M-Lugha: Improving Student’s Access to Literacy and Numeracy by using Local Language Instruction in Northern Kenya

Abdinoor Alimahdi is a former telecommunications engineer from Kenya. He is an Award winning EdTech innovator and social entrepreneur. Some of the awards include: 

  • Best 100 startups (StartupIstanbul),
  • 10 most outstanding education innovations (Africa Union)
  • 11 startups (Africa Tech Summit)
  • 1st Runner up (Africa Telecommunication Union)
  • 200 pitches (Africa Innovation Week)
  • Featured by the BBC,VOA,  & Global Partnership for Education

After hearing about the educational crisis in his country, Abdinoor was inspired to become an education technologist and instructional designer through the creation of the M-Lugha educational app. M-lugha was born as a university project upon the completion of MSc ICT in Education and Instructional Design at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, Kenya. Abdinoor personally could not read well until he was in grade seven, a challenge he attributes to language barriers in his early years of education.

Kenya faces several educational challenges. Many schools have only one or two teachers across multiple grade levels, and there is a country-wide teacher shortage. At the regional level, Kenya’s performance is lagging behind. In the Northern part of the country, educational inequalities are further exacerbated by the limited availability of instruction in indigenous languages and the nomadic lifestyle of much of the population in this region. For example, teachers in the north are often from other parts of the country and thus do not speak the children’s first language. Coupled with a harsh climate, remote location, and recent attacks on teachers in the north, teacher retention and recruitment has been an ongoing challenge. The teacher shortage is further compounded by the frequency of early marriage for girls, starting around age 12 or 13, leaving fewer people available to fill teacher vacancies. 

The northern part of Kenya faces historical inter clan conflicts, border conflicts, insecurity within and across the border countries, conflict for pastoral and grazing lands. The area is vast with few schools, however, these schools are often not well-resourced and lack the necessary infrastructure and technology to enable students’ success and learning. While the northern population has historically ranked last among Kenyan counties in terms of academic performance, M-Lugha seeks to improve the quality of instruction and narrow the gap in achievement.

M-Lugha, or “Mobile-Language“ in Swahili, is an mobile education app which is used to improve educational outcomes in Kenya for pre-primary to grade 2 audiences. The app specifically targets children in the northern regions who speak mother tongues other than English or Swahili–the traditional languages of instruction in schools. Kenyan policy builds on research from UNESCO about the positive impact of children learning in their mother tongue language during early years of instruction, and supports instruction in a child’s local language from pre-primary through grade 3. The app translates the Ministry of Education’s competency-based curriculum and digital content into the local language. 

Local community language experts from the different communities serve as collaborators on the translation. The Ministry of Education provides a guide of what topics need to be covered, the M-Lugha team works with teachers to create the in-app content, and then the local language experts translate it. To verify the translations, a separate group of experts are called to discuss the translation and modify terms and phrases as needed. The experts also help incorporate cultural images and elements into the app content to help prevent cultural erosion. For example, pictures of objects children see in everyday life and traditional tools are included. As a result, many urban parents have been interested in the app because their children do not speak their local language. The app contributes to shifting conversation around local language usage in school, confronting stigma and addressing an African-wide problem with providing school instruction in a language other than a child’s mother tongue. 

At present, M-Lugha has completed an initial pilot of the app, resulting in thousands of downloads. Already, the curriculum has been translated into 20 of the 80 local languages in Kenya. The app works offline through the use of digital books, pictures, activities, and an end-of-topic assessment. The units span from the environmental to math to literacy. Other components include animations, phonics, and nursery rhymes. that can be synced for review when connectivity is available. After students complete and upload their assessments, the information is sent to their teachers and used by the M-Lugha team to analyze the app’s impact. 

Images of the app platform:

Beyond the app itself, M-Lugha has donated tablets to several schools in remote areas so that students are able to access the technology. Looking forward, M-Lugha is planning to expand from a mobile-only to web and mobile-enabled platform. After gaining full Ministry approval earlier this year, the team plans to expand the use of the app in partnership with UNESCO. In addition, the team hopes to translate the curriculum into all of the remaining local languages. While the app content is specifically tailored to the Kenyan context, the basic literacy modules can be used in other countries once the language of instruction is adapted to that context, with a focus on expanding to Somali and Rwanda. By next team, the hope is to expand M-Lugha’s presence to three or four African countries.

If you are interested in purchasing the app you can visit the Google Play Store where it goes for $10 USD. To learn more about M-Lugha or Abdinoor Alimahdi, please visit https://m-lugha.com/