South African educational startup Obami has been through a number of phases since its launch in 2009, but has now found a profitable nice in providing learning solutions to a variety of organisations.
Obami, which is available on web and mobile, offers learning solutions to students, teachers and parents, as well as governing bodies, NGOs, small businesses and corporates.
Yet it wasn’t always that way. Obami launched in 2009 as what founder Barbara Mallinson describes as a “generic social network”, only shifting its focus to schools the next year in the hope of addressing South Africa’s educational challenges.
Further changes were to follow, with the company moving away from its sole focus on educational institutions and looking to provide e-learning solutions to a much wider group of individuals and organisations.
“We realised how the platform could be used to drive learning across other organisations and markets too,” Mallinson told Disrupt Africa.
The company has seen strong growth in the basic education sector, with over 400 schools from across South Africa and beyond using its solutions, but Mallinson sees the real opportunity in rolling out elsewhere.
“We’ve come to recognise that learning is lifelong and have grown up to support this; from distance learning at FETs, to NGO courseware and professional development across major corporations,” she said. “In short, we’ve built a flexible platform that ‘does learning’.”
Mallinson said Obami had spotted an opportunity to “do something radical” in the learning industry.
“Education is broken and we wanted to play a role in disrupting an underserviced and rather backward market,” she said.
“Competition within the global education sector is massive – it has grown enormously over the last four years and the domestic space is getting more crowded every day. But, because the landscape is so huge and so varied, and there are so many challenges, we’d argue that there is ample room for many more players. In fact, the way we see it, the only way education can and will change is if more players come in and work together.”
E-learning startups have proven popular with investors in recent months, with Tanzania’s Ubongo Kids and Ghana’s Revo among those to have raised funding rounds lately, but Obami is self-funded and proud of it.
“We turned funding down in the early days – it was a hard call but we had our reasons, mostly because the funder didn’t share our vision and values,” Mallinson said.
“Sure, it’s been a hard slog getting to where we are, but we’re happy we chose to go it alone. The freedom we’ve had to define and refine our destiny has been priceless.”
The decision to go it alone has paid off, with Obami now a profitable business and the recipient of a number of international awards.
Highlights project-wise include the delivery of a learning solution to South Africa’s largest mobile operator Vodacom, which allows learners form across the country to access curricular-aligned daily video and note content, along with assignments, progress tracking and rewards.
“It is a free offering for anyone, data is even zero-rated for Vodacom subscribers, making this a huge game changer and a big milestone for us and South African education,” Mallinson said.
Though she said Obami’s offices – “and our hearts” – are in Cape Town, and the majority of the startup’s business is with South African organisations, it does provide a product and service that is being used by clients from across the world, which may necessitate some international expansion.
“We are considering opening offices in London and New York, but we’re also weary of the pitfalls that come with scaling a business just for the sake of it. We’ll be spending some time in the UK later this year to suss it out, so I guess we’ll have to see how that goes,” Mallinson said.
Whatever happens, Mallinson is confident Obami has a bright future ahead of it.
“Our team has grown and shrunk over the years – it’s been a real journey finding and keeping the ideal mix of personalities and skills but we’re in a great place now, with what feels like the dream team of web developers, business developers and operational folk. And we have a number of old faithful freelancers that we can call on as capacity demands expand with new projects.”