caption:

Bahadur Hellali M.S. ’12, right, is an entrepreneur based in Kabul, Afghanistan who is using technology to address the challenges of literacy and maternal healthcare in his country. Here, he and a colleague examine an Android smart tablet to be used for the literacy project that Hellali is launching.