The Entrepreneur Behind the Educational TV Show for kids
Bruktawit Tigabu is the mastermind behind one of the most popular television shows in Ethiopia- Tsehay Loves Learning- which is estimated to reach up to five million children every week. The gaps in the country’s early childhood education system prompted her to establish Whiz Kids Workshops, a social business that produces Tsehay Loves Learning and other educational materials. Bruktawit is also among the few social entrepreneurs in Ethiopia. EBR’s Menna Asrat sat down with her to learn what makes the 37 years old tick.
For the current generation of Ethiopian children, the television show Tsehay Loves Learning has been an integral part of their learning. Airing on Ethiopian television on the weekends, the show features a giraffe puppet and animated characters that narrate various subjects ranging from culture, respecting elders and love of country, to biology and space science.
The cheerful giraffe is the brainchild of Biruktawit Tigabu, a 37-year-old teacher by profession, and the founder of Whiz Kids Workshops, the company that produces the episodes of Tsehay Loves Learning. Headquartered in the Gerji condominium complex, the office reflects Biruktawit’s trademark energy in the colourful posters and pictures on the walls. Walking into the glass walled office; the first thing that stands out is the vision wall, filled with statements that reflect the staff’s hopes for the company’s future.
“I started Whiz Kids with big ambitions to deliver quality education to children in Ethiopia,” she told EBR. “When I started this company about 13 years ago, the concept of early childhood education wasn’t highly encouraged. As a country we were pushing to encourage primary school education. As a school teacher, I saw a big gap. You could tell the difference between kids coming into school from early education, and those who were not, by even grade two and three.”
Early childhood education is one of the areas overlooked by the education system in Ethiopia. This pushed Biruktawit to try and do something about it. But the path wasn’t always clear cut. “I thought it wasn’t fair. But I was just a school teacher. I was only getting a limited monthly salary, so I couldn’t build kindergartens to address the problem.”
Together with her now-husband, Biruktawit started to do research into how to reach children through media, using the model of the globally popular American educational children’s television series Sesame Street. “By then, Sesame Street been running for over 30 years, and had massive research done,” she explains. “They were able to see how kids who had been exposed to that kind of show early on had been performing in life after 10 years or 20 years. I thought, this is what I want to bring to children in Ethiopia.”
Even though she had an idea of what she wanted to do, the question of how she would do it still had to be answered. That’s when Biruktawit started work on a project that was completely new to her. “I started with just a 15-minute short film, using puppets, so I could test myself, because I literally had no experience. It took a year,” she says. “The idea was to empower young kids to have better character and to have healthy lifestyles, to be critical thinkers, and amazing readers, so they can make life better for other citizens.”
By that time, Biruktawit who had been teaching at a now-closed private school, had quit her job. She and her husband had no choice but to make it work, and so they did. The next step was finding a test audience. “I took it to my students and they were ecstatic at seeing puppets speaking Amharic. Then, I said, now, how do we design the actual characters and the educational bible of the program? How should we design the characters? Should they be female, male, what should the name be? And that’s how Tsehay Loves Learning was born.”
Biruktawit says the program reaches an estimated five million children every week. It is one of the longest running shows on Ethiopian television, touching the hearts of not only the target audience of pre-school aged children, but those who are older as well. “Right now, we hire interns or young graduates who tell us that even when they were 10 or 12 years old, they used to watch the show. It’s really encouraging to see it across generations. I hope the influence of the show will continue for the next 40 or 50 years,” she explains.
“We run different tests for every season. For example, for the last two or three years, we’ve been focused on healthy behaviours and teaching children about science and health. So we study how we are making an impact and if they are actually retaining any of that,” says Biruktawit. “The research showed that kids exposed to Tsehay Loves Learning have 50Pct more knowledge than other children of the concepts, later in the year. They aren’t only learning but retaining the information.”
For its outstanding achievements in the field of pre-school education, the show won two major awards in Asia including the Japanese Prize International Contest in 2008. In addition, Tsehay Loves Learning won the Next Generation prize, an award for children’s television organized by the Prix Jeunesse Foundation, in the same year.
The next step was to figure out how to scale up the benefits that children were getting from Tsehay. So, for the last two years, Biruktawit has worked with regional educational bureaus to bring the program and other resources to schools, especially to under-resourced and under-served public schools. Currently, in collaboration with USAID, Whiz Kids Workshops have provided around 405 schools with televisions, book shelves and other resources in Addis Ababa as well as in Bahir Dar and Debre Birhan in the state of Amhara.
“The show can help boost the curriculum and improve children’s everyday learning. We integrated the curriculum with videos in order to support and improve the learning teaching process. If the kids learn about cleanliness, the teacher can show them the video, or have them read the books.”
For as hard as she works to help the children who will benefit the most from Tsehay and the other resources of Whiz Kids, Biruktawit is a businesswoman at the end of the day, and one of the pioneers of the social entrepreneurship model in Ethiopia. “This is a business,” she explains. “It’s a social entrepreneurship, and I want to spread that idea in this country. Corporate social responsibility is when a company sets aside some money to do things for the community, which is fine, but I want people to know that they can succeed as a business using a socially responsible approach.”
As a female leader of a business, however, she has had to deal with the stigmas that follow women in most aspects of Ethiopian culture. As many women leaders have publically stated, the perception of women in business tends to end with them being labeled in one way or another. For Biruktawit, even though it comes with the territory, it doesn’t faze her.
“In our culture, women have to balance many things, including people’s perception towards them while properly running their businesses. There is a patriarchal societal structure. But I work hard, so usually I gain people’s respect when they see that I can deliver. As I get older, however, I’m finding that I don’t really care. What I care about is the impact, and the kids I’m serving, and the virtues I will not compromise, like integrity and honesty. I’ve walked away from millions of dollars in funding because of that.”
The future is looking bright for Whiz Kids. Outside of continuing her interventions in education, Biruktawit hopes the show, which has been developed into seven local languages, will hopefully go all over the country. “We are also adapting Tsehay for other African markets,” she says. “Most of the content is relevant, in terms of healthy living and promoting reading. We are also developing a show called Tibeb Girls, about three superhero girls tackling social issues like female genital mutilation and early marriage.”
As someone in the middle of the media-education world, though, Biruktawit is very conscious of how media and technology can positively, or negatively, influence children and young people. “I think we have to be conscious of how we consume media and the power of media,” she explains. “Especially with foreign media consumption, we have to be careful of how it affects our children’s perception of their language and culture, and what damage it can possibly do in the long run.”
7th Year • Nov.16 – Dec.15 2018 • No. 68