Born on a bus – Sterio.me makes learning mobile

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Few startups can claim to have been put together on a bus, though it may become more and more common should AMPION have its way. But Sterio.me, formed last year on AMPION precursor StartupBus Africa, is going strong and plotting a mobile revolution in education.

StartupBus Africa was a five-day hackathon that brought together 15 African and 15 international entrepreneurs on a hus between Harare, Zimbabwe and Cape Town, South Africa, via Johannesburg and Bloemfontein. The entrepreneurs used their time on the bus and ideate and build solutions to local problems using technology.

One of the innovative solutions formed was Sterio.me, which engages learners outside the classroom via mobile to reinforce in-classroom learning. A “sterio” is a pre-recorded interactive lesson delivered via an SMS-triggered inbound voice call to the learner, which is accessible to learners even with feature or basic phones and does not require internet access.

“Teachers in sub-Saharan Africa frequently spend more than 10-20 hours a week on the homework process,” Sterio.me founder and co-chief executive officer (CEO) Christopher Pruijsen told Disrupt Africa. “We save teachers significant amounts of time by automating the homework preparation, distribution and marking process. This time can then be spent on teaching.”

Pruijsen believes Sterio.me can reach the 18 per cent of the world’s population which suffers from illiteracy, as well as the 60 per cent of people who remain offline, using the basic phones that remain dominant in Africa.

“More than 60 per cent of the global population remains offline, and by 2017 this will remain at least 50 per cent,” Pruijsen said. “To reach the masses, GSM is the only option – not just in the present but in the decades to come.”

Sterio.me may be focused long-term on the “masses” but for now it is honing its product in just one country, and a small one at that. Lesotho is a landlocked country completely surrounded by South Africa, a little over 30,000 km2 in size and with a population of around two million people.

Pruijsen, however, says the country is a perfect testing ground for Sterio.me for a number of reasons.

“In Lesotho in secondary school 13.5 per cent of students have to repeat grades year-on-year, and in primary this is 16.5 per cent, dropout rates are much higher,” he said.

“Only two out of every five students that start primary school end up finishing their lower secondary education. To solve these problems more structural shifts are necessary, and by empowering teachers and learners to do daily homework in an easy and fun way we hope to make a noticeable difference in exam pass rates and as such alleviate part of the burden on the system as well as create a brighter future for Lesotho’s youth.”

He said Lesotho was also a good place to start as there is no competition in the space currently, while Sterio.me has big potential to make an impact and the country also has a friendly business environment.

The startup won’t be confined to the small Southern African nation for long though, with Pruijsen clear on the nature of the opportunities for growth.

“We noticed many problems in the market – such as the fact that the literacy rate in Sub-Saharan Africa is only around 59.32 per cent, mobile penetration is high but basic phones still dominate the market, with the main growth being in 2G feature phones, data networks don’t reach everywhere and often data is prohibitively expensive,” he said.

“There are not enough (textbooks in and out of schools, the teacher-student ratio is often very high and as such teachers are unable to conduct a homework or out of classroom learning process which would improve retention of information.”

He said Sterio.me was unique in its approach, as though there are several other initiatives focused on mobile learning, almost all of them require the student to have a smartphone, tablet/computer or internet-enabled feature phone, which he said thus excludes part of the market.

“There are also no other applications using the power of voice, which has a strong potential both for reaching those with limited literacy and for enhanced pedagogy (listening and speaking) in addition to the reading and writing tested via SMS lessons which are used by some others successfully, such as Eneza Education in Kenya,” he said.

After leaving the comfort of the bus, the Sterio.me team bootstrapped for nine months, which Pruijsen told Disrupt Africa meant “sleeping on a lot of couches to save on rent”.

“I even took out a personal loan in order to finance myself whilst working on Sterio.me,” he said. “Then we gained funding from the Start-Up Chile accelerator, which enabled us to hire a telecom engineer and re-develop our technology for optimum scalability.”

As well as the US$40,000 received from Start-Up Chile, Sterio.me also received EUR15,000 (US$18,000) from the Cheetah Fund, a crowdfunding platform open to African innovators, which is sponsored by the Dutch National Postcode Lottery Fund.

Pruijsen said the company expects to receive further, more minor, funding before the end of the year, while it has entered into a number of partnership to boost its ability to deliver its services more effectively.

“In Lesotho the Vodacom Foundation is sponsoring the airtime needed for our service. We are in talks with other telecom operators about expanding our operations, probably with an alternative revenue model bringing a guaranteed monthly revenue per user to the operator,” he said.

“Partnerships such as these are crucial. We are always looking for other organisations who could make use of our technology to distribute their content, reach a new user base via SMS and voice or offer their existing users a new or enriched experience.”

Sterio.me’s goals may be philanthropic in nature, but the startup is for-profit in spite of thus far offerings its services for free in Lesotho as a result of the Vodacom Foundation partnership.

“As such we don’t monetise directly but via advertising. This advertising is preferably of social causes and takes the form of mini-lessons, for example on financial literacy, entrepreneurship and responsible citizenship and paid for by NGOs,” Pruijsen said.

“In parallel we are operating a Software as a Service (SaaS) type revenue model where we license out our technology to third parties who can use it to launch their own training, learning or polling services via SMS and voice in any market worldwide.”

Though Pruijsen admitted Sterio.me was not yet cash-flow positive, he said almost all of its cost is human resources related to the further development of its technology and content base.

He is confident of the ability of m-learning to boost education in Africa, but said a lot depends on the teachers and their ability to adopt the technology offered to them.

“It can add a lot, but the main strength (and challenge) will be in seeing how it will integrate with and be adopted by the public education system as well as the more chains of church- and foundation-funded schools in order to reach scale and systemic change,” he said.

“It can help bridge problems such as the availability and cost of books, teacher training, teacher absenteeism, distance to schools and gender equity as well as reducing the amount of time spent on administrative tasks and empowering teachers as well as policymakers to improve curriculum and make spending more efficient due to improved transparency.”

Pruijsen said, however, that one solution does not necessarily fit all and Sterio.me would need different solutions to solve issues in different areas. He was also prepared to admit the startup had experienced some tough times since stepping off the bus in Cape Town last year, but says it is ready to prosper.

“For the past year we’ve made a ton of mistakes both in terms of internal company management, policy, strategy and our external dealings. On the bright side, we’re still alive, learned a massive amount about education and telecom related startups in Africa, and are now on the right track – with the right team and technology – to make a big impact across the African continent.”

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Passionate about the vibrant tech startups scene in Africa, Tom can usually be found sniffing out the continent's most exciting new companies and entrepreneurs, funding rounds and any other developments within the growing ecosystem.

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