Making learning fun

Doreen Kessy, CBO of Tanzanian edtech start-up Ubongo, talks to Charley Rogers about the learning crisis in Africa, and why mobile tech is revolutionising learning


Name: Doreen Kessy

Job title: Chief business officer, Ubongo

Twitter: UBONGOtz

Q. First of all, congratulations on winning the Next Billion Edtech Prize 2019. What plans do you have for your new investment?

Thank you, it is truly an honour for us to win this prize. It an assurance that we are on the right path, and can continue to grow to reach millions of kids with top quality education. The journey continues, we are only getting started. We plan to invest the money from the prize to grow our impact, and channel it to products that reach kids in remote and non-electrified areas across the continent. These include but are not limited to Interactive Voice Response (IVR) and SMS services.

Q. Ubongo provides education for children across Africa that may not have access to mainstream learning. What would you say is the biggest challenge for these children?

There is an education crisis in Africa; kids are in school but they are not learning. This is due to a long list of issues that make learning very difficult; teachers are undertrained, and kids lack basic learning resources such as books, classrooms and other learning resources. And yet, there is so much educational content that is of high quality from around the world that is not getting to these kids due to lack of devices or internet access. 

Innovators must work together instead of working in silos to amplify the impact. 

Q. What led you to develop the product through gamification and edutainment approaches? 

The question for us is always about how we can reach millions of kids with top-quality education, now. Ubongo started as we looked around to see what technologies were readily available and could be leveraged to bring top-quality education to millions of kids in Africa. We saw that most of them had access to TV, radio and mobile phones, so we set out to find ways to distribute localised, interactive, and fun educational content to help kids learn and love learning. We believe that kids need to become lifelong learners, and not just study to pass the test. For that to happen, they need to have enough motivation to learn. Making learning maths, science, and life skills more fun is enough motivation for kids to engage with the content and learn. 

Q. If you could choose one innovation that has made the biggest impact on education in Africa in the last 30 years, what would it be?

It is unfortunate that we don’t often see the education system in Africa, and frankly around the world, evolve as fast as it needs to. But I believe Ubongo is certainly one of the innovations in Africa with the biggest impact on education, as we have been able to find a way to bring top-quality education to millions of kids, both in and out of school. Eleven million kids learn with us monthly, but are also finding the fun in learning. For the longest time, the educational journey for most kids in Africa has been one to dread. Something to just check off the list. And we are changing that by showing kids, teachers and parents that actually, learning doesn’t have to be rigid and boring, it is, in fact, more effective when it is made fun. And I believe this is why we are seeing significant learning outcomes in kids who watch our content compared to those who don’t. Kids who watch Akili and Me have 12% higher overall school readiness scores than control groups watching other cartoons, and outperform their peers by 24% in counting.

Akili and Me

Q. What innovation do you think will make the biggest impact on African education in the next 30 years?

There is no one solution that fits all. The educational crisis on the continent is a complex one, with multiple facets and contexts. It will take a variety of innovations to solve the challenges that we face around teacher training, parental engagement, education financing and so much more. Innovators must work in collaboration instead of working in silos to amplify the impact. 

Education in Africa

● Globally, Africa is home to more than half of out-of-school children of primary school age.

● Poor infrastructure and low-quality education have been identified as important barriers for schooling and learning.

● According to UNESCO, sub-Saharan Africa is the region with the highest rates of education exclusion…

●… over one-fifth of children between the ages of 6 and 11 are out of school…

●… and one-third of young people between the ages of 12 and 14 are out of school.

● Almost 60% of young people in sub-Saharan Africa between the ages of 15 and 17 are not in school.

● In Tanzania, the home country of Ubongo, the average class size exceeds 70 pupils. 

Source: UNESCO Institute for Statistics

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