Educational Startup To Equip Low-income Kids With Digital Devices

Circular Digital Lab Cambodia is collecting old laptops and phones to donate to rural students in a bid to increase opportunities during the country’s digital transformation.
No child should be left out when the economy shifts further into the digital realm. Picture: Sam
No child should be left out when the economy shifts further into the digital realm. Picture: Sam

A digital startup is helping children from low-income families gain access to ICT and relevant opportunities as part of its vision that no child should be left out by 2050, when the economy shifts further into the digital realm.

Chan Pirun, 27, founder and CEO of Circular Digital Lab Cambodia, has an educational background majoring in international relations at Royal University of Phnom Penh (RUPP), and pursued a one-year certificate in international economics.

His team’s mission is to make sure no more kids miss the chance to be involved in developing the digitalisation of Cambodia’s economy in a sustainable way.

“We are hoping that by 2050, there will be no child left denied the opportunities of the digital economy. Then we will start to think about what we can do to achieve that vision together. We decided to give the youth the skills, the tools, the knowledge, and the mindset so they can thrive through the transformation.”

Chan Pirun, founder and CEO of Circular Digital Lab Cambodia
Chan Pirun, founder and CEO of Circular Digital Lab Cambodia

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Circular Digital Lab Cambodia is dedicated to addressing the digital devices in the country and bringing the opportunity to children. Its first project will be “E-Circular”, which aims to give students more access to digital literacy across-Kampong Cham, Battambang and Siem Reap provinces this year.

Circular Digital Lab Cambodia has been crowned the winner of US-ASEAN Innovation Circle Grassroots Competition 2021, challenge theme Digital Economy: How to ensure inclusive access to technology for all.

A survey by Cambodian Education Forum (CEF Cambodia) of 80 highschool students in Takeo found that 6.25% do not have a suitable digital device, such as smartphones, to participate in online learning effectively.

Save the Children 2021 reported 2.6% of students in Cambodia who have no access to digital devices (specifically smartphones or laptops) are 2.6% more likely to be at risk of school dropout than students who do have access.

Through their project, Circular Digital Lab Cambodia will collect electronic devices from the public who want to donate used or unused devices. These will be fixed to be used by students in rural areas to improve and enhance their knowledge while connecting to the online world.

Ratanaktepi Chhor donates her iPhone to Circular Digital Lab Cambodia
Ratanaktepi Chhor donates her iPhone to Circular Digital Lab Cambodia

During the online device collection campaign, which ran from late-October 2021 until late March 2022, four smartphones and five laptops were donated to the E-Circular project. The campaign will run again from July to September, with the aim of collecting 30 devices, according to Pirun.

When Covid-19 hit in 2020, Pirun said he saw it as an immediate persuasive and pivotal moment to form a small team to tackle the digital issues, especially seeing the huge lack of access to digital devices during e-learning.

“Schools were closed to prevent the spread of the virus and many moved or were forced to learn online. So, by 2021, we saw a huge need as students cannot access digital learning. During that period, we decided, ok, we don’t have to be perfect but let’s launch this together,” said Pirun.

While collecting data and conducting surveys online to measure how many people are willing to donate their used devices, he found some concerns, such as the devices’ being too old to donate, too broken, and personal data.

“We were aware that a lot of people do not really sell their old devices, according to our study. They’d rather keep them. So, that was a starting point that motivated us to work towards it,” said Pirun.

“Youth are more involved in social issues. When they start to focus on digital devices, they would start to focus on education and environmental issues. So, we thought about how we can help facilitate people who want to make that small change with just one small step."

“We want to be that facilitator; we want to make that promise. All you need to do is donate your devices and we ensure it makes an impact on the student it is given to.”

Pirun said in most cases, people don’t know how to dispose of old devices besides from selling them. Additionally, there are potential dangers surrounding keeping devices for too long, such as battery liquid and chemical leaks.

“In many cases, there are chemicals in the devices that may affect your health in the long-run, devices also have their life-cycles.”

Broken phones at a shop in Phnom Penh. Picture: Meas Molika
Broken phones at a shop in Phnom Penh. Picture: Meas Molika

E-waste volumes are surging globally. According to the Global E-waste Statistics Partnership (GESP), they grew by 21% in the five years up to 2019, when 53.6 million metric tons of e-waste were generated.

Last year’s e-waste weighed as much as 350 cruise ships placed end-to-end to form a line 125km long. This growth is projected to continue as the use of computers, mobile phones and other electronics continues to expand, alongside their rapid obsolescence.

In 2019, the GESP found that 17.4% of e-waste collected and appropriately recycled prevented as much as 15 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalents from being released into the environment.

19 kilotons of e-waste were generated in Cambodia, this is based on reference from ‘E-waste generated by country and countries with e-waste legislation, policy or regulation in place in 2019’ in the country data table from International Labour Organization.

According to research by the World Bank during the project, Circular Digital Lab Cambodia also discovered that the electricity coverage is high, internet coverage from medium to high, but access to devices is low, including digital literacy, which are issues they want to address.

Pirun, who works as an economist at an international NGO, is passionate about education and the importance of early schools for children.

“Primary to lower secondary education is like the room where you want to make sure they absorb a lot of things quickly. Imagine, the whole one year and half of Covid left them without absorbing anything,” he said.

“This might not just affect them just personally but also affect the economy on a larger scale,” he said. He added it is important to take urgent action as students lack digital devices to gain knowledge on the internet.

Nakren Keo donates his Dell Vostro 5468 to Circular Digital Lab Cambodia
Nakren Keo donates his Dell Vostro 5468 to Circular Digital Lab Cambodia

“Everyone should be able to access the opportunity that the digital economy brings, in terms of career progression, in terms of studying, in terms of income,” said Pirun.

Chhoeun Sreynuth, 22, a civil servant at the foreign ministry cooperation, donated her high-school 2015 laptop model Dell Inspiron 14R (N4010) to Circular Digital Lab Cambodia in December 2021 in the hope that more of the young generation can access more sources of knowledge.

“I donated my laptop for a simple reason, it is my hope that my laptop plays a role in developing more human resources in Cambodia. I believe laptops have more functions than a phone, therefore they can Google or access broader information as they want to,” said Sreynuth.