As part of our ongoing tech female spotlight, we are featuring and celebrating dynamic tech female enterpreneurs who are using unique opportunities to create meaningful innovations and community engagements that affect humans globally. For the maiden edition, we are presenting Nisha Ligon; a Thai-American living in Tanzania and the Co-founder and CEO of Ubongo, read her interview and get inspired!
Tell us about yourself and your role at Ubongo?
I’m co-founder and CEO of Ubongo… and within a startup that basically means doing everything that has to be done to get our product out and keep the company running. I’m very involved in production, and in season 1 of Ubongo Kids I co-wrote the scripts (and have translated them all for Ubongo Kids English), served as production manager, edited the episodes, and basically did every other role that we didn’t have someone to film. As we grow, I’m working on training dedicated people for these different roles.
I’m also the business lead for our social enterprise, so I’m in charge of strategy, partnerships and finances. Our main source of revenue is advertising, so it’s a lot of work going out, and selling to potential advertisers.
What does Ubongo do? And what does it mean?
Ubongo is a social enterprise that creates fun, localized edutainment for learners in Africa. We currently produce Ubongo Kids; an edu-cartoon which teaches math to kids across East Africa on TV. Viewers in Tanzania (where we’re based) can interact live via SMS, answering questions as they watch and getting personalized encouragement and feedback from their favorite cartoon characters. We’re working on expanding the interaction system to other countries now too. We’ve also got a number of other great edutainment products in the pipeline.
Ubongo means brain in Kiswahili. We have five co-founders: me, Arnold Minde (a software developer), Cleophace Ng’atigwa (a Tanzanian artist/composer/actor), Tom Ng’atigwa (a teacher) and Rajab Semtawa (an animator). It’s a big co-founding team, but we’re incredibly diverse and lucky enough to have all key skills for Ubongo Kids within our confounding team!
Who is your target audience?
Right now, the math topics we teach through Ubongo Kids come from the curriculum for 7-13 year olds. But we have a much broader viewership range than that, with a lot of young viewers from 3-7 years old. We’re working on creating a spin-off series specifically for these younger viewers now.
What is your typical week like?
My life is pretty crazy right now! I try keep my early mornings to myself for running, breakfast meetings (or that extra hour of sleep), and get to the office around nine. There I work together with our team to manage production of Ubongo Kids, deal with our finances, work through all the data we get in from our SMS system and impact study (which is ongoing in schools), and everything else that goes into running a startup. We can have up to 6 episodes in production at any given time, so it’s a bit of a mad house.
We use Asana, an online project management tool, to keep track of everything, and it’s a life-saver. All of our work goes on Google Drive (except for the big video files) so it’s shared among the whole team and can be access from anywhere. I sometimes feel like every 10 minutes some new crisis pops up that needs my attention… so being able to put everything in a structured system where I can forget about it until I need to address it (and access it from anywhere) is great.
Traffic in Dar is horrible, so I try to group meetings around town so I don’t waste so much time sitting in traffic. That said, I take my laptop and a modem with me everywhere, so it doesn’t matter where I’m stuck, I can keep working, whether I’m in the back of a taxi or waiting for a letter at a government office.
I edit our episodes and webisodes at home in the evenings when I have uninterrupted time to concentrate on them. We broadcast the show on Saturday and Sunday morning’s with a live interaction system that needs management… and we do most of our recording and writing on the weekends when students and teachers or free– so it really is a 7-day-a-week job! But I love what I do, and I also get to travel a ton, now that we’re expanding across Africa, so it’s a super exciting time.
How have you built both your technology and leadership skills? Was it through formal education or your interest?
I’ve always been a bit of a techie, especially when it comes to the technical side of film production. My family had a camcorder when I was a kid, and I would make films for everything, from school projects, to presents, to little family videos just for fun. I got Final Cut Pro for my birthday when I was 15 and taught myself how to edit films through lots of practice. I also took a lot of technical courses at university. The beauty of the US University system is that you have so much flexibility to study what you want, so even though I majored in Biology, I was able to take courses in 3D animation, interactive design, film production and so much more!
I’ve always loved to learn by doing, and I’m still doing that every day on the job now!
As for leadership skills, I think they just come when you are so passionate about something that you HAVE to do it. And other people will see that and be willing to follow it. My job as a leader at Ubongo isn’t about telling people what to do… it’s about helping people get the skills, resources and support to do what they need to do, in the best way they can.
How you have stayed focused and developed your brand?
I quit my job in London and moved back to Tanzania to create more localized edutainment… but it took a while before Ubongo became what it is. I found that my skills in elearning production and learning design were quite in demand, so I got pulled in a lot of directions when I first moved back to Dar. The key was finding my co-founders (Arnold, our CTO brought us all together). We discovered we had such amazing shared passion and were all trying to creatively educate children, but with different approaches. It was all of us coming together that focused me back to what I had originally wanted to do… and once we created Ubongo Kids, that became our shared obsession. There are a lot of distractions out there, but we are focused on providing kids with the best informal learning through technologies that they can access.
What steps have you taken in the past and are you taking currently to keep your skillsets up-to-date?
I love learning, and finding creative ways to share what I’ve learned with others. I prefer to learn by doing, and as we produced Ubongo Kids, there were so many different skills that I had to self-teach, by doing online tutorials and just reading whatever I could find on the web. So that’s how I’ve expanded both my technical skill set and my business skills.
I’ve also done some online courses, though it’s really hard to fit in the time. I did a Kauffman Fellows Online Course called Startup CEO, and a lot of coding tutorials, as I’m also the one who does the front end for our websites.
They say the best way to learn is to teach, so I try and teach as much as I can too! I share what I learn with the Ubongo team, and I’ve also done quite a bit of mentoring and startup training. I facilitated Startup Weekend Dar es Salaam, and try and make time to attend the various tech and startup events that happen around here and Nairobi, so I can share with and learn from others.
What is your advice to a younger person who wants to follow your path?
Just do it! Starting something yourself is a huge risk, but it’s so rewarding! And be confident that you can learn what you need to learn along the way.
What can we expect from Ubongo in the future?
We want to be the top for edutainment in Africa. We’re growing fast, which lots more Ubongo Kids products coming to you, and some other big ideas for new products that can help kids find the fun in learning!
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