Social impact gaming apps developer targets schools

Usiku Games chief executive Jay Shapiro at the firm’s Diamond Plaza offices in Nairobi. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG

What you need to know:

  • Usiku Games did a game dubbed Let it Rain, in conjunction with the World Bank and Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation last year for smallholder farmers.
  • Currently, Usiku Games is working on a reproductive health game with John’s Hopkins to help families navigate this sometimes embarrassing topic.

As Jay Shapiro, CEO and founder, Usiku Games, spoke to the Digital Business at his office in the Diamond Plaza in Nairobi, he was upbeat about the venture he founded in October 2018.

The social impact gaming company seeks to “hashtag game for good,” he says.

The company, which has 20 staff, creates educational games aiming to be the epicentre of gaming in the region.

Mr Shapiro, a serial entrepreneur, says: “We create games that are positive, have a social impact, or have behaviour change built into them.

“We explore climate change, afforestation, we’ve done women’s empowerment, sexual reproductive health, all different topics, typically focused on youth aged between 16-25.

“Basically targeting the people who these days ignore anything the government or NGOs have to say, and yet if you position it in gaming, hip-hop or comic books, they’ll listen.”

So gamification, as a thing is incredibly powerful, to educate and inform them but also there are all kinds of incentives and behavioural change you can make within the game to encourage certain kind of behaviour.”

Speaking of behaviour change, Usiku Games did a game dubbed Let it Rain, in conjunction with the World Bank and Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organisation last year for smallholder farmers.

The game reached 100,000 farmers, focusing on the timing of planting to boost harvests, keeping in mind the changing rain patterns and the available meteorological data. Farmers would guess the dates they expected rain in their county. The farmer with accurate dates based on the meteorological data available, winning Sh100,000.

The competition awarded winning farmers a total of Sh1 million. The conversations around precision farming techniques were started through this game, says Mr Shapiro.

Currently, Usiku Games is working on a reproductive health game with John’s Hopkins to help families navigate this sometimes embarrassing topic.

“No parents want to have ‘The Talk’ with their kids and no kids want to have ‘The Talk’ with their parents right? But we have to learn somehow. Most kids use the Internet, which is not always appropriate, or from their friends who don’t also know. So we make fun games to eliminate some of the embarrassment, making it easier to have that conversation.”

Given all this, why Tizi?

“Tizi is an educational platform specifically for primary school-age children in classes one-six aged five-12. When the Covid-19 pandemic started and schools were shut, it was hugely important to make sure that learning continued.

“We created this platform, which will have 30 games when finished. We’re at 16 currently, all directly correlated with the Competency-Based Curriculum (CBC) so that when you join the platform you pick your age, and given what week of the year it is, we know what the pupils should be learning in the classroom that week.

We give them games that reinforce that learning, for example, a crossword puzzle with the language they’re learning that week. Even for Maths, Science, English, Kiswahili, Art, and KSL (Kenyan Sign Language) is a part of the CBC, something they’re learning, and also, it’s really good for students to be able to learn to interact with the deaf in society,” he says.

Asked whether they work with Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development (KICD), Mr Shapiro says, “In the case of the KSL one, we made it independently as a part of Tizi, but certainly, we’ve been in close contact with KICD because we want to donate this in Kenya for free to all learners in all classrooms to put in the tablets, so we’re currently going through that review process with them.”

This is Mr Shapiro’s fourth big business. He’s done a digital marketing agency, an app building platform, and a non-profit foundation helping street children, shelters and orphanages to do skills transfer workshops in four different continents dubbed ‘Do good as you go’.

The gaming industry in Africa is still in its infancy compared with other parts of the world, but Shapiro believes, “There’s an opportunity to shape it, how we want different from what’s happening in the West. We can create it here in a socially beneficial way”.

There’s a difference between Gamers and people who play games. They are not necessarily the same thing. Jay expounds, “Gamers, we normally think of people with consoles, PlayStation, Xbox, PCs, spending hours playing, with some in e-sports playing professionally.

That whole community is not what we’re looking at. What we’re focusing on is the average person sitting in a matatu in traffic who is idle, looking for a pacifier for boredom and would normally play Candy Crush or Sodoku. Those we call casual games, where people can play for 15-20minutes for just a little bit of fun, and if we can do good while at it, that’s fantastic.”

Bearing this in mind, looking at the number of connected smartphones in sub-Saharan Africa, as of 2019, pre-Covid data, it was at 350 million, and according to Jay, “That’s more than all of the US, Mexico, Canada combined, and that’s massive. This is because of the size of the population, the youth demographic and we’re leapfrogging directly into 4G technology.

Up to 2019, that was growing at 20 percent year on year, with the US at two percent. There were some predictions, although we’ll see what happens with Covid now, that by 2030 that’ll be 680 million connected smartphones making Africa one of the largest gaming communities in the world. We also have the largest youth population with Kenya’s median age at 20, the US at 39 and Europe it’s 47.

All the conditions are ripe here for people to be playing games. Also, all smartphones have at least one game on them. Everybody plays something. In our opinion, if you’re going to play something, you should play games made in Africa for Africa.

We create games that are locally relevant, in the case of Kenya most of our games are in Sheng’ so we have Okoa Simba, Chuck Noma, Mama Mboga, Turkana, et al, that is Kenyan and feel Kenyan, see themselves reflected in the game and that makes a huge difference. While we’re doing that, we add a sprinkle of social impact on top so that it’s fun first, but at the same time doing some good.

We created the company as a reaction to sports betting and the violent games out there.” Shapiro adds.

“There are no guns, no bikinis in any of our games. We treat women as equals not objects. That’s a huge difference within the gaming industry. Again, we have a clean sheet of paper, we can make this industry whatever we want it to be and so I thought let’s start on the right foot and create it the right way in Africa.”

Tizi has that as a base, then branches out into education where it’s focused on the different age groups, for example, grade one is counting with fingers while six, is multiplication and division, and in the game, the pupils get introduced to asteroids coming from space and to save the earth they’ve got to answer a Math question to destroy the asteroid.

There are spelling games, history, flags of the continent’s country, et cetera.

The games use the emotional attachment in the thrill of winning, the frustration of losing, the challenge and curiosity of the students engrossed in having fun, to teach and make it memorable. Tizi is designed to be used even at home with the parents’ smartphones or tablets.

Jay adds, “There is a recognition of the power of gamification as a tool for education. In the case of primary schools, there are the tablets but there’s not a lot of content for them, that’s what we’re trying to develop, to make that already existing hardware something to make it all the more powerful for the kids. That’s the direction.”

Gaming connects Stem courses and the arts. Every game has coding elements, as well as software, which is probably what most of us think about when we talk about game development, however, there’s also character development through illustration, writing, music soundtracks, and you need all of it to make a successful game.

Shapiro adds, “A game that’s just code is boring. Gaming has the way of bringing that natural art interest into Stem by connecting it with the actual technology and we’re finding that brings in a lot of women into gaming. Historically this industry, especially in the US, was very male. Here, we’re the opposite, fresh on paper, and so we can design this industry to be gender inclusive.”

Usiku Games seeks to expand into the continent with eyes set on Nigeria, Senegal, Ghana, Ethiopia, SA, Tanzania, Rwanda and Uganda which already have small studios, but there’s an opportunity to bring them together to create an African industry.

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