For many parents, sitting down and reading a bedtime story to a child - even a child as young as two or three - is one of the most natural things in the world.

But in Ethiopia, where just over half of adults are still illiterate, the chances are that many young children will never be exposed to books before they start school.

Bruktawit Tigabu, a former primary school teacher, is all too aware of the benefits of developing a child’s interest in reading and learning at an early age. There is no kindergarten or pre-school system in Ethiopia, very few interactive resources, and formal schooling doesn’t start until a child is seven. By then, the children who have not had access to stories and books will already be at a considerable disadvantage.

It was this gap that Bruktawit was determined to plug, knowing that by doing so she could help unlock the full potential of a whole generation of Ethiopian children.

“I hope to see every child with a book. That is my dream,” she says. “Reading is about giving children hopes and dreams, opening up many doors in the future.”

Puppet power

Inspired by Sesame Street, the famous US television show which uses puppets to teach the alphabet to young children, Bruktawit’s teaching career took a sudden change of direction.

Enter Tsehai, the friendly giraffe puppet who just loves learning, speaks Amharic, and is the much-loved face of high-quality educational programmes for young children in Ethiopia. The programme showcases the importance of literacy, but also covers topics such as hygiene and the environment, as well as modelling good behaviour.

Whiz Kids programmes have now been adopted into the school curriculum.
Image: Whiz Kids

Even adults are benefitting from the programme’s messaging, with parents telling Bruktawit that their children now remind them to wash their hands because Tesahi has taught them how important it is.

“I didn’t have the money or resources to start a pre-school,” Bruktawit explains, “so television seemed like the most-cost effective way to reach a large number of children.” The series that Bruktawit and her husband developed - Tsehai Loves Learning - is now Ethiopia’s longest-running television show for children, reaching 2.5 million kids nationwide. And, in a country where education is still very formal, Addis Ababa Education Bureau has taken the unusual decision to incorporate the programmes into the curriculum.

Her idea has been backed up by academic research about the value of educational television, with one study in the US suggesting that living in an area with strong television reception for Sesame Street reduced the likelihood of falling behind academically by 16% for boys and by 13.7% for black children.

“Our analysis suggests that Sesame Street may be the biggest and most affordable early childhood intervention out there, at a cost of a just few dollars per child per year, with benefits that can last several years,” explains the study’s lead author Philip Levine.

Lifelong learning

Being able to read, of course, was the critical factor that enabled Bruktawit to launch a new career and realise her dreams. This is an irony she is all too aware of.

“I didn’t have the right training to do this job, and I couldn’t have taught myself to make TV programmes without being able to read,” she explains, adding that she is modelling the sort of continuous learning that she so desperately wants the next generation of African children to be able to access.

There were many difficulties in launching the business, getting the buy-in of television channels in particular. But keeping her eyes focussed on the vision - rather than on the scale of the problems - helped her to keep going in the tough times.

The strength of her vision carried her through, and she has now won multiple awards, as well as being one of the Schwab Foundation’s 2018 Social Entrepreneur of the Year Awardees.

Her current projects include working on a pan-African television show called "Tibeb Girls" with the specific aim of empowering girls. The story depicts three superheroines fighting for social justice, giving girls a role model of young women asserting themselves for the greater good.

A cultural shift

As with reading, it is often a change of mindset that is required to achieve the desired outcome.

Even parents who value education don’t necessarily recognise the value of simply reading stories, Bruktawit explains.

“We need to establish a culture of reading and reading aloud to children,” she says. “Children need to develop a love of reading early on, see it as a natural process, part of their culture and part of who they are.”

“You can make a big change with a small act, just by reading with a child,” she says.