Literacy via Mobile Phone is Growing on Somalis

More local people are learning how to read and write through a popular app.

Special Collections: CHANGEMAKERS
Two young Somali women using an app.

(Image Source Trading Ltd /

Most people living in advanced economies take literacy, the ability to read and write, for granted. But this skill is not a given in many developing countries, including in Somaliland, in the Horn of Africa. This is a country struggling under the weight of multiple challenges such as drought, hunger and poverty, reports Voice of America (VOA). But here’s the good news! A local charity. founded by. Somaliland-born digital remittances entrepreneur and former refugee, Ismail Ahmed, offers a free and accessible language app aiming to better the lives of local citizens by teaching them to read and write. 

This app was inspired, as Ahmed tells BBC News, by his wish to teach his children, now growing up in London, his Somali mother tongue during the pandemic. And since its launch in 2021, it has helped over 350,000 people develop Somali language literacy skills.

The app’s ambitious vision is bearing fruit
The app, Daariz, which means study in Arabic,  is the brainchild of the nonprofit Ahmed founded, the Sahamiye Foundation. This organization, based both in London and Hargeisa, Somaliland’s capital, is on a mission to reverse the severe learning crisis in the region. It wants to improve lives in the Horn of Africa through accessible, and better educational opportunities. This is despite the well-documented backstory of sustained conflict and drought which drive low school enrolment. Here, just 30 percent of children attend school, according to Hiiraan Online, where there is also a shortfall in quality education. 

Or as the nonprofit puts it: “We witnessed first-hand the low literacy rates and lack of access to quality education and felt compelled to take action.” It shares that there are high hopes for this free language app, which sets out to boost literacy and lifelong learning, and unlock the potential of every user. 

And the app seems to accelerate the natural process of acquiring literacy skills, as Ahmed tells VOA: 

“This literacy app, we think, would really make a difference in terms of learning the mother tongue, because currently it takes up to 450 to 500 hours for someone to become functionally literate in their own mother tongue, but based on the hard data we have been able to collect, the app has...(reduced that to)... just 50 hours.”

Longer term, the Sahamiye Foundation has plans to extend its “curriculum” to take in other subjects like math and science, offering older people a second chance at the basic education they missed out on in their youth.

How does the Daariz app work?
The app, available for both Android and iPhones,  works on the principle that learning should be fun. It therefore incorporates multiple gaming elements to make accomplishing literacy an enjoyable experience. The app’s website explains that the app is packed with engaging stories, interactive games and tests to let users challenge themselves. 

As users level up, the app’s inbuilt reward system lets them earn awards, badges and even virtual camels! The camel badges are culturally relevant, as in Somali culture, camels are cherished symbols of success. Meanwhile, personal scoring boosts motivation by showing functional literacy milestones achieved.

In terms of subject matter, educators have created a first course that offers topics such as the alphabet, letter sounds and combinations, simple words and short sentences. Writing, sight reading and comprehension make up the second course. There’s also a digital library, Hiiraan Online reports.

According to this local newspaper, Daariz is designed to help in-school and out-of-school children and adults conquer functional literacy in the Somali language within a short period of time. 

Empowering women and girls
Significantly, it is women and girls in particular, who are being empowered by iDaariz to overcome real educational barriers. Many work as small traders, and had previously relied on others to make payments and receive money due to their illiteracy. This app is therefore making them more independent. What’s more, the nonprofit is loaning out mobile phones to locals in rural areas, to facilitate access to the app, which also works offline.

According to Hiiraan Online, around 48 percent of app users are female, a much higher proportion than those enrolled in formal education. “In the beginning, reading was difficult for me and I struggled to understand names or other texts. I spend most of my time at my stall in the market of Hargeysa. I downloaded the Daariz programme and began using it regularly, dedicating two hours each morning.  I would spend 30 minutes reading each page. I continued this way for six months. Now, my reading has improved significantly and I have started to read and write on my own, ”Safiya, a market stall owner in the city of Hargeisa tells the paper.

BBC News covers the positive story of another local woman who has benefitted from the educational catch-up that the Daariz app has given her. Honda Artan, who works as a cleaner, and whose family couldn’t afford to educate her, has made remarkable progress in just two months of using the app. The young mother, encouraged by her friends, can now read and fully understand some short stories in Somali. 

Now, while washing dishes in her employer’s kitchen, Artan shares that her progress has shifted her perspective: "For the future, I hope to secure a more fulfilling position than my current job and use my skills and knowledge to succeed."

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