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M-Lugha: Building digital interactive apps in African native languages
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FULL TRANSCRIPT

[Voices: Call and response]

Narrator: The voices you just heard are from a regular pre-primary class in rural Kenya. Only that the language of instruction is neither English nor Kiswahili, the two officially recognised languages of instruction in the country.

Teaching in Kiswahili or English is not an issue if you were in Nairobi, Mombasa, or the 30% of counties that make up urban Kenya. But for kids in the remaining 70% of counties, it’s definitely inconvenient.  

Abdinoor Almahdi: Imagine walking into a classroom, you’re just like me (I only know Somali) but the syllabus is in English or in Swahili or in French or some other countries like Rwanda and Djibouti. It’s like adding insult to injury.

Narrator: That’s Abdinoor Almahdi, a Kenyan information technologist and telecommunications engineer, and the brain behind Kenyan edtech startup, M-Lugha.

On this episode of Built in Africa, we tell the story of a young innovator building digital interactive apps in several Kenyan native languages, to support early childhood learning, despite locational challenges.

Abdinoor grew up in Northern Kenya, a predominantly nomadic and pastoralist region, where most of the people speak only either Somali/Kalenji, as opposed to the country’s official languages of English and Kiswahili. 

Abdinoor Almahdi: And actually it is almost 80% of the landmass  of Kenya. When I say ‘Northern Kenya’, we’re talking about almost 10 counties. And it’s where actually they experience the most severe educational crisis because of the socio-economic issues we have, from famine to droughts, sometimes flooding and cross-border conflicts. And then above all, now we have a language barrier.

Narrator: A 2016 UNICEF report titled “The impact of language policy and practice on children’s learning” confirms that one of the fundamental challenges of learning in most African nations is the rich diversity of indigenous languages. More often than not, the language of instruction differs from children’s mother tongue.

Abdinoor Almahdi: Imagine telling me this is my head and then still translating it into English or French, like ‘this is your head’. So it’s like you’re translating from unknown to unknown, instead of known to unknown. I know my mother tongue, so why don’t you use what I know to teach what I don’t know? So actually the first few years of education, we struggle a lot. Some of them even drop out. Because you take more time learning the language than even actually acquiring skills.

Narrator: Fortunately, this worrying situation has not escaped the notice of the Kenyan government. About three years ago, the government introduced learning with an indegenous language into the new curriculum, such that textbooks for basic subjects were produced in Kiswahili. However because the focus is only up to the Grade 3 level, the initiative has limited reach, not to mention the generally unfavourable reception by stakeholders.

Abdinoor saw an opportunity in all these. 

Abdinoor Almahdi: Actually, from personal experience, I could not even read or write until Grade 7. Grade 8 is when I started learning a few things here and there. So that’s why I went back to class, I ditched my telecommunications career. I did a masters in education technology.

Narrator: As a prerequisite to graduation, he had to come up with a technology-based project aimed at enhancing life. His idea? A fun and simple learning app that translates Kenya’s early years syllabus into mother tongues. And so, in January 2019, the M-Lugha app was created.

You’re probably already wondering, “how is an app that translates learning materials any different from translated books?”

Abdinoor Almahdi: What we are providing is an offline digital interactive content where you just see an image of a dog, you click and it gives you the English word and your local word for it. But if you give me a Hausa book and English book but I don’t know how to read and write, how are you helping me? They cannot differentiate. So the solution is interactive digital content, which has voice overs, which has animations and the kids can just interact and something like that.

Narrator: M-Lugha started with just three native languages, Somali, Kalenjin, and Massai. 

In a bid to simplify navigation for the kids, Abdinoor decided against cramming all translations within a single app. 

This explains why if you search for ‘M-Lugha’  on the Google Playstore, you will find several versions. So, for example M-Lugha Somali Mathematics, M-Lugha Somali Environmental Activities and M-Lugha Somali Language Activities are all 3 different apps on the Playstore. 

So every language and its corresponding subjects is a different app on the Playstore. Abdinoor explains the reasoning behind this seeming complexity.

Abdinoor Almahdi: This app is designed specifically for children. You know, when you design for children, you don’t give them something that complicated. You give them something they can easily navigate. For example, you give them M-Lugha Somali and the 3 apps. For them to go to the dashboard and then click M-Lugha and then go to choose the subject they want.. These are small kids. We are talking about early childhood education (ECD). You are talking about Pre-Primary 1 and 2. So that’s why we made it easy for the kids.

Narrator: As of this publication, M-Lugha supports twenty native languages, most of which are predominantly spoken by nomadic people 

Abdinoor Almahdi: We are talking about Massai, Tokana, Nandi…. So most of them don’t live in a cosmopolitan region.

Narrator: So for a comprehensive study, a pupil will need not less than three M-Lugha apps, each deliberately sized around 17MB to 34MB each. 

Oh, did I mention that the apps aren’t free? Yes, they each attract an annual subscription fee of 500 Kenyan Shillings (approximately $5). And in line with the offline strategy, relevant apps come pre-loaded on customised 7-inch Android tablets which cost north of $100 a pop.

Mhmmm, you’re thinking exactly what I’m thinking right now. An average rural dweller will not be able to afford this. Abdinoor is not oblivious to the fact. 

Abdinoor Almahdi: My business model is working with the county governments and also the national government, NGOs like UNICEF that support education. So mostly I don’t deal with parents directly, unless they can afford it.

Narrator: Obviously, there’s a dire need for funding, but so far, Abdinoor hasn’t been able to raise any, no thanks to a regulatory bottleneck. You see, one has to get approval from the Ministry of Education before commercialising such a solution as M-Lugha. 

Abdinoor Almahdi: Actually, that has been my major roadblock to success. Because whenever you go to the NGOs and even the county government, they ask if the app has been approved by the Ministry. They cannot take something that has not been approved by the Ministry. And then the Ministry requested 2 million shillings, that’s $20,000, to approve my apps.

Narrator: But things are starting to look up.

Abdinoor Almahdi: It has involved a lot of back and forth but eventually, the Minister of Education intervened. He gave them a call. He told them ‘it is a startup, how can he afford to pay 2 million shillings? Besides, he is bringing a solution, how can he even pay for his solution?’. So that’s when they gave me a subsidised rate and they started evaluating. I’m happy to say that right now,  we are at the final stages of getting approved by the ministry.

Narrator: Abdinoor is optimistic that as soon as this hurdle is surmounted, he will be able to access funds. For now, he has gotten access to aids from educational support groups and county governments. He’s also considering offering installment plans for parents.

However, a little form of encouragement is coming from urban users. While they do not need the app for basic learning, parents have embraced it as a means to help their kids speak their native language. This contributed largely to the 15,000 free downloads recorded during the pilot test.

Although he is riding solo at the moment due to shortage of funds, Abdinoor enlists a number of professionals in app and web development, animation, and translations on a gig basis.

All these do not discourage Abdinoor from having lofty plans for his product. He wants to extend M-Lugha to countries with similar languages like Botswana, Rwanda, South Africa, Somalia, and some parts of Ethiopia. 

The startup also has plans to deliver standalone translation apps to these locations on request. All these should be possible with the right partnerships with telcos, NGOs and education support groups.

Thank you for listening to  Built In Africa.

This script was adapted by Oluwanifemi Kolawole and edited by Muyiwa Matuluko

Research and interview by Oluwanifemi Kolawole 

Sound design by Oghenekaro Obrutu

This is a production of Techpoint Africa

I am Precious Mogoli.

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