Innovator Interview: Ubongo Kids

March 23, 2015Wambui Munge

Ubongo is a Tanzanian social enterprise that creates fun animated educational content tailored to African learners.  The organization was recently named one of Africa's Top Edupreneurs by Pearson Affordable Learning Fund and Village Capital, and its flagship program – Ubongo Kids - currently reaches over one million children throughout East Africa via television programming and an interactive SMS channel.  

We recently sat down with Doreen Kessy, Ubongo's Chief Operating Officer (pictured below) while she was in Washington, D.C. to gain insight into Ubongo's vision, impact, challenges and successes.

Tell us a little bit about Ubongo in Tanzania.

Ubongo was founded in July 2013, and launched its first cartoon series officially in January 2014.  Ubongo Kids, our flagship program is broadcast on national TV.  Since its launch, it has drawn over 1.5 million viewers, mainly  comprised of children aged 7-13, but we also have parents watching the show with their children. Generally our seasons follow the Tanzanian curriculum, although our first two seasons focused heavily on math content with some  science lessons integrated into the episodes.

What makes Ubongo’s signature approach to schooling innovative?

Ubongo aims to make learning fun again! When I went to school, it was so rigid and there was no fun in it. Ubongo wants to change this. We want to make learning fun and we want lessons to be relevant to kids.  Currently 24 percent  of Tanzanian parents watch Ubongo Kids with their children and other family members. These parents tell us how Ubongo Kids has transformed learning from a difficult, rigid, and serious activity to something entertaining and  relatable.

How do you determine which education topics to tackle?

We use the curriculum the government provides for Tanzania, but we also rely on the feedback we are getting from parents and students.  We surveyed a group of parents and students to get a sense of what they wanted to learn more  about, and the two most popular topics were English and HIV/AIDS. Given the country context, and prevalence of the disease, we plan to tackle HIV/AIDS first, and are bringing in HIV/AIDS experts to help us develop the content.

Our plan is to go beyond delivering formal curriculum content and to begin to communicate important public health and social justice lessons. We have already worked with the UN around child right issues, and hope to partner with  other organizations to help them package and share important messages through our platform.

How has Ubongo Kids grown since you launched it? Do you have plans to expand into different countries?

We have plans to expand into Kenya next, and hope to take Ubongo into Ghana and Nigeria in the medium to long term. We are also testing a new program call EduMe which adds an interactive dimension to the show by inviting  children to sign up to receive questions and answers from their favorite Ubongo Kids character.  With the interactive system we are able to reach even more kids due to Tanzania’s large mobile market (currently 88% of the population own a basic mobile phone).

What is the biggest challenge you have encountered with the development and implementation of Ubongo Kids? 

There is high demand for our content. Kids send us messages all the time asking for longer episodes. We have plans to grow our capacity a lot faster to meet the demand. We also want to reach as many kids as possible. Currently, only 44% of Tanzanians watch TV weekly. We want to reach even those who may not have access to television, through other technological devices such as radio.

Plans to establish Ubongo Kids clubs are underway. These clubs will leverage existing community-screening centers to bring kids in rural areas fun edutainment. We will also provide other supplemental learning materials such as workbooks. The idea is that children can go here after school and keep learning in a fun way!

What has been the impact of the program to date?

We recently conducted a survey that showed that there is a 4 percent improvement on math quizzes among children who watch Ubongo Kids compared to those who don’t. We believe that kids are more engaged and motivated to learn when they are have fun along the way.

Five years from now, where do you hope to see Ubongo?

I hope we can change the way kids, parents, teachers and the public at large perceive learning. For us it’s not just about having our content accessible on TV, mobile phones, and radio, it’s about introducing kids to self-directed digital learning, that starts them on the path to independent, lifelong learning. We want to transform learning for the 440 million kids in Africa, by bring them a fun new way to learn; opening the door to the future of digital learning.

Doreen Kessy is the Chief Operating Officer (COO) at Ubongo, where she manages business operations. Prior to Ubongo, she worked at various organizations including International Justice Mission, Wells Fargo and Smile for Africa and has also designed poverty relief programs implemented in Zimbabwe and Zambia. She has an MBA and a B.S in International Business and Economics from Liberty University in Virginia. She also does the English voice of Ngedere, a monkey, on Ubongo Kids.

Learn more about Ubongo Kids by exploring the program's CEI profile here.

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