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The Challenges of Sustainable Edtech Ventures in Africa – Your Weekend Long Reads

By Steve Vosloo on March 24, 2018

educational technology business models

Earlier this month I attended FUTUR.E.S in Africa in Casablanca, the first event to connect French, Moroccan and African digital ecosystems. Startups, academics and government shared projects in various sectors, including education. It was refreshing to discuss ICT4Edu initiatives with Francophones, as usually the Anglo/Franco African divide is wide.

One particularly interesting workshop aimed to discuss the business models of edtech. In the end, it was more a discussion about how challenging it is to run an edtech venture in Africa.

While the issues raised are not new, it was useful to be reminded of the frustration that passionate people feel in trying to launch their great education idea and keep it sustained. As can be seen below, the issues really apply to most ICT4D initiatives.

Challenges Around Edtech Business Models

In no particular order, here are some of the big challenges:

  • Expectation of free. Much of edtech is based on great content. Content has value. It takes time and people to develop. Localising it into African languages is expensive. It is also quickly consumed, leaving people hungry for more. What do you do when the market has come to expect it for free?
  • Payment is difficult. Even when people decide to buy, there are issues. For the user the most friction-less method is to pay with airtime, but then 30-40% can be lost to mobile operators and other service providers. Most people in Africa don’t have credit cards. And let’s face it, m-Pesa only works in seven African countries, none of which where it is as successful as in Kenya.
  • People get “stuck” on islands. As the GSMA explains, many users are “stuck on ‘application islands’, primarily using only WhatsApp or Facebook, without being aware of the broader potential of the internet.” How do you get them to your app? How do you even get noticed?
  • Education is a long game. While in some cases grades can be shown to improve quickly, in general the impact of an education intervention takes years to show.
  • The trouble with MNOs. Mobile network operators (MNOs) have immense reach and power, and yet are notoriously difficult to partner with as a startup. Basically, you need them a lot more than they need you.

The MNO situation is slowly beginning to change, for example, Orange is investing EUR50m in African startups, as are other MNOs, and across Africa a number of MNO APIs are now available.

Funding for EduTech Ideas

If you have an edutech program, funding is available.

The next round of the GSMA Startup Accelerator Innovation Fund for Africa and Asia-Pacific, which tries to bring MNOs and startups closer together, is open for applications until 15 April.

Injini, Africa’s only incubator dedicated to edtech, is calling for applicants until 3 April to receive $50K in investment and five month’s of incubation.

Who’s Gotten it Right?

At the event I was asked to talk about sustainable and impactful edtech initiatives in Africa. It was useful to look at initiatives that have been operational for at least six years and think about how they’ve made it.

Not all are for-profit, and sometimes their users are different from their paying customers, which could be funders or corporate sponsors.

  • Siyavula in South Africa (SA) – and soon in Nigeria – decided to embrace not only free content, but to openly license it. It has 10 million open textbooks on desks in SA – 100% penetration in government schools.The paid-for part is Siyavula Practice, a closed-content proprietary assessment service for learners, with a teacher dashboard. Some schools pay (usually private schools), but many are sponsored by external funders. Payment can be made by credit card, airtime or bank transfer. Google.org recently awarded Siyavula $1.5m to sponsor access to 300,000 learners, split between SA and Nigeria.
  • Eneza, the assessment and content delivery service for school learners in Kenya, Tanzania, Ghana and Zimbabwe has grown thanks to being invested in by Safaricom, which also provides integration and visibility support. They got it right to work with an MNO.
  • Fundza, the mobile novel library, also has a business model that draws on donor funding and commissioned content. Beyond content, it offers training and skills development for a fee. The content is not only in digital; Fundza’s stories are also printed, a format that is appealing to many donors. In the last year Fundza delivered over 33,000 print books.
  • Worldreader, another mobile library with a large African footprint, focused its early years on the Amazon Kindle as a delivery channel. In 2013, a mobisite was added to increase reach. The rest is history: thanks to widening the channel options it has reached over seven million readers. Both Fundza and Worldreader have experimented with paid-for content – but with limited success. Donor funding, public donations, sponsored activities like increasing access to reading materials, or services like conducting research, are key sources.
  • For pure-play commercial edtech consider GetSmarter, a South African startup founded by two brothers that delivers short online courses to students anywhere. Over ten years GetSmarter has steadily partnered with top universities around the world, offering courses for them and building both a partner and broad customer base. The courses are not cheap – the eight-week Harvard Cybersecurity course costs $2,800 – but they are good, aimed at professionals. The staff of over 400 includes performance coaches, technologists, video producers and tutors.  The key focus areas of partnerships and quality resulted in the company being sold for $103m last year.
  • The One Laptop per Child (OLPC) project has been going since 2005, the oldest of the examples. Funding has mostly come from governments that have supported large-scale implementations, such as in Rwanda. While it has not been without criticism, the project is still going, with recent results from Madagascar.
  • The Talking Book, a ruggedized audio player and recorder by Literacy Bridge that offers agricultural, health and livelihoods education to deep rural communities in four African countries, has also been going for ten years. It’s been run on a combination of donor funding (as it’s founder said to me, if a stream of donor funding can be sustained then this is a viable model) and commissioned implementations. For the latter it services the likes of UNICEF and CARE International to achieve their goals, for example, helping people to be healthier or better farmers. The key here is to demonstrate value to potential partners. Literacy Bridge has also developed an interesting “affiliate” model, that is worth reading about.

The Talking Book is not strictly an edtech initiative, but it’s aim is to educate and change behaviour. This point was raised in the workshop: unless you’re focused in formal education it may be better not to call yourself an edtech provider. Offer learning in health, agriculture of fintech, where there may be more access to funding.

