Why students could yet prove a happy hunting ground for African startups

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The ed-tech space in general has had mixed levels of success in Africa, but signs are that it is on the move. Solutions targeting students, moreover, are becoming more commonplace.

Last year saw more ed-tech startups raise funding than any year on record, according to forthcoming data to be released by Disrupt Africa, helped by the presence of a dedicated incubator, while the space saw a major exit with the acquisition of South Africa’s GetSmarter in 2017.

Startups targeting mature learners and learning institutions are increasingly common, with find-a-tutor platforms especially prevalent, but thus far startups have tended to avoid a large, but potentially hazardous, market – the continent’s students.

This is starting to change, for good reason. One startup with students in mind is South Africa’s DigsConnect, an accommodation finding platform. Founded by students, for students, the startup is targeting a vast potential market – with 2.3 million students in South Africa alone. Who said targeting students could not be potentially lucrative?

“In terms of accommodation – prices vary wildly for rent depending on city and location within the city,” said Alexandria Procter, co-founder of DigsConnect.

“We work on a rough average rental of ZAR3,500 (US$250) nationally. Minus in the number of beds at university residences, the number of students living at home, and we’re left with around ZAR75 billion (US$5.4 billion) being spent on off-campus student housing annually.”

Furthermore, she says the student population is a great market in which to test a product, as they are happy early adopters of new solutions.

“Students also generally have a great sense of humour and are very forgiving of product mishaps – so you can develop your product in collaboration with them, and don’t have to fear getting it wrong the first few times,” Procter said.

Securing the future

There is also sense in brands getting to potential customers early. Cecil Nutakor, chief executive officer (CEO) of Ghanaian learning platform eCampus, uses the phrase “catch then young and they shall be yours forever”.

“Students, and for that matter the youth, are the heartbeat of Africa’s youthful societies. Brands that are able to engage and win their trust have the opportunity to become market leaders and household names,” he said.

This is a view shared by Hertzy Kabeya, managing director of South Africa’s The Student Hub, which offers a range of services to students, such as course and placement discovery options. He believes the student market represents a big long-term opportunity for forward thinking companies.

“Very few companies have managed to adjust their product offering and business models to win this market. The current student market is the future workforce, therefore winning them now is definitely a big opportunity for brands,” he said.

What makes this market exciting, according to Kabeya, is the fact that almost all industries have to start from zero to win it.

“The ground is levelled for small companies to overtake big companies, because big companies will not effortlessly inherit this market. This market belongs to nobody yet,” he said.

“They are no longer loyal to brands and products, but rather they are buying experiences and remain very loyal to great experiences, even if it is offered by a new player in the market. They are eager to try new things as long as it follows this narrative. so the number of years in operations doesn’t matter anymore. It is no longer a competitive edge.”

Where is the money?

Yet how to startups targeting students get paid. Kabeya admits that students lack the ability to spend on non core expenses such as entertainment, communication, transport and fashion.

“That is why companies such as ShowMax and Uber make very little from the student market. Students generally don’t have any income, therefore they rely on monthly allowances that tend to go directly to core needs such as food and accommodation,” he said.

Therefore companies in this space need to target these needs. The Student Hub focuses on helping students find courses and work, and gets paid from elsewhere. DigsConnect focuses on accommodation, and will monetise by taking a cut. Yet Bola Lawal, CEO of Nigerian startup ScholarX, thinks students have more spending power than people imagine.

The ScholarX app allows users to select parameters and scroll through lists of available scholarships that match their requirements. Scholarships are available for undergraduate, masters and PhD students. The startup, which expanded to Ghana in March 2017, has also rolled out Village, which allows students to create fund requests to help with costs such as school fees, accommodation, books and exam fees.

Lawal sats students are in fact big spenders.

“They have access to their parents’ funds, and they are more emotional when it comes to spending. Though in certain parts of the world where poverty runs high the spending of students is lower, still they are a huge part of retail buying in any country,” he said.

Getting the marketing right

That said, persuading students to buy good and services on your platform can be a challenge. All are agreed that specifically-targeted marketing is required.

Nutakor said students get bored very easily.


“You can’t keep them focused on your brand by doing the same things. In most cases you have to find out from them how they want to engage with your brand and do just that for them,” he said.

DigsConnect has often resorted to stunts to keep itself in the forefront of student minds, and Procter said the startup has focused on the fun. But it is not just about having a laugh, and varies from university to university, and student to student.

“Our experience in the student market has challenged us to think differently, to push boundaries, to value each student we interact with, and to do it all simultaneously,” she said. “In our experience, marketing to millennials isn’t a one size fits all. It’s about carefully constructing a brand identity and marketing to young people in different ways to appeal to each one uniquely… a journey more than a destination.”

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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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