Interview Nisha Ligon, Co-founder and CEO Ubongo

You have lived all over the world and you now are in Tanzania. Where did the idea for Ubongo come from and how did you get started?

When I studied at University in Dar es Salaam, I became really interested in education. It became clear to me that even the brightest students in the country didn’t have the same opportunities or access to learning that I knew. I started to see education as a multiplier: when you give people an education foundation you can create generational change.

My co-founders and I wanted to help kids in Tanzania and across Africa get access to fun, kid-centered learning that was both relevant to them and easily accessible without having to have lots of fancy technology. In 2013, we started collaborating to create songs and videos and animations together in Dar es Salaam to teach math, and testing them with kids to see if they’d like them. We realized that kids loved the approach and that by creating local language, fun edutainment, and broadcasting it on accessible platforms like radio and TV, we could easily reach kids across the country to help them both learn, and love learning.

Once we had a pilot of a TV show that kids really loved and wanted to watch again and again, we decided we needed to go all in and register an organization, to take it forward. We launched our first show, Ubongo Kids, on TV in 2014 and then grew it from there!

What does Ubongo do differently that makes it successful? 

Our core principle is to create top-quality, kid-centered, localized, modular educational content that can be received on whatever media devices kids already have. When we started that was radio, TV and SMS. Now we also have a strong audience watching online and listening to our shows on mobile phones too.

We invest time and research into human-centered design to create formats and stories because it is storytelling, not technology, that is core to helping kids learn. We test our stories early and often with kids, to make sure that they’re really engaging, and then we develop them into media for different platforms like video, audio and books.

What has been the highlight for you during your time as CEO?

Getting feedback from kids! When we launched on TV for the first time in January 2014, we asked kids half-way through the episode to send us a message with their answer to a quiz question. Thousands of messages came in! Half of them were answers to the question, others just said hi! It was amazing to know how many kids were watching and engaging, and get that real time feedback.

We still continuously improve what we do because we talk, listen and invest a lot of time in testing our content with kids. Our office neighborhood is filled with kids, so we can hear them, what inspires them, what affects their thinking, or makes them laugh. I still love seeing how kids respond to the content and getting their ideas on what else we should be doing!

Helping kids learn and to love learning is a key theme in your work. Tell us more about this. 

This is one of our principles – it’s not just about teaching kids math. If kids understand and are excited, that has a big impact. Rote learning approaches don’t help them understand why learning is important. We always think about why kids should learn as we engage their “heads, hearts and hands”.

Love of learning is critical for us to achieve positive learning outcomes. For example, we ran a small pilot powering “screening clubs” in off-grid communities so kids could come once or twice a week. We found kids in these communities also improved in the topics we didn’t teach! You can’t necessarily assign causality here but what it seemed to indicate is that when we kids were excited about learning, they became more motivated to learn in school.

Ubongo’s vision is to equip the next generation with the educational foundation, critical skills, and a positive mindset to change their own lives and communities for the better. Do you have an experience of how you have touched the life of one child?

Yes, sure. It is really exciting to see kids that have grown up with us and our characters, especially in Tanzania where we have been on TV for seven years now. A “Wow” moment was hearing one of our viewers say of a friend, “that girl is so good at math, she’s a Kibena!”, referring to one of our characters. Research has shown that girls tend to think they won’t be good at math, so to hear her compliment a girl not by saying she’s an Einstein, but a ‘Kibena’, is really powerful.

Another instance that really stood out is when in a focus group, we asked the kids what they had learned from an episode about environmental cleanup and sanitation. One girl spoke up and shared that she used to be sad seeing people in her neighborhood litter and let wastewater run into the street. The episode not only taught her about effects on the ecosystem, but gave her the confidence to speak up to a neighbor of hers and tell them their behavior was bad for the environment and unhealthy for kids – and they fixed the problem! That really stuck with me. If we have kids working together, they will make great changes.

How will the Klaus J. Jacobs Best Practice Prize funding help Ubongo?  

A huge challenge for us is how many different languages there are in sub-Saharan Africa. The more we learn about the language adaptation process, the more we realize how important it is. A key focus of this prize money will be figuring out how to build strong and effective systems for localizing our content to more different languages.

We are also excited about making our content accessible for a wide range of learners, including students with learning disabilities. The other way this funding enables us is connecting us to the cutting edge Jacobs Researchers network. We hope to take what they know, figure out how it applies to media and edutainment, and use it to improve and help all learners.

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