The COVID-19 lockdown is putting the brakes on learning for children across Africa and around the world. It also sparked a revolution in African-produced children’s television programming.
With schools closed, creators use the media to educate young people about topics such as sexual health and gender equality focused on television. One of those shows, N*GEN, uses entertainment to educate kids about science.
Tanzania-based Executive Creative Director Gosia Lukomska of Peripheral Vision International (PVI) and Dr. Joy Kiano, a Kenyan biochemist, molecular biologist and educator, created the show N*GEN to fill gaps in the science curriculum while challenging gender norms by profiling Africans. female scientist.
“When I was young, science was the subject of the ‘smart’ person,” said Kiano, known as Dr. Joy. “In East Africa, if you go into science, you become a doctor or a dentist. Physics is about memorization of terms and it’s dense. We wanted to make educational entertainment for kids with people who look like us.”
At the beginning of filming of Season 1, Dr. Joy and Lukomska were working on an episode about skeletons, bones and fossils. Fossils are not part of the curriculum in Kenya.
“Our crew met a paleontologist who showed them images of the Turkana boy,” said Dr. found in Kenya.
“Even I didn’t know that the National Museums of Kenya hold one of the largest collections of fossils in the world. No one knew who Kamaya Kimeu was, the discoverer of the Turkana boy and our show talked about his biggest discovery. I was stupid about fossils!”
Television is widespread in most of Africa.
With families across Africa stuck at home, unable to afford Wi-Fi much less a computer for their children to attend virtual classes, television loomed large.
Free terrestrial television, also called “over-the-air” or “broadcast” television, is the fastest growing legacy medium across Africa. Broadcast on a simple TV antenna, television is on pace to challenge radio in much of the continent, according to Paul Falzone, CEO of PVI, which produces N*GEN.
Falzone believes affordable, off-grid solar power is making electricity affordable for lower-income households. Falzone said that when electricity is available and affordable, a TV is one of the first purchases low-income families make after an LED light, a phone charger and a fan.
An American NGO with a creative team in East Africa, PVI has been using media, technology and popular culture to promote social change for hard-to-reach and marginalized youth since 2014.
To stimulate youth interest in politics and other news, one of their earliest programs, News Beat, featured rappers delivering Ugandan national news in rhyme and verse. The show aired from 2014-2018 on NTV, the largest private television broadcaster in Uganda. An audio-only version aired on radio stations across the country.
Unlike practice in the Global North, Africa’s television business model forces creators to pay terrestrial broadcasters for airtime.
COVID provided the perfect moment to deliver TV learning.
Ato Micah, Managing Director of Maverick-Research, a market research firm based in Ghana, explained that the wave of television and radio deregulation across Africa has contributed to the explosive growth of television audiences. Anyone with an antenna on their television can tune in to local broadcasts.
Still, free TV hasn’t found a way to make money, Micah said. “Legacy stations are pay-to-play,” he said. “If you produce a program, you pay a broadcaster to broadcast it.”
With advertisers focused on the more affluent audiences of pay providers, broadcasters across Africa broadcast free soap operas and other free programming. “Paid providers like Netflix, Disney and Nickelodeon only reach 10% of the population,” said Jesse Soleil, president and co-founder of Akili Network. “And it’s the same content across their networks. Free TV is essential to reach those who cannot afford paid platforms.”
Soleil said when COVID-19 hit, children and their parents were suddenly stuck at home. “It was the perfect time to build an audience for really good educational-entertainment programming for kids,” he said. In March 2020, Akili Network launched Akili Kids!, an African television network for children. Achilles Kids! airs N*GEN and other shows in Kenya.
With lockdowns keeping children out of schools, Falzone and the PVI team also looked at television as an opportunity to deliver learning in an entertaining format.
“We reached out to teachers and asked what might be helpful,” Falzone said. “Disinformation and mistrust of science were rampant. We wanted to elevate science and give people tools to think critically. We wanted to offer COVID tips that were engaging. And we wanted to uplift women and girls. We had an idea for N*GEN in April and were on the air at the end of August 2020.
Transforming learning for a rapidly growing population
Now airing on 45 mostly terrestrial broadcasters, N*GEN is developing Season 3. Season 1 was produced using PVI’s own resources. Like what they saw, Season 2 was funded by the US State Department.
PVI is part of a small but growing community producing children’s and youth social television in Africa.
Ubongo, a non-profit organization based in Tanzania, is one of the leading entertainment media production companies in Africa. According to Falzone, Ubongo pioneered the practice of giving broadcasters high-quality children’s programming for free, with donor support for the production of the shows. With a pan-African focus, PVI, Ubongo and others are changing children’s programming for the better.
Mikea is sure that advertisers will take note. “Quality children’s TV content will build trust with parents and that will attract advertisers,” he said.
“Parents like me are looking for programs that are good for our children. Giving kids something to have fun and learn from – there’s a group of advertisers who are looking for it. If it is a trusted medium, the audience is more likely to trust the advertised brands. Audiences will have better brand recall, making it easier to make the case for advertisers.”
By 2050, UNICEF estimates that one in two Africans will be under 25 years of age. The continent will be home to a billion children and teenagers. Like Sesame Street for generations of young people in the Global North, organizations such as PVI, Ubongo and Akili Network have the potential to transform learning for this young and rapidly growing population.