INNOVATIVE VOCAL APP FIGHTS ILLITERACY IN MALI

By Paul Ndiho

A Malian entrepreneur has created an app for people that can’t read.  It works with voice instructions in several of the languages spoken in Mali and it’s helping small businesses market their goods and services. Screen Shot 2019-08-29 at 7.40.11 AM

Ada Tembeli sells fruits and vegetables on the street in Bamako, Mali’s capital. Tembeli is among a growing number of entrepreneurs who are illiterate, but have found a novel way to do business through social media. It’s called the Lenali vocal app.

Tembeli attracts customers by sending a voiced message in Bambara with her stall’s location, as well as photographs of the fruits and vegetables she has available on the day.

“Here are your lovely fruits. We have nice ripe oranges, apples, bananas. Without forgetting to mention the pineapples. Today we have almost everything to keep you satisfied. To find us go to the third bridge and you will see me.”

She says the app works for her because she didn’t go to school and doesn’t understand French. Tembeli, also said her earnings have tripled since she  starting using the app, which, just like Facebook, provides users options such as ‘likes’ and ‘posts.’  The app’s interface is also available in different local languages.


Lenali was developed by Mamadou Gouro Sidibe, an internet technology engineer from Mali.
Sidibe got the idea to create the app when the manager of a shop he regularly visits asked him to read a message in French on the chat application Viber.

Sidibe took years to develop the app. He left his career in French start-ups to work on what he says is the world’s only voice-based network available in different West African languages such as Bambara and Soninke that are spoken in Mali.
He says he wanted to create an application that could be used by people who could not read or write, as well as help those who need to share information in French but haven’t gone to school to learn it.
” I needed to allow people like him  to understand what they were doing when they try and install it. A lot of people get applications installed for them because they can’t do it themselves. So it was with that in mind that we created vocal guides, vocal instructions in the local language so people can understand what they are doing. Right up to doing up your profile vocally. If you know how to write, you can put it in writing and if not you speak into the application and record it. And after that you can publish vocally, you can comment vocally, and you can do everything in this application without ever having to write a single word.”

Before the application was developed most small business owners in Mali relied on friends, family, and word of mouth to keep them going.  Now they can reach out further afield and attract a wider net of customers through the vocal app and sharing network. Motorbike sales at Boubacar Sidiki Goita’s shop in Bamako are up this year after he started using a vocal social media application to promote his goods and share information with customers who can’t read.

Goita is literate, but many of the people he is trying to reach are not. He says Lenali is popular with young people.

“Since I have been using Lenali, my turnover has gone up 5 percent, and now I can sell 20 motorbikes a day whereas before it was hardwork selling just five a day.”

Only 33 percent of Malians are literate, according to the United Nations.   Sidibe says the free app, available since January 2017, now has over 73-thousand users.   He expects the app to become profitable when it reaches 200,000 users.

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