We just got back from Nairobi, Kenya, where we spent an intense two weeks testing our very first prototype with over 150 primary school children in Kibera slum. It was rewarding, exhausting, and amazing at the same time.

To set up the pilot, we partnered with the Kenya Education Fund (KEF) – which provides support and resources for disadvantaged students in Keyna – and LitWorld – which focuses on implementing on-the-ground innovative solutions to illiteracy. Both of those organizations are very mission-aligned, and we are so thrilled to count them as partners.

KEF and LitWorld introduced us to the Red Rose School in the Kibera slum, one of the largest slums in all of Africa, consisting of 13 villages home to roughly 1 million people. The extension of the slum, seen by a nearby hill is impressive. To reach the school we drove through a number of villages in the slum. Houses and shops are made of sheet metal or wood and the main roads are always very crowded both on weekdays and weekends – on both sides of the road there are many small Mpesa stations as well as hundreds of local one-window-shops which sell all types of food and clothing items.

We tested our mobile game at Red Rose on the first week of December with different groups of children. Given it was the beginning of the holiday period, we weren’t sure how many children (if any) would show up for the tests. Of course, teachers had mentioned it to them before they went on break, but they’d also warned us that we might not get high numbers. I can’t tell you how excited and touched we were that over 100 children showed up the first day to try our application (many more than we could handle!). They were so excited to give it a shot and queued up to test it!  Speaking with them throughout the next few days confirmed our instincts that building this game for smartphones is the right move. The vast majority of the children had already played games on smartphones and were familiar with some famous games like “Temple Run” and “Candy Crush”. It was clear they had access to smartphones at home. Additionally, playing on smartphones is something they look forward to and are excited about – we couldn’t help but notice their cheeky smiles and legs moving with excitement under the table as they played.

In total, over 150 children aged 5 to 10 years old and more or less evenly split between boys and girls tested our prototype. Observing them turning the app on, completing levels, watching the animations, and generally interacting with the platform gave us invaluable insight into the current state of our product. We understood that we need to continue to simplify our game while at the same time making it even more interactive. The children sometimes struggled to understand our two phases of 1) listening to instructions and 2) acting on those instructions. Children aged 7-10 ignored the narrative and wanted to interact straight away, while younger children aged 5-7 only listened and were hesitant to touch anything. We also observed similar group dynamics to the ones we saw on our previous field testing in Gambia: children enjoyed playing the game together a lot more and felt more comfortable with experimenting in groups.

It became even clearer to us after those tests that engagement is the key challenge. We’re on the right track – building a game with a local narrative that resonates with them – but we need to do more to make sure the gaming never stops. Never should it feel like players are back in a more academic setting. Of course, extending the gaming experience comes with its own risks, and we can’t sacrifice the quality of the educational content we provide. But one doesn’t necessarily come at the expense of the other and we’re excited to keep looking for the perfect balance.

This trip marked an important milestone for us: for the first time we were able to put the fruit of months of work into kids’ hands and observe their reaction. Coming out of it, we know we have a lot of work left, but we’re as excited as ever about what we’re trying to build, and pursuing our original vision to build a culturally-resonant smartphone game that can help millions of children learn to read and write.