Ethiopian startup BeBlocky has developed a gamified learn-to-code app for children that has already been downloaded 2,500 times since its launch in June.
Formed in 2018 and formally launched on Google Play three months ago, BeBlocky is a gamified programming learning mobile app for kids aged between seven and 14, which presents code concepts in graphical puzzle-style programming blocks designed to look attractive to children.
Users simply drag and drop to programme BlockyBot, a friendly robot, to perform a range of different tasks and entertaining movements, making learning to code intuitive and fun.
The idea for BeBlocky, which has received very positive feedback and is racking up the downloads, came about after founder and chief executive officer (CEO) Nathan Damtew joined college in 2014 and discovered most of his classmates had trouble with programming simple “Hello World” apps.
“Some of us were introduced to programming late in high school, but for most it was very new and the introduction couldn’t get any harder,” he said.
Later, in 2017, he saw his cousins, aged 10 or 11, playing the mobile game Clash of Clans.
“I always thought that game is complicated and they were enjoying it very much. So I thought if kids can understand a game as complicated as Clash of Clans, they can also understand programming, we just have to gamify it a little bit. That was my eureka moment,” Damtew said.
So he built BeBlocky, which recently secured US$25,000 in pre-seed funding from The Baobab Network after joining its accelerator programme. One child at a time, the goal is to get Africans coding at an earlier age and solve the continent’s developer shortage.
“On a continent where nations are racing to build a digital economy, we suffer from a shortage of developers, the real architects of this digital economy. Coding is an invaluable skill that not enough Africans in the workforce master,” Damtew said.
“And knowing that less than one per cent of African children leave school with a basic knowledge of coding, it would take us way longer to catch up to the world, never mind move ahead of it.”
Learning to code is essential, he said, especially for today’s children, who are growing up in a world where smartphones, tablets and digital games are embedded into their daily lives.
“We’re living in a digital world and it’s only going to grow in the future. It is one thing for kids to know how to use these technologies, but it’s another to understand the logic behind them. These children must be able to not only passively consume these technologies, but also become innovators and creators of it,” said Damtew.
That is what BeBlocky is trying to encourage, and its way of doing so is designed for the African context. Damtew said most of the startup’s competitors internationally are web-based, requiring continuous access to the internet, and primarily targeting the United States (US) and Europe. BeBlocky, on the other hand, requires no data to run the app, ensuring inclusivity in regions with low internet penetration, and increasing the addressable market.
“It is built for mobile devices and tablets, as we are positioned to take advantage of this growing market segment in the continent,” said Damtew. “We also leverage cutting-edge AR technology to make the app more engaging and fun.”
Though primarily targeting Africa, BeBlocky has an international outlook incorporated into its long-term plan.
“We’ve seen a lot of downloads coming from Ethiopia, South Africa, Nigeria and Kenya, but we’ve also had a good number of downloads from the US, United Kingdom and a few other European countries. This helped us understand that our application can be a good fit for the rest of the world and not just Africa. As we expand we’ll be considering Western countries,” Damtew said.
The startup is currently pre-revenue, and plans to start monetising early in 2020. It will do so through sponsored or branded characters, with brands able to pay to have their characters featured in the app.
“This gives companies access a new interactive channel for their audiences to engage with their brand, while aligning themselves with positive STEM learning outcomes,” Damtew said.
Another source of income will be in-app purchases, with BeBlocky offering users new characters, environments and code blocks to purchase. Third party designers and developers will also be able to publish and sell their own content in-app, with BeBlocky taking a commission.