LEAP Transmedia is blazing trails as West Africa’s first communications company focused on developing television, radio, print, and digital content for children and their families. Beginning with a partnership using local language versions of Sesame Street, the LEAP team is now expanding by distributing East African children’s program Ubongo Kids in Ghana. Building on the belief that learning can and should be fun, LEAP is developing fun and interactive ways to reinforce literacy and numeracy in local languages. Ayiba’s Akinyi Ochieng spoke to LEAP Transmedia CEO Florence Amerley Adu about their new partnership with Ubongo, the state of education in Ghana, and disrupting the status quo.
How did LEAP start?
It’s my brainchild. I have a co-founder named Ekem Amonoo Lartson, who is also Ghanaian and did his undergraduate and graduate studies in the US. My parents immigrated from Ghana to the US where I was born. I started to go to Ghana more frequently in graduate school. Despite growing up in the States, Ghana still felt like home. I started to think about how I could use the talent and skillset I developed abroad to help Ghanaians. The first step understood how to do business in Ghana.
I started a children’s clothing line, and manufactured dresses for girls. That helped me understand how the small business owner in Ghana operates. That experience helped me understand the opportunities and limitations of doing business in Ghana.
My first career out of college was as a teacher. I did Teach for America and I taught junior high science, so I understood the education space. I also worked with charter schools in New York during their development phase. Education has been part of what I do for some time, so I knew I wanted to return to that space.
Growing up, my parents didn’t teach me our local language. Because I grew up in the US, they decided to prioritize English to make sure we could succeed in the American educational system. They spoke Ga in the house to each other, but they never spoke Ga with me and my siblings. As I started to go back to Ghana, everyone would say “oh, you’re not Ghanaian! You don’t speak the language!” Even my own family. I knew that there was something I wanted to do in the language space.
I realized people come to the US and learn English all the time through watching things like Sesame Street and thought, “why don’t we do that in Ghana?” That’s what motivated me to reach out to my network and cultivate those relationships with organizations like Sesame Workshop and other companies who can support us in our goal of making mother-tongue content and promoting literacy.
In Ghana, people are in school, but they’re not learning because they’re being taught in a language that is foreign to them. When you’re at home, you speak one thing and when you’re at school, you speak another, and oftentimes there’s no one to reinforce any understanding of English. As a coping mechanism, many children simply learn to memorize and regurgitate rather than critically thinking. It’s an issue that is probably Africa-wide. We need to first learn how to communicate in our mother tongues, before adopting another tongue as a mode of work and productivity.
I know there’s been talk in Ghana of abandoning English as the language of instruction. What do you think of that?
Around 2009, they created a program called the National Literacy Acceleration Program (NALAP). From kindergarten to class three, children would first be taught in their mother tongue and then there would be a sliding scale transition to English. I think that is still what the policy calls for.
I think it would be difficult to be in a country with so many different languages and then abandon one common language that everyone can access and that has been, for better or for worse, part of its history. I think that the policy, as is, makes perfect sense. We can’t completely abandon English as a language of instruction because teachers have not been taught to teach in their native languages. While NALAP created a lot of wonderful content and great books, there are teachers who still aren’t equipped to use them. We have to train and re-train teachers on how to teach mathematics and reading in mother tongues. Those are the roadblocks that I think policymakers often overlook, which causes policy failure.
Studies demonstrate that children who learn first in their native tongue outperform children who don’t on tests. It makes sense because they’ve learned to communicate in that language.
Ubongo is in Kiswahili and English in East Africa, so what languages will it be in in Ghana?We’re starting with English. We love the Ubongo story because they understand that we need to teach children in the language they understand most. In East Africa, that was Kiswahili. Children in class one to class three gravitate towards the songs and concepts. The challenge and the difficulty of the work arises at the class two or three level where those students might be inclined to speak English. That encouraged them to translate the content into English, so that there would be a wider reach across Africa. That opened the door for us to have Ubongo in English initially and hopefully translate it into Twi and Ga and then expand to other languages that have been officially approved by the Ghana Educational System.
Is the content of Ubongo the same in each country or is different in each audience?
It’s a math-and-science focused program, and the content is the same because across the board children have the same learning objectives by grade, which makes it easily translatable across borders.
What kind of demographic does Ubongo serve? It’s a television program, but I imagine that poorer families would probably have a more difficult time gaining access to the program.
Part of our strategy is to use GTV as our broadcaster because it has the widest reach across the country. Anywhere in Ghana, you can access GTV. We want to cast a wide net. We recognize that TV is not accessible to all families. As we get deeper into our community networks, we want to do viewings in school communities, so that children know it’s on and can seek it out. In many communities, in the evenings, you’ll have a shop or a spot where you’ll find people gathered to watch. That’s an important access point. We also will have additional content available via SMS. Things like quizzes related to the characters and the stories, so that kids can test their understanding. While we recognize the socioeconomic challenges, we’re working with key community institutions like churches and schools to tackle those challenges.
Can children in the diaspora watch Ubongo? Growing up, my parents spoke different languages, so I didn’t have the opportunity to master those languages at home. That was something I had to learn later, so I’m keen to learn more about access abroad.
Yes, that’s our vision. For the English version, we don’t have a license to do that at the moment. Distribution can be tricky because you have to navigate relationships with different broadcasters, but we definitely want to expand access to the diaspora as we translate to local languages.
Outside of Ubongo, do you have plans regarding other kinds of content you’d like produce?
We’ve done a radio pilot, so we’re refining how we distribute radio for children. Most stations don’t target children as listeners. We’re trying to figure out how to create content that will encourage parents to let their children tune in.
We’re not only in digital media, but we are also engaging through traditional media through flash cards and other tools. We recognize that early learners don’t necessarily have those tools early on.
We’re part of a consortium on a USAID-funded project called ZE-LEAP – Zongo Empowerment Learning Program. We’ve partnered with the Islamic Peace and Security Council (IPASEC) as well as TECHAiD and The Implementers Group to deliver an early grade reading and math project focused on empowering native Zongo residents, knowing that they are probably speaking Hausa, living in the Greater Koforidua area in Ghana’s Eastern Region. We’re selecting ten schools. The students are learning Akuapem Twi, so you essentially have the same conflict where students are speaking one tongue at home, Hausa, and going to school where they have to switch to another, Twi.
On one side, we’re creating learning materials in Akuapem Twi and training teachers in how to teach more effectively. On the community engagement side, we are creating messages in local languages to encourage parents to engage with the children. As part of our work with Sesame Workshop, we’re also implementing a program in local Islamic schools teaching children in Hausa. The idea is to gather data and understand how different mechanisms of teaching effect families, but also to test the quality of the content.