App makes language learning easier, but yet to get key nod

Abdinoor Alimahad, the brains behind the M Lugha app, at his office in Nairobi. [Jonah Onyango, Standard]

Abdinoor Alimahad beams with joy as he watches a clip of children taking lessons from M-Lugha, a learning application he developed in 2018.

It takes him two decades back, when he was a pupil at the Young Muslim Primary School in Garissa and at times struggled to understand English. That is what pushed him to start Northfront Technologies that develops technological solutions for learners.

As he works in his modest office in Nairobi’s Central Business District, he marvels quietly at the excitement in their eyes as they interact with the fancy tablet for the first time.

It is the same thrill he felt when he was in Standard Seven and got a new teacher who, he says, made the language fun and easier for learners like him. Back then, nothing made more sense except his local dialect Somali.

Turning point

Before he became an education technologist, Alimahad worked in a telecom firm but quest for change forced him to quit and venture out in search of solutions to learners’ learning difficulties.

“With the language crisis in our region, I was pushed to look for solutions. Many are not aware that Form Four graduates in our frontier region cannot construct simple sentences in English or Swahili,” he points out.

Having undertaken a Master of Science degree in Information Communication Technology in Education and Instructional Design at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, he was armed for innovation. It was while studying that he got his ‘aha’ moment.

M-Lugha, his Master’s project designed for Pre-Primary School children, translates the Early Childhood Development Education (ECDE) syllabus from English into indigenous languages. It features more than 20 Kenyan native languages.

Additionally, it has a sound feature that lets pupils mimic what they hear through the speakers and includes accompanying images for the objects and actions to which the voice-overs refer.

For instance, if the image is an elephant, the accompanying voice-overs would provide its name in three languages – English, Kiswahili and native language.

The app which uses English and Swahili as the main languages also translates in over 20 languages.

Interestingly, though his innovation has seen him receive international honours, it is yet to be approved by relevant education bodies.

He was recently picked as a Literacy Ambassador in Kenya by the World Literacy Foundation, an Australian-based NGO and was also listed as among the 11 startups selected to pitch at the Africa Tech Summit earlier this year.

But despite this honours, Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development (KICD) is yet to give him a nod.

“The process of approval costs Sh2 million which I cannot afford at the moment,” he says.

But KICD Acting Director Joel Mabonga says the evaluation and approval for learning material is an open process.

“There is a formal application and response mechanism. Anyone seeking approval for curriculum support material should feel free to approach the KICD,” says Mabonga.

Despite that hurdle, teachers and parents have been more receptive of the innovation.

Maalim Mohamud, a teacher at Sabuli Primary School in Wajir County says it has enhanced understanding between learners and non-local teachers.

“Language barrier was also a challenge for foreign teachers but when everything is translated, learning becomes smooth,” Mohamud says.

The other hurdle Alimahad faces is the stalled Digital Literacy Programme by the Jubilee administration which promised to issue laptops to Standard One pupils.

This was later amended as the Government opted for tablets instead. But in many schools in Wajir County, neither the laptops nor the much cheaper tablets have been seen, seven years on. 

In the meantime, Alimahad hopes to inspire more the youth to come up with similar innovations.