Despite high enrolment rates, east African students aren’t learning basic literacy skills. Production company Ubongo is changing that – through entertainment
Of the nearly 130 million school-aged children in Africa today, it’s estimated that one-quarter of them won’t have the opportunity to attend school. Of those that do get the chance, a small fraction will receive access to quality teachers and adequate resources that fully support their education.
In east Africa, a region comprised of Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and Tanzania, although primary school enrolment rates reach as high as 90%, the majority of students are not learning basic literacy skills within their first few years of education. Half of all students graduating primary school in Tanzania lack basic English reading skills, which is the medium of instruction in secondary school – inevitably setting them up to fall further behind. Part of this correlates with the nearly 50-to-1 student-teacher ratio in the country’s public schools.
If trends like these persist, Africa’s future generations will remain alarmingly vulnerable. A report conducted by Uwezo, a five-year initiative to improve literacy and numeracy among six- to 16-year-olds in east Africa, says it best: “The data show that there is a crisis of learning in our schools. The question is what is to be done.”
After living in Tanzania during and after her undergraduate years, Nisha Ligon started to see how poor education deeply infiltrated numerous other issues. With a background in science and filmmaking, she moved to the UK to work for a company that created educational video content for kids in the developing world.
She soon experienced a mounting sense of frustration, however, as she realised the majority of kids who needed it most would never access what she produced. So, she quit her job and moved back to Tanzania. After a fortuitous two-hour coffee meeting in Dar es Salaam with a handful of other creatives, educators, and technologists, Ligon co-founded and became the CEO of Ubongo in 2013.
“440 million kids under the age of 15 in Sub-Saharan Africa stand to miss out on opportunities for a quality education,” says Ligon. “Our goal is to give kids the resources and motivation to learn at low cost and massive scale.”
Ubongo, which means “brain” in Swahili, produces interactive educational content for children and delivers it to African families via technologies they already possess, like radio, television, and SMS.
Radio is still the primary medium for communications in Africa, yet nearly 60% of households in Sub-Saharan Africa have televisions. Mobile phones are almost as common in the region as they are in the United States.
Instead of building new technology, Ligon and her team decided to focus on producing fun, high-quality, localised content for the technology that was already being used in east African households. They created the first ever animated TV series in Tanzania, called Ubongo Kids, which teaches math and science to primary school-aged children in an engaging and accessible way.
Earlier this year, Ubongo launched the first pre-school cartoon in the region, Akili and Me. In both shows, a cast of animal and human characters talk and sing lessons that are carefully crafted to teach kids to love learning.
“If we can help kids access resources to build a love of learning and a growth mindset – or even just move the needle a tiny bit on a generation of kids – then that’s going to have an exponential impact on the whole continent,” says Ligon. “They’re going to be the new leaders who will solve the problems we face now and into the future.”
Ubongo’s shows broadcast on TBC, a Tanzanian equivalent to BBC. Anyone with access to a TV can view this channel. Akili and Me broadcasts on weekday afternoons, and both Ubongo Kids and Akili air on Saturday and Sunday mornings. Ubongo even has a 15-minute experimental segment that follows the afternoon news every day, in which they test new ideas or start conversations about larger educational issues.
Beyond Tanzania, Ubongo broadcasts weekly or twice weekly, with three different show times on Saturday mornings in Kenya and shows on the weekends in both Rwanda and Uganda. All shows
According to Ligon, it’s relatively easy to get time slots on the most-watched national TV stations in the region because the networks crave quality, localised content. However, unlike the commission system in the US or UK, the majority of African broadcasters don’t pay content providers. So, although Ubongo has to find external funders, they retain the creative freedom to produce impactful content.
Within six months of launching, Ubongo Kids reached 1.4m unique households. Now, with access to so much air time, the shows reach over 5m unique households every week, making Ubongo the largest classroom in Africa.
And the impact speaks for itself: An impact evaluation showed 30% greater gains in early numeracy and literacy skills when kids watched Akili and Me versus control groups that watched non-educational shows.
According to Ligon, whereas the first half of 2016 was all about launching Ubongo’s new products, such as a radio show to reach kids in rural areas, the company focus is now on scale.
“My dream is that 20 years from now, I’ll meet people who grew up watching the show and were inspired to make a difference in whatever way they can, from making improvements in their local community to going into science or politics,” she says. “Then, in the way people do with Sesame Street now, they can say, ‘[Ubongo] really impacted what and how I learned as a kid, and it helped set me on this path’. That’s really our goal, to help change the trajectory of the next generation.”
The team is well on its way. They are raising funding to open more country offices, adapt content to new languages, and increase their overall production capacity. Ubongo Kids will expand into 24 new countries within the next few months.
But the progress won’t stop there. In two years, they envision their products “edutaining” children across the entire African continent, impacting lives for generations to come.
The entrepreneur featured in this story participated in Project Literacy Lab, a new initiative co-founded by Pearson and Unreasonable Group to wrap resources around the fastest growing ventures worldwide positioned to solve key challenges tied to illiteracy.
Brittany Lane is the global editor at Unreasonable.is.
Content on this page is paid for and provided by Pearson, a sponsor of the Guardian Global Development Professionals Network