Student builds app that enables the deaf to communicate, stay safe during Covid-19

Steve Nyaga

Steve Nyaga who has developed an app that enables the deaf to communicate.

Photo credit: Leon Lindigu

What you need to know:

  • The deaf largely rely on sign language and reading lips to communicate.
  • The app has two versions, the paid and free version.
  • The main functionality of the application, which he has named ''Bonga'', is to convert speech to text and text-based replies back to audio.

Face masks, which are a helpful necessity due to Covid-19, pose a great challenge to people living with hearing impairment. This is because the deaf largely rely on sign language and reading lips to communicate, which is hard to do when face masks cover half of people’s faces.

It is this reality that motivated Steve Nyaga, a 22-year-old fourth year Computer Science student at Strathmore University, to take it upon himself and come up with a solution.

“I came across a story in the Nation where deaf people were complaining they couldn’t communicate and learn due to masks covering faces,” he explains.

He then decided to create an app that allows both the deaf and non-deaf to communicate with each other by converting audio into text that is then displayed on a mobile device, to the benefit of those with hearing impairment.

When a user enters chatrooms hosted by the application and unmutes their microphone to speak, it is immediately displayed in the chat.  Those with a hearing impairment can also opt to type text messages which will be converted to audio once they click the send button.


According to a report released a few weeks ago by the Kenya Institute of  Special Education, 86.4 per cent of teachers  said that intervention programmes by the Ministry of Education through the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development (KICD) meant to offer home-based learning  were not accessible by children with disabilities due to poverty.

A majority of households with children living with disabilities cited non-responsive home-based learning programmes as a major barrier to accessing State-initiated online educational programmes.

Mr Nyaga, who hails from Kiruti, Embu County, says he has always been driven by a compulsion for using technology to solve such problems.

The main functionality of the application, which he has named ''Bonga'', is to convert speech to text and text-based replies back to audio.

“I was also aiming at making the user experience even better and I have created chatrooms and sub-chatrooms. I added one more functionality where one can save commonly used words and phrases and be able to access them in the chatrooms.”

This text prediction capability, he says, saves time when typing.

Users can also set priorities for saved words and phrases and arrange them in the order they please.

“The beauty of this is that you do not need to know sign language to use it,” he adds.

He told the Nation that with Bonga, users will now be able to do the following: create an account using their emails, login, create chatrooms for "school"   with sub chatrooms like "math class", "class trip” among others for their convenience.

The report further revealed that only 15 counties have programmes set up by schools to help learners with disabilities cope and manage Covid-19 (34 percent of Kenya) with a majority being in Nairobi and Laikipia counties. 75 percent of teachers indicated that there were no specific programme(s) aimed at enhancing participation in home-based learning for children with disabilities.

The Nation also established that a negligible proportion, about 1 percent, of teachers were running online learning through Zoom and WhatsApp for children with disabilities with the help of their parents or caregivers.

These programmes were meant for candidates only.


The app has two versions, the paid and free version.

“It is free to use if you are okay having advertisements popping up within the user interface but will then clear chats after you use the chatroom," he says.

He charges Sh2,000 per month as a subscription fee  for the paid version because within it one can save chats. 

“Cost is like that because I need to pay for database and storage.”

He has received overwhelming feedback ever since the app went up on Google Play Store in October.

He also believes that he is presenting the cheapest solution.  He says that all he wishes is to help the deaf community access information and have a much easier life.

Mr Nyaga says that his biggest challenge is popularising the mobile application due to the resources needed for the exercise.  He is currently taking part in the Redbull Basement Festival, a global innovative ideas festival in which he hopes to represent Kenya.

“Applications are now closed and I will be needing some votes.”