Lebanese teachers’ ingenious app makes learning Arabic easy

Matt Smith tells the story of an ‘accidental’ entrepreneur who wants to get kids excited about the world’s second most difficult language to learn.

As the world’s second-toughest language to learn, mastering Arabic has proved a torment for even its 295 million native speakers and made many a Middle Eastern school pupil miserable.

Yet those days of classroom anguish could soon be over thanks to ingenious software created by two female Lebanese schoolteachers that has already racked up international sales and secured commercial funding.

Kamkalima now boasts offices in Beirut and Dubai with plans to expand across the Middle East and North Africa; its early success justifying co-founder Siroun Shamigian’s decision to quit a 20-year teaching career and launch her own business.

“I consider myself an ‘accidental’ entrepreneur,” said Shamigian, whose epiphany came after becoming an education coordinator tasked with instructing other teachers on how to use technology to improve pupils’ learning. “I always had extreme difficulty training Arabic departments at schools – Arabic is a different kind of language and existing software didn’t really work.

“There was a growing frustration among teachers, because students were able to use technology to learn in a more fun, interactive way in all subjects except Arabic,” she continued. “I'm not the type of person who just sits back and accepts the status quo, so I got together with a few of my Arabic-language department colleagues and we started to solve this problem ourselves.”

What they eventually created was a cloud-based platform that can be accessed via any internet-connected device and which leverages the latest advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning to help students improve their Arabic skills.

To get to that point, though, took incredible effort and determination. In 2015, Shamigian, co-founder Nisrine Makkouk and other teacher friends began conceptualizing what they hoped to create before entering a business plan competition. Among thousands of ideas, theirs won, a success that was enough to convince Shamigian to quit her job and work full-time on the start-up.

Later that year, Kamkalima, which in Arabic means “a few words”, took a desk at Beirut’s UK-Lebanon Tech Hub, a non-profit organisation by the British and Lebanese governments that has helped 80 companies launch operations in less than three years.

“It was just me during the day, but every afternoon other teachers would come to help, as would some of my ex-students who had graduated in graphic design or business,” said Shamigian.

PRODUCT TESTING

Kamkalima secured funding in October 2016, while the prototype product was soon ready and began testing at Beirut schools.

“Teachers were loving the tool but weren't able to find content to engage students,” said Shamigian. 

In response, Kamkalima hired a team of freelance writers to produce appealing, short articles that could be easily converted into full lesson plans with specific educational goals and learning outcomes that are aligned with the language curriculum.

These lesson plans also come with ready-made questions, which the children answer and are automatically graded. The detailed results are sent to their teacher, who can then swiftly identify students’ weaknesses.

“That’s become a huge hit,” said Shamigian. “As well as reading material, the product teaches writing, listening and speaking skills. We provide lesson plans for all of them, which again is automatically graded by the software.”

Kamkalima offers schools a platform with three types of user accounts – for students, teachers and school administrators. A parent account is under development.

“Our main target is teachers because if we support them and make sure they have all the tools and resources they need, their students will improve,” she said.

Student accounts have a chat-bot that guides and advises them while they do their homework on the platform.

“Arabic is a very difficult language. The grammar and spelling of a word depend on the word before it, for example,” said Shamigian. “If a student writes a word, the bot detects that word and reminds the student of the grammar for the correct spelling of the word next to it. In a cute way, of course. It talks like a bot. It doesn't talk like a teacher.”

INTERNATIONAL EXPANSION

Although the platform was an instant success, turning that into revenue was not so easy and so Kamkalima’s founders decided they must expand beyond Lebanon. Happily, it became one of three companies out of 24 to complete the Hub’s start-up incubator scheme which were chosen to participate in its international accelerator programme.

The winning trio were selected by an international panel of Lebanese and international business experts based on the companies’ business models, their potential for scalability and their readiness to enter foreign markets.

The Hub provided Shamigian with three months’ hotel accommodation in Dubai and a six-month office desk in the city, affording her the ideal base to reach out to the UAE’s Lebanese diaspora.

“We have colleagues who work in Dubai and ex-students who run schools there,” said Shamigian. “That's one of the things I really love about the Hub. Their programme isn't rigid. It's very customised to different startups, because each start-up's needs are different. Being in Dubai, it was easier for me to get meetings with schools and convince them to try our platform.”

Already, 26 UAE schools with a combined roll-call of 10,000 students have become paid subscribers; 80 percent of institutions sign long-term contracts following Kamkalima’s free trial.

“Our growth has been fuelled by teacher recommendations,” said Shamigian, who now spends ten days a month in the UAE. “We haven't spent a dollar in marketing. I get calls and emails from teachers saying: ‘My friend in that school recommended Kamkalima, can you please come and demonstrate your product?’”

Initially, Kamkalima outsourced building its software to external developers, but it now has its own in-house team. Today, the company has six full-time staff and two part-timers. Its main target market is the Middle East and North Africa and is in negotiations for a further round of funding to support its expansion beyond Lebanon and the UAE. It hopes to receive new funding by July.

“We receive unsolicited requests from schools in Saudi, Egypt, many places, and we're not able to follow through,” said Shamigian. “We're seeking investment to scale up the business and be able to hire more people to travel to these countries to make sales.”

The company is also conducting a pilot with a higher education institution to use the platform with second-language learners.

“That’s another target to develop further in the near future and expand beyond MENA to target (the Arab) diaspora as well.”