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Gaming, VR, bring mother-tongue learning to life

Ambani Africa addresses under-representation of languages through fun learning content, writes LIBBY PEACOCK

Mukundi Lambani always wanted to speak her home language of Tshivenda more fluently, but couldn’t find the resources to help her achieve this. When doing a research project for her master’s degree in creative media leadership, she discovered she was not alone – the issue of language “came up a lot”.

“I found myself speaking to parents and trying to understand some of their frustrations,” says Lambani, founder of Ambani Africa, an educational technology company geared at addressing “the under-representation of South African languages” through quality, accessible, fun learning content. Ambani means “to speak” in Tshivenda.

“Many people found the one thing they couldn’t impart to their children was [their African] language and culture. And it’s a source of shame.”

While the country’s education policy now promotes the use of previously marginalised African languages for learning and teaching, a lack of qualified mother-tongue teachers, learning materials and other resources pose major challenges.

“Those frustrations are where my idea for Ambani Africa came from,” says Lambani, who started her career as a filmmaker, but then “transitioned into tech”.  “I wanted to find an easy and accessible way that children can learn languages,” she says.

Many schools are now introducing African languages, and universities are also insisting that students in certain fields study indigenous languages.

But, she says, “We’re encountering instances where someone who used to be an administrator has become a teacher because they’re the only person at a school who actually speaks a specific language … or teachers have to teach a language that they barely speak.”

Ambani Africa wants to address this. Its first offering, in 2020, was a set of augmented reality books for young children, with an accompanying free downloadable app for smartphones. When the books are viewed through the app, available in 10 languages, they come alive in 3D. This was followed in 2021 by a free gaming app in six languages for foundation-phase learners, featuring games, short stories and learning videos.

Its website, a “one-stop shop”, features interactive games, animated video content and audio stories, as well as an online language tutoring service, but its key offering, says Lambani, is the online platform for educators and teachers: providing interactive lessons with activities and worksheets that they can use in the classroom.

The start-up works with educators to make sure “the core of the content” relates to what teachers are already teaching in the classroom. It also partners with institutions, schools and companies to provide fun, gamified learning materials for learners or staff, or as part of corporate social responsibility efforts.

Ambani Africa was recently chosen as one of three winners featured in Hollard’s 2022 Big Ads for Small Business campaign, which aims to support deserving small businesses. The insurer is sharing two months of commercial airtime worth R1-million with each winner on DStv channels, plus providing social media exposure on its channels.

Mukundi Lambani founder of Ambani Africa

Lambani says, “Being part of this campaign means so much. Marketing is not our strength and is not something we could really invest in, so we had to do it ourselves. Being part of Big Ads for Small Business takes us from no marketing to full-on television ads that we wouldn’t have been able to afford for many years as a small business.

“It allows us to have a fully functioning marketing function, and it came as such a blessing.”

Why gaming and augmented reality?

“The important aspect was that the material would be engaging for children … so that the learning itself would be enjoyable,” says Lambani, adding that she wanted to get away from the idea that African language and culture were “somehow old or archaic”.

“How we teach is almost more important than what we teach,” she notes. “It’s key that children know how to learn and access learning, how to find the information they need, and understand from a young age that ongoing learning is important.”

Her goal for the future is “to cover all the digitally unrepresented African languages – of which there are more than 3 000, so we have a long way to go!”.

The start-up was recently chosen as one of five to be part of the Irish Tech Challenge South Africa, a collaboration between the Embassy of Ireland, the Technology Innovation Agency and the Department of Science and Innovation that provided an opportunity to network and access top tech expertise in Ireland.

Lambani says there is also a need for bridging the language gap in Europe and, ultimately, the company wants to “internationalise” and add new languages from all over the world.

Ambani Africa was the overall winner of the 2021 MTN Business App of the Year award, also winning the Best Gaming Solution, Best Educational Solution and Best South African Solution categories.

Ultimately, says Lambani, there’s a real interest in and need for fun, interactive language-learning material. “We have to keep doing what we’re doing and keep building on it.”

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