Mukundi Lambani, CEO and founder of Ambani Africa, on the importance of learning in indigenous languages, and how this can be aided by augmented reality


Q: What was the inspiration behind the creation of the Ambani Africa app?
A: For many new parents who have moved to cities, the necessity to speak English has resulted in them rarely using their indigenous African languages, and opportunities to communicate in their mother tongue are, as a result, limited to conversations with grandparents or used only when visiting their home. Such parents often express concern that their children will, therefore, grow up without knowledge of their mother tongue.

This is what inspired me to start Ambani Africa, an educational-technology company with a mission to facilitate early learning by providing technology-enabled Afrocentric content. The product is essentially a free app for children aged two and above, facilitating their ability to learn African languages.

It works with augmented reality (AR), presenting a collection of games, stories and songs that are taught and practised in selected African languages. Currently the app supports isiZulu, isiXhosa, Setswana, Sepedi, Tshivenda and English, with the addition of Swahili in the game category. To use the app, the purchase of a specific set of books is required, after which the app can be downloaded for free from Ambani Africa AR, Google Play or Apple App stores. Once activated, the books come to life in 3D, which really captures the attention of these young children.

Q: What value comes from learning in a first language?
A: The value of learning in the mother tongue has been demonstrated in various studies and is endorsed by Unesco. Children who learn in their mother tongue are more likely to achieve better results at school, and it enables their parents to be involved in their child’s learning. The Hague Recommendations on the Educational Rights of National Minorities indicate that children should be taught in their mother tongue for at least their first six years. In SA, only 8% of households speak English at home, but 80% of schools are English-speaking, followed by 16% Afrikaans.

Parents want their children to speak African languages because multilingual children develop better thinking skills. However, teachers have few tools and techniques available for teaching African languages, and some schools even share teachers. African languages are generally digitally under-represented, so there are often insufficient resources for teaching in the mother tongue. There are also always concerns from parents who want their children to learn English, for obvious reasons. However, multilingualism can actually improve knowledge and the ability to understand other languages, so being able to switch between English and the mother tongue has many benefits.

Q: Why are AR platforms ideal for use in early childhood education?
A: While visual and auditory learning aids increase engagement, AI is unique in that it merges the real and virtual worlds to create an experience that encourages listening and speaking. In addition, it allows children to experience something they may never have seen in real life. Our animal books, for example, are particularly exciting for children who may be seeing and hearing these creatures for the first time. AR allows children to travel beyond their immediate environment, which is especially important given the two-year duration of the pandemic and the resulting isolation from the world.

Q: How empowering is AR for children; do they understand the difference between real and virtual worlds?
A: It is believed that young children who overuse technology become isolated and miss out on the development of other personal skills. However, balancing physical activities with technology use is critical for children as they grow up in a digital world. They must, therefore, learn to use these tools successfully at the start – and throughout – the rest of their lives. The distinction between virtual reality (VR) and AR is crucial in this context. While VR takes you into a whole new digital world, AR brings digital objects into the real world, providing a safer experience for children. I believe that technology in itself is neither good nor bad; it only takes on meaning through its application. In some studies of the use of AR in the classroom, it has helped develop these personal skills by encouraging children to work in groups, improving communication and fostering real collaboration.

Q: What is the potential of AR in the education system?
A: AR provides a more affordable way to contextualise learning content as well as access to experiences that would otherwise be more expensive. A great example is that of local company, Sisanda Tech, which has developed an AR science and biology lab in a box. For many learners in SA who do not have the resources for a science lab, this AR exercise is the only way to fully grasp some of the complex concepts that need to be experienced to be understood.

Q: How important is the aspect of fun within learning systems?
A: Because the world moves so quickly these days, how you learn is frequently more important than what you learn, especially given that the information or hard skills being learnt often evolve rapidly. Also, because the relationship with learning is developed during the foundation phase, it’s been determined that if a child falls behind by Grade 3, that child is unlikely to ever catch up. Thus, it is critical to instil self-learning abilities in children at an early age. It’s similarly critical that this is an enjoyable experience so that children learn how to learn and will be able to continue learning even as information and systems change. Ensuring that learning is enjoyable lays the groundwork for a positive relationship with lifelong learning, which facilitates self-improvement.

Q: What are the challenges in using AR apps within the education system?
A: Challenges associated with the use of AR technologies include the lack of devices that are accessible to all learners; a variety of devices with different capabilities that often limit the type of experience we are looking for; and educating teachers about the use and benefits of AR. When Ambani Africa first started developing technology, we found working with a variety of devices somewhat of a challenge – but, over time, more and more devices have become compatible with AR.

We also underestimated how much time we would need to demonstrate the workings of the app. I think this is something that technologists need to give more attention to, especially because we want people to embrace new technologies. We need to simplify the process as much as possible and better communicate that the benefits outweigh the initial extra learning curve.

Q: Can AR apps be augmented into existing education systems easily?
A: Our approach to digitalisation in education is often simply to provide a digital version of a physical book. AR offers the opportunity for a completely new experience that takes full advantage of digitalisation. However, we still have a long way to go in integrating AR into our classrooms. Although we are using a simple technology that can be used on any smartphone or tablet, the classroom must have these resources for us to implement this. There is also web AR, which allows you to experience augmented reality on a desktop. Given some of these challenges, we have developed Ambani Learn, a web platform for teaching and learning African languages in the classroom, and which also uses interactive PowerPoints as a gaming tool. We also need to work with hardware providers who make these technologies available in the classroom to ensure that our software becomes an integral part of it.

Q: Ambani Africa won the MTN Business App of the Year award recently. How has this affected your company?
A: The recognition from MTN is a great endorsement for our products and we have gained many new users through the marketing that this prestigious win has brought. The cash injection from the recognition will allow us to update our various products, add new languages, serve more users and grow our teams. We continue to develop Ambani Learn, a web platform for teachers that includes animations and activities for isiZulu lessons in the foundation phase, and will be working with more schools in the coming year. We are constantly updating the app with new languages and content, and working with some exciting international platforms to bring Ambani Africa to a wider audience. We are also looking into new ways in which we can combine our technologies into the dynamic technology platforms that embrace immersive learning.

By Kerry Dimmer