Jay CabozBy Jay Caboz|February 21, 2022|9 Minutes|In Billionaire Tomorrow

Billionaire Tomorrow

The app cradling Africa’s precious tongues.

Out of pain, separation and loss sprang an idea for its time in Africa to preserve one of the continent's most precious assets - its mother tongues.

I felt like there was a big part of myself, a big part of my family that I wasmissing out on. I really wanted that, but I did not know how to get that outside of speaking to people I knew.

Mukundi Lambani, founder Ambani.

As a company, our early focus on technology-enabled language content has resulted in the advanced and diverse technology-driven solutions on offer.  

It’s a very common tale in Africa born from ambition; yet tinged with sadness.

Young Africans packing their bags in the land of their ancestors and heading for what they think will be the bright lights and promise of the city. One of the few certainties in Africa is that more and more people are going to be doing this; all too often, in desperation. By 2030, it’s estimated 71% of South Africans will be living in cities. 

Mukundi Lambani, is just one of millions. She left her ancestral lands in Limpopo along with all she knew when she was a child. Home for her was Pando, a village so small you couldn’t find it on the map. Yet, it was big in her life. She left her grandmother, aunts, uncles and her family history. The family went to Randfontein, a prosperous gold mining town in the West Rand, Gauteng, , 40 km west of Johannesburg, in the hope of more from life.

The year was 1993 and she was thrust into the chaotic world of urban living. The move was exciting, but she always felt like she had lost something. “We found ourselves in what was previously called Model C schools. We had to learn English and Afrikaans. It was quite a specific situation. We were sort of the first cohort, one of the first to go to these schools and your ability to speak English and Afrikaans was so important in your ability to assimilate into these spaces,” says Lambani.

The disconnect unfolded slowly and painfully. Every time she would go back to visit her family for the holidays, in Limpopo, she struggled more and more to converse in her mother tongue Tshivenda.

“We really neglected our own African languages; we didn’t see the value in it at the time. I wasn’t fluent enough to have a good, meaningful conversation. I felt like there was a big part of myself, a big part of my family that I was missing out on. I really wanted that, but I didn’t know how to get that outside of speaking to people I knew.” But it wasn’t until she was an adult and saw her nephew growing up in the city, who struggled even more with his mother tongue, that she realised that the language gap was becoming a problem.

“Kids have so little contact with African languages and where and there just isn’t a fun way to present it. The only time you’re speaking this language is when you’re speaking to your grandmother on the phone. I think it’s probably been made worse by the pandemic and people not physically seeing each other,” says Lambani.

“Over 50% of Grade 4 learners in South Africa do not understand what they read. A scarcity of books written in African languages, as well as a shortage of well-resourced school and community libraries.” But through frustration, Lambani found inspiration. A way to combine 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.

This was the birth of Ambani, the award-winning app which is helping children learn African languages by making the world come to life through augmented reality (AR). “It started kind of as a side thing. You know, a passion project that I hoped other people would need. I think it’s definitely grown and almost shaped itself. But I still feel like I’m catching up with it.”

What started out as a handful of animal-themed flashcards which would spring to life using a cell phone has moved to a set of books. But it was the unexpected events of a global pandemic which has proven to bring out one of their most popular platforms – a gaming app which now has 12,000 users.

“We had so many stops and starts during Covid, delivering the cards and books became such a mission. We needed to do something that everyone can access. We needed to remove that logistical barrier. That’s when we started the gaming app.”

“There’s things like quizzes, there’s puzzle games, there’s spelling games, we’ve started adding content as well. We’ve added a section where you can watch animated content in that language. We’ve added learning sections, we’ve got a little bite sized tutor lessons that you can learn as well.”

The app won the 2021 MTN Business App of the Year Awards.

“The combination of their innovative approach and the prize money should put them on the fast track to growth in their mission to solve the literacy gap faced by our country and encourage parents and kids to embrace their indigenous languages,” says Wanda Matandela, Chief Business Enterprise Officer of MTN Business, in a statement.

The next step for the business is an even bigger one. A recently launched web platform from which schools can access resources for isiZulu learners.

“The Department of Education has introduced ways to get schools to teach previously marginalised African languages. But there aren’t a lot of resources. So,teachers are trying and learners are trying, but there aren’t any sort of fun, engaging, accessible ways to learn an African language,” says Lambani.

“Whether it’s worksheets, whether it’s things to watch or games, or just digital resources we can use in the digital classroom during the day or night. Even things that we can print and do and use the things that are engaging, particularly for foundation things.” But for Lambani, Ambani will always be about reconnecting with her roots.

​“I always knew that I wanted to somehow use technology, because a big thing was this idea that we often look at African languages as something in the past. Even in culture, we don’t really, as a younger generation, take ownership of it. It feels like something archaic. You don’t think about African languages and culture and things like future technology core.”

An idea that could maintain that thread of language between the fireside of the village and the bright lights of the city.