What are your thoughts?

  • What edutech business models and approaches can you share?
  • What edutech ideas have you seen tried that did not work?
  • Are there any other edutech initiatives we should know about?

Thanks to Calixte Tayoro and Lola Laurent for a great workshop. Image: CC by Trevor Samson / World Bank

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Written by
Steve Vosloo is passionate about using technology in education. He's worked at UNESCO, Pearson South Africa, Stanford University, and the Shuttleworth Foundation on the use of mobile phones for literacy development, how technology can better serve low-skilled users, and the role of digital media for youth. All opinions expressed in this post are his own.
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8 Comments to “The Challenges of Sustainable Edtech Ventures in Africa – Your Weekend Long Reads”

  1. Steve, Thanks for posting this, I will keep my comments brief. The airtime payment model is dated and mobile money penetration has increased in several African countries. The freemium model is good as it allows users to test some of the free product offerings, I believe as a long as a platform has value people will pay for it. You have to bear in mind e commerce is a new phenomena on the African continent, thankfully other lateral markets are changing this. The entrance of Uber and food delivery platforms like HelloFood, have opened doors, people are realizing there’s value in new novel technologies which are cheaper than the status quo. At Blue Node Media we developed an EdTech platform known as skooldesk (http://www.tryskooldesk.com) it allows kids to practice tests with automatic grading, analytics identify strengths and weaknesses of an individual learner at subject and topic level. We also have interactive learning objects that make learning fun, engaging and intuitive. These include drag and drop, matching, games, puzzles interactive audio and video.While our platform is English based we plan to incorporate other languages (French, Arabic). I think we need to focus more on the opportunities rather than the challenges. The challenges do exist like power, internet access but these are getting solved, internet costs are getting cheaper every 6 months (Moore’s law), Solar power and alternative energy sources are spreading like wild fire in Africa, the future is bright on this continent with 1 billion people counting.

    • Thanks for your comment, Cavin.

      Can you tell us, what is the business model behind skooldesk? What’s working and not working?

      • Cavin Mugarura says:

        skooldesk uses a subscription model. users pay a paltry $3 per month to access the most basic services. The advanced analytics dashboard is priced sligtly higher. We also provide free interactive content that includes games, puzzles, drag and drop content for kids at primary level. The platform is accessible to users with visual and hearing disabilities. All kids with disabilities automatically qualify for a free access, as part of corporate social responsibility and our mission to leave any child behind. schools from rural areas also qualify for free access. The challenges are many like any other ICT intervention and these border on resistance to change. We have also faced skeptics who think the platform is geared towards cramwork (memorizing). Revision is one way of learning. Another challenge we faced was auto marking of structured questions, which we were able to overcome using artificial intelligence. The other challenges relate to the common problems of power(electric) and internet access, which I highlighted earlier.

        • Steve Vosloo says:

          Thanks Cavin. It’s useful to understand your business model better. Thanks for sharing your pain points / challenges — I’m sure many others have experienced the same issues. Over time some of them should become less challenging (we hope!)

  2. Ennis says:

    Great summary of the ‘edtech’ landscape. For the benefit of all, we’d like to share some of our ‘win-withs’ here at Obami (www.obami.com). We’ve experienced all your ‘challenges’ in some form, but also want to (give hope!) and highlight that partnerships and focus are key (giving special reference to your last paragraph)…

    Obami, in partnership with Sun international and the DBE, offer a completely free solution (zero-rated/no data costs on Vodacom) in the area of Hospitality Studies. There are untold solutions addressing STEM and reading gaps, but this project’s focus sets us apart as ‘edtech providers’ because it is localised and relevant.

    Tourism is a key driver of GDP in SA (+/- 9.5% of total GDP or approximately R415B – 2017) and the industry offers multiple opportunities for the employment of school leavers and graduates. Besides having awesome content (we created a large amount of video to help demonstrate key skills) we’ve also focused on offering adequate support for teachers . Our aim being to develop and change the teaching around the topic, create interest and positively influence learning outcomes. The solution is being warmly received because of this approach which we hope will stem the decline in subject enrolment given the opportunities it offers for career progression in the long term…

    So in terms of successful business models (worth noting most in education aren’t in it for the money) our focus is partnering with corporate and the government to solve long term problems with relevant solutions and not re-purposing or just offering ‘more content’ in the saturated fields of education. Don’t get us wrong, grants and donor funding is great, but we are not convinced it is sustainable (especially for non NGO type orgs). Hopefully the above opens doors to more ‘education specialists’ (edtech is so 2010!)

    Anyway… everyone is welcome to join in and learn and offer us feedback – check out: Bit.ly/Sunhospitality .

    Side note: We are also working in the ECD and Org Development spaces because of the flexibility of our platform; all with a focus on long term strategy alignment and not just tech & content delivery.

    Thanks again for the article and insights.

    • Steve Vosloo says:

      Thanks Ennis! I’ve always been a fan of Obami and it’s great to read of our focused approach with solid partners!

  3. Benjamin Bach says:

    Great article! Thanks! Am a bit surprised that open source or openly licensed contents seem to not be mentioned, except for the example of Siyavula.

    Is it because people do not see the potential of collaborative content sharing, translation etc?

    • Steve Vosloo says:

      Thanks Benjamin.

      The examples above are definitely not exhaustive so there may be more happening in the open source / licensed content space. If you have examples then please do share.

      Perhaps people don’t always see the business opportunity of adding paid-for value onto free content or services. It may point to the need to do more to make the case for open.