In Nigeria, talking pens are helping thousands of children learn
A good example of how technology and innovation can help improve education.
May 14, 2019 by Chizaram Ucheaga, Mavis Computel Ltd.|
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Children using the talking pens and books from Mavis Computel in Lagos, Nigeria.
CREDIT: Mavis/Computel

This blog post is part of a collaboration between the African Union and the Global Partnership for Education (GPE) to enhance the visibility of innovators recognized at this year’s African Union Expo.

My name is Chizaram Ucheaga, I’m 32 and from Nigeria. The innovation from the company I founded is called the Mavis Talking Books™. Our slogan is “Everyone learning, Everywhere a Classroom™.”

Using our award-winning innovation, we enable the provision of high quality, learner-centered education for all, irrespective of literacy level, location or language at a fraction of the cost of conventional educational approaches.

A Mavis talking book (MTB) consists of a digital pen (Mavis Pen) and a specially printed book. When the pen touches text or pictures in the book, it reads out the corresponding audio, including interactive games, quizzes, multi-language translations, etc.

We have talking books for literacy, numeracy, health and other subjects – for example, English with phonics, mathematics, languages (French, Arabic, Spanish, Hausa, Igbo, Yoruba). The books are designed to help semi-skilled or unskilled teachers teach while guiding the children to learn at the same time.

We program quality content, developed by experts, into the talking book format in a language that the user understands, thereby solving both the quality and language barrier challenges. The talking books follow the national curriculum. They don’t require the Internet to function. One Mavis Pen can work with up to 100 different books.

Children using the talking pens and books from Mavis Computel in Lagos, Nigeria. Credit: Mavis/Computel
Children using the talking pens and books from Mavis Computel in Lagos, Nigeria.
CREDIT: Mavis/Computel

Awakening to the enormous education needs in Nigeria

When we began our business, we were selling a device to help children take notes in class and be able to play them back later. However, we kept hearing school directors say that parents were concerned that their children only spoke English and could not speak their local languages (Hausa, Igbo, Yoruba, etc.). This led us to develop the language learning series of our talking books.

As we attended conferences and seminars, we began to grasp the extent of the challenges with basic education in Nigeria – especially in public primary schools– and learned of the large number of out-of-school children.

The Federal Ministry of Education estimates that 50% of in-school children are not learning because they cannot read or write. Around 84% of children in the lowest economic quartile cannot read at all.

We also learned that Nigeria has the largest number of out-of-school children in the world, with recent estimates by UNICEF of over 13.2 million children not going to school. We felt that nobody was doing much about this.

This led us to developing the core education series of the Mavis talking books, starting with the Hausa-to-English book, which won the global 2017 British Council ELTons Award (English Language Teaching Innovations) in the local innovation category.

We have also developed English with phonics books for Grades 1 – 4, mathematics for Grades 1 – 4, rhymes books and more to help improve literacy and numeracy skills of children (and adult learners too).

We have won numerous awards since then, including from United Nations' International Telecommunication Union (ITU), Vivatech in France, and BusinessDay.

Better learning results

Over 8,000 in-school and out-of-school children in Lagos State and the FCT territories of Nigeria have benefited from our innovation through literacy and numeracy programs funded by UK Aid and the US Embassy.

Test results show that out-of-school children using our talking books performed 37% better than those going to nearby public and private schools. A new program in the North East funded by the Borno State Government and in collaboration with local partners has started and intends to reach 10,000 children with our materials.

For the various deployments, we provide a full range of services, which include stakeholder and community engagement, training for teachers, head teachers and state or local government education officials as well as officials from relevant agencies, conducting baseline to end line tests, deployment of the talking books and solar/inverter kits for charging the pens, regular monitoring and evaluation, project documentary, etc. The solar kits help ensure that the teachers in rural areas, where there is unreliable or no power supply from the grid, can charge the digital pens each day after class. That way, learners in marginalized communities are not excluded.

We also provide regular reports and feedback to the community, government bodies, and donors on the results of the tests and impact the solution is making.

Children using the talking pens and books from Mavis Computel in Lagos, Nigeria. Credit: Mavis/Computel
Children using the talking pens and books from Mavis Computel in Lagos, Nigeria.
CREDIT: Mavis/Computel

Expanding to more schools and beyond Nigeria

We approached the Ministry of Education to obtain approvals for the talking books – since they follow the national curriculum. The books are now approved by the Nigerian Educational Research and Development Council (NERDC). Additionally, the books have been endorsed by the National Office for Technology Acquisition and Promotion (NOTAP) – an agency under the Ministry of Science and Technology.

We are in advanced stages of discussion with the relevant federal and state education authorities in Nigeria for a nationwide rollout of our talking books and education model to reach many more children nationwide.

Winning the AU Innovation Expo prize and joining the African Education Innovations Network has given us continent-wide publicity and more visibility at home as well. We are leveraging this to forge partnerships with more governments, development partners and corporate bodies to scale up our impact across Africa.

Our goal is to collaborate with key education stakeholders across Africa to provide quality basic education in the language the learner understands and improve learning outcomes for over 200,000 children in the next 12 months.

Africa has the solution to its education challenges

We want to encourage other innovators to always think with scale in mind. Do not design for just a small subset of beneficiaries. Always think of how your solution can easily serve thousands and even millions of users and then work backwards.

Engaging with the AU Expo helps give innovators an Africa-wide visibility, and through the event, a global voice.

Technology and innovation must transform education in Africa and around the world as it has done in other industries (finance, health, etc.) if we are to see satisfactory advancements in the education sector.

However, the technology must be appropriate technology that is locally relevant and internationally applicable. The solution to Africa’s education challenges lies within us. By working together, we can achieve more.

Read the other blogs from young African innovators

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Sub-Saharan Africa: Nigeria

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