WhatsApp bot bolsters early childhood development

Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
By Simnikiwe Mzekandaba, IT in government editor
Johannesburg, 20 Jun 2022

The next phase in the development of early learning social franchise SmartStart’s WhatsApp chatbot is to ensure it also provides parental support.

This is according to Ebrahim Vally, chief product officer at Helm, speaking to ITWeb about what’s in the pipeline for the early childhood development (ECD) chatbot.

Formerly Praekelt Consulting, Helm helped SmartStart develop its multilingual WhatsApp chatbot named ‘Funda’, which means to ‘learn’.

The chatbot automates a lot of the admin that ECD learning practitioners encounter in their daily activities, giving them time to focus on the more important parts of their work.

This includes the ability to register children using simple-to-follow points via the bot, complete attendance registers at the end of each week, look at lessons, plan activities, as well as access educational resources.

Vally indicates the chatbot was first only for ECD caregivers. However, Helm is looking at different options of offering similar information to parents as well.

“In that time when they’re in a taxi, for example, parents can look at the content, prepare and have ideas about what they’ll need to spend time teaching their child in the evening at home.

“That’s one of the things that hopefully we should be able to launch soon,” Vally notes.

Established in 2015, SmartStart aims to provide quality early learning for children aged three to five. Its franchised programme is delivered through playgroups, day mothers and ECD centres, to improve children’s readiness for learning and school performance.

In addition, it allows franchisees, known as SmartStarters, to run their own SmartStart programmes within their communities.

According to Vally, SmartStart identified there was a gap within the three to five age group, with about one million children with no access to early learning initiatives.

SmartStart approached Helm to find a way to make it easier for franchisees and caregivers to gain access to the content, information and registration.

“They approached us and we came up with the chatbot. The reason we went with WhatsApp was we felt it would be the easiest way to get adoption for the franchisees located in really rural areas and in places where connectivity is an issue.

“Also, when we did our research and user testing, it [WhatsApp] was something that we found was easily acceptable and would be adopted by the franchisees.”

The chatbot aims to save a person time and money spent on transport to upload an attendance register in order to get their stipend, he points out. “Not only that, but we can now offer the collateral and content for the training, the daily activities, etc.”

The content on the chatbot is available in all 11 official South African languages.

“It’s not just translating English into Setswana; there are some changes that needed to be done, in order to really fully get the context of what a specific sentence might say. It’s important to carry the full context of the translation over. We decided to do that in all official languages as a start, especially for the content about the training.”

Ebrahim Vally, chief product officer at Helm.
Ebrahim Vally, chief product officer at Helm.

SmartStart’s WhatsApp chatbot has over 4 000 unique users/practitioners, with a retention rate of 71%, according to the company. It also has 1.54 million automated interactions to assist practitioners.

Currently reaching 103 000 children, SmartStart has a target of reaching one million, which Helm is fully behind, adds Vally.

“We’re trying to work together with SmartStart but the issue we currently face is that there’s a limitation on connectivity and devices. At the moment, the cost of data and connectivity is really high. The introduction of a lower cost device will allow more engagement.

“If we can overcome these barriers, it will make adoption a lot faster and allow us to reach that goal and also increase the amount of franchisees – it will almost double the amount of users on this specific platform,” he concludes.