BY Fast Company 4 MINUTE READ

Xander – a series of educational children’s apps – is just one of the many innovative products created by EverAfrica. The apps provide mother tongue learning for children (between ages three and six) who speak African languages. The apps can be downloaded in Afrikaans, English, Zulu, Xhosa, Tswana, Sotho, Swahili or Shona — the first of its kind on the App and Play Stores. These award-winning apps not only allow for children to learn in their native language, but also develop their fine-motor skills whilst having fun. Founder Sibella Knott-Craig discusses how the idea will positively impact the lives of  children everywhere. 

How did the concept for Xander apps come about?
It all began on a family road trip through the US five years ago. It was obvious to us that children will engage with technology in the future, come what may. I searched for good educational apps for our children to play with during our long trans-Atlantic flight, but found such apps in short supply — needless to say, they were also all in English. Nothing was available at the time in Afrikaans or any other South African language. During this trip, we experienced how much our children learnt from the material that I did manage to find, and I realised there was a gap in our market. Upon arrival in South Africa, I got started on creating high quality educational apps in local languages. Luckily I found a partner with some tech skills who shared my vision and could help the dream come to fruition, and so Xander, the adorable dinosaur, was born. 

Why did the company focus on apps for children?
I chose children between the ages of three to six years, as those were the ages of our children at the time, and I felt comfortable developing for their needs and abilities. I knew the games they liked to play as well as the work they were doing at school, so I combined it into an app. I started in Afrikaans, as I can speak it and thought it would be good to understand our users. The first apps received good support and it became possible to not only continue building Afrikaans apps, but to add seven more African languages. Back then, only 6% of all the apps on the App and Play Stores were not in English! Poverty is one of Africa’s biggest problems, and I believe that literacy reduces poverty, I also believe that literacy is best addressed at a young age in a child’s own language, so the idea of creating educational apps for young children in local languages fitted into my belief system.

How does Xander, the Dinosaur, promote mindful screen time?
Xander achieves this through a blog about educational apps, technology and parenting. These topics are often overwhelming for new parents, so we try to break it down for them and encourage responsible use of devices. Xander apps are not only used by parents but also by teachers, who use the apps in the classroom as enrichment. Once a topic, such as body parts, has been discussed, the pupils can use the apps – under supervision – to practise what they’ve been taught at school. In this way, they also learn to take care of devices by handling them with care, and keeping them charged and safe.   

What do you think is most important about having mother tongue apps for children?
Studies have proven that the best way for children to master new skills at a young age, is to adopt these skills in their mother tongue. Once a solid foundation of basic skills has been acquired, it’s easier to add new skills on top of the solid layer in a second (or a third) language, around the ages of seven or eight. We also love seeing the sheer joy on the faces of parents, teachers and children when they open an app in their own language rather than the usual English. Users say they feel a sense of dignity and pride in their culture when they see an app in their mother tongue appear on the App Store or the Play Store. 

What has been the most rewarding part of creating an innovative business?
The freedom, and losing my fear of failure, for sure. I trained as a chartered accountant and was taught to be professional, but it just felt like I was dying a slow death. The profession gave me an incredible amount of knowledge and experience (as well as good friends and an amazing husband) for which I’m so grateful. It was a huge privilege to train while being protected from all potential dangers, but it wasn’t a life I could maintain with three young children and an appetite for experiential learning. 

How did you overcome challenges?
A challenge has been working without the usual corporate structure that had given me comfort in the past. There were no meetings, no feedback, no professional team to consult with, and no IT division to help me with my laptop issues. I learnt to ask questions, build a network, to assess my choices and quickly change direction when they weren’t working. I learnt to feel comfortable without a structure and to take responsibility for my decisions. I also knew very little about anything ‘tech’ before I started, so I had to swallow my pride and make some rookie errors. I’ve learnt so much and am enormously indebted to my colleagues for standing by me. 

What is the philosophy behind Xander apps? 
Technology is the future and if we deprive our children of engaging with educational devices, they’ll fall behind their peers. There are no in-app purchases, advertisements or other distractions, and the apps are fully compliant with the COPPA Act for privacy of children under the age of 13. We strive to make the highest quality educational material, consulting with educators and parents to keep improving. We will be including as many local languages as we can in order to promote inclusion. We also have many sales and ‘Free App Fridays’ so the apps can be accessible to everyone. We’d like to provide parents with a variety to select from and become the go-to app for parents wishing to make the right choices for their children’s technology diet. Xander has become a well-known character in households, with over a million downloads and multiple awards. Our beloved Dino also has some friends, and, who knows what such a little formidable gang can get up to? We’ll always focus on education and local languages, but we would love to make it onto the ‘big screen’ one day.