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Not much, until Innovation Edge investee Andrew Rudge saw the opportunity to create a fun and interactive ‘Where’s Wally’ inspired game that helps with children’s brain development. 

Read the full interview below as Andrew shares his journey behind creating ‘Finding Thabo’, his hopes for the future of the game and his many learnings along the way.

1.) Tell us a bit about yourself and your journey to get to this point?  

I usually refer to myself as a reformed Banker. I have a Masters in Applied Economics but my main interest and passion is in behavioural economics. I spent almost a decade working in Banking overseas before deciding to move back to South Africa landing up in the Edtech space. Initially, I worked for 4 years looking at how Mxit could be used for social good before moving across to Android. 

2.) What is Finding Thabo, how does it work and who is it aimed at?

Finding Thabo is an interactive ‘Where’s Wally’ inspired game. It uses a Facebook Messenger chatbot and pictures in a widely distributed South African retailer’s magazine to facilitate fun brain-building interactions between parents and children. The game is pitched at parents in disadvantaged households but is designed in such a way to be an aspirational product and appeal to all classes. 

” You only get one opportunity to lay the foundations for a child that sets them on their trajectory for life. “

3.) Why are the early years of a child’s life so important and what are some of the reasons behind why you created Finding Thabo?

You only get one opportunity to lay the foundations for a child that sets them on their trajectory for life. After countless discussions with an Occupational Therapist friend in rural KZN, I began to see the massive need to facilitate and encourage daily interactions between caregivers and their children that stimulate the child’s brain and help brain development.

Finding Thabo is an interactive ‘Where’s Wally’ inspired game. It uses a Facebook Messenger chatbot and pictures in a widely distributed South African retailer’s magazine to facilitate fun brain-building interactions between parents and children. The game is pitched at parents in disadvantaged households but is designed in such a way to be an aspirational product and appeal to all classes. 

I knew that there was an opportunity to help children learn through a sense of discovery.”

4.) How did you come up with the idea?

I knew that there was an opportunity to help children learn through a sense of discovery and started looking at everyday situations where we could weave in simple caregiver and child engagement. One day my youngest daughter was playing Where’s Wally and I saw the opportunity to do something similar that could impact change and facilitate engagement. Being a tech organisation we looked at how tech could support this idea keeping costs down and making it accessible across the country.

5.) Describe the process from initial concept to final working game? What are some of the challenges you’ve faced along the way?

The process has taken a long time to tweak and slowly get right with one of our biggest issues coming from having to design for multiple different Facebook interfaces (from tablets and cellphones to laptops etc). You would design it for one in mind and then find it not working or reflecting differently on another interface. This took time to test and get right. 

The second hurdle was training the chatbot to react to multiple different responses taking into account English being some users third or even fourth language. We wanted to avoid any negative experiences so made a concerted effort to train the chatbot to read and pick up a range of answers and spelling options. 

6.) Why did you choose Facebook as a platform for the game and not the traditional ‘Where’s Wally’ route?

It was fundamentally about scale. Using one picture and leveraging the technology you keep your costs down and make the game accessible to far more people nationwide. 

Using existing platforms like Facebook keeps the barrier to entry low as the majority of users are already on the platform and they don’t need to download a new app to engage with it. 

7.) What excites you about working with artificial intelligence? Have you learnt anything that’s surprised you while developing a game using it?

As one of the developing tech fields, there is so much room to grow and with time AI offers you the opportunity to customise the experience based on the user. We could therefore customise each experience based on the child’s age, caregivers feedback and start to respond to different needs that we pick up on. 

One of the surprising challenges we have faced is converting Facebook page likes to engaged, active users. That being said what we have found is that once users use the chatbot, they often finish all the stages and come back to play it again so there is a good retention rate. 

“Go for it, get a minimum viable product and start testing and tweaking it.”

8.) What advice would you give to someone who might be interested in creating solutions that would impact a child’s early life experiences?

Go for it, get a minimum viable product and start testing and tweaking it. Don’t over think it and wait too long to start trialling and workshopping your idea. When we started we just had an image and a script and would test it with different children and parents to see what worked. 

Tap into the wealth of knowledge and expertise of people already doing great work in this space. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and approach people.

9.) What excites about working in the early childhood education space?

As Nelson Mandela once said, “education is the great engine of personal development. It is through education that the daughter of a peasant can become a doctor, that the son of a mineworker can become the head of the mine, that a child of farm workers can become the president of a great nation. It is what we make out of what we have, not what we are given, that separates one person from another.” 

Unfortunately, the reality is that the majority of children are not getting a good education.  There are many factors at play, but a major issue is that children’s brains are not being stimulated sufficiently during the critical time for brain development.    

Education has the power to make real, lasting change and we have the opportunity to not just change a few children’s lives but to be a part of transforming a nation. 

10.) What is the ultimate outcome or impact you’d like to see through people engaging with Finding Thabo? 

We want to see sustained proper behavioural change across South Africa, seeing Finding Thabo play a role in enhancing the bond between caregivers and children and equipping parents with the skills and knowledge they need to raise healthy, thriving children. I would love, if a decade from now, parents and children could talk about Finding Thabo with the same kind of affection that I had for children’s books and toys like Richard Scarry and Fischer Price. 

11.) How can people find out more and play Finding Thabo?

Access the Finding Thabo Facebook Page here, click on “‘send message” and type “join” to start playing Finding Thabo. Grab July’s issue of Pick and Pay’s Fresh Living Magazine to see Thabo’s next adventure. It is free for all SmartShopper card holders and can be found in all Pick and Pay stores.