Ambani app will teach kids African languages

Ambani recently won the SA Innovation Summit's Swiss vs SA startup pitch battle.
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A local app, Ambani, teaching young children African languages through augmented reality (AR) has come out tops in this year’s Swiss vs SA pitch battle.

The battle was hosted at the SA Innovation Summit (SAIS) earlier this month. SAIS is a four-day event bringing together tech startups, investors and industry leaders.

The battle is a collaborative project between the Technology Innovation Agency (TIA), the Swiss South Africa Joint Research Programme, the Swiss Embassy in SA and the University of Basel in Switzerland.

Ambani uses AR to gamify the foundation phase curriculum (Gr R- 3). It has four language options (isiZulu, Kiswahili, Tshivenda and Setswana), covering themes such as animals, parts of the body, numbers and language.

The app is paired with flashcards, printable posters, and books ranging from R25 to R80. To bring the lessons to life, users need to hold their smartphones' cameras in front of a card, poster or book. If the card with an elephant is held in front of the camera, a trumpeting 3D elephant will appear and the narrator will say its name in whichever of the four languages has been selected.

Combining books with tech

Ambani was founded in 2018 when its founder Mukundi Lambani spotted a gap in the market for teaching African languages to young children.

She says that many urban parents of young children felt their kids weren’t speaking their home languages enough and couldn’t practice them. To address this problem, she combined her love of tech with what she’d learned through her Master’s research in creative media. 

"As I did more research I learnt that of the 1.2 million children in grade one each year, around 900 000 don’t speak English as a first-language. They struggle to read with meaning so we need to bridge that gap too," she adds.

“In the beginning I considered using books as a medium, but I decided to combine book-learning with tech because it’s easier to access for urban parents and their children. We tend to overlook how technology can be used to solve problems.

Ambani is working with foundation phase teachers to get a better sense of how children learn. Its content developer is also a foundation-phase teacher, and focus groups are being held with parents and children to test any new features.

Lambani says new, non-AR features will be rolled out later this month, such as games, songs and storytelling. In the long-term, more of the curriculum (maths and science) will be added to Ambani.

“Our focus is still on the foundation phase, but we aim to grow with our audience, adding more grades as we go."

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