E-learning in Africa has been much touted, with innovative startups springing up across the continent with increasing frequency. Yet for all the talk, the sector remains hindered by power issues and the cost of data, with investor interest weak as a result. Where to next, then, for African edtech startups?
The “reason for being” for African e-learning businesses is clear. Africa has a big problem with education. According to the Africa Learning Barometer, of 128 million school-aged children on the continent, 17 million will never attend school.
For those that do, in many cases it is hardly worth attending at all. In Nigeria, for example, educational standards are frighteningly low. Less than two per cent of children that sat NECO examinations in the last five years obtained five subject passes, which is not surprising when one considers that approximately 20 per cent of 400,000 primary school teachers do not possess the Teachers’ Grade Two Certificate.
This creates “massive opportunities” for startups in the informal and supplementary learning areas, as well as those supporting teachers within the formal education system, says Nisha Ligon, chief executive officer (CEO) of Tanzanian edtech startup Ubongo.
“Increasing access to smartphones presents a great opportunity for delivering informal learning content to learners of all ages,” she said.
Other companies agree, even those not originally in the learning space. Kenyan startup BRCK has designed a rugged, mobile Wi-Fi device providing people in rural areas with internet connectivity. Last year, the company branched out into education, launching a low-cost tablet loaded with web-based content and videos for use in schools.
Nivi Mukherjee, president of BRCK’s education division, said the company had spotted the size of the opportunity in e-learning.
“Digital access for students is one of the lowest hanging fruit to make access to opportunities in learning a more level playing field in education,” she said.
For Mukherjee, there are opportunities in a number of spaces, such as developing infrastructure, hardware, software and content, as well as assisting with teacher training and tracking learning outcomes.
Yet challenges need to be overcome if African e-learning startups are to make the most of these opportunities, and in doing so help in providing a better quality of education to Africa’s children.
Power is a key one. Grids have failed, off-grid solutions are still in their infancy, and according to the African Development Bank (AfDB) almost 620 million people lack access to electricity. Ligon says power is a major barrier, with the startup unsurprisingly having basically no impact in areas without power.
Progress is steadily being made on electrification, but there are issues elsewhere. The cost of data is another problem, as well as a lack of digital literacy.
“Another big issue with uptake is product-market fit. There is huge demand for educational products and services, but most of the options out there don’t directly address what customers are looking for,” Ligon said.
“Adult learners really value certifications, and most e-learning doesn’t provide a paper certification that jobseekers can use to apply for positions. Secondary students want specific content that helps them pass their national exams, and don’t know how to wade through the many open educational resources that are out there to find what’s relevant to them.”
Mukherjee identified problems higher up the ladder, saying there is a lack of commitment from governments to assist a holistic ecosystem of solution providers incentivised to supply competitive solutions.
“A lot of donor-led free interventions are also hurting the market. In Kenya the government’s DigiSchool program has identified two things that will “make or break” the project: teacher training and content. However, there is no budget for private sector developed content,” she said.
Investors turned off
When Disrupt Africa put together its African Tech Startups Funding Report 2015, the results for e-learning startups were extremely disappointing, with investment into the sector “near on non-existent”.
There have been a number of public sector initiatives across Africa to integrate technology into learning, but investor activity has not followed the trend. Only three investments took place in the e-learning sector in 2015, with total e-learning funding estimated at less than US$500,000.
Mukherjee says interest has been hindered by the fact government is still buying devices rather than solutions, with Ligon noting there are issues with monetising e-learning.
“Mobile money billing for consumer products is still very difficult, and most people don’t have credit cards,” she said.
There is a lot of investor interest in African e-learning startups, Ligon says, but sometimes it is a little unrealistic.
“People look at numbers for smartphone penetration and over-estimate the current state of the market,” she said.
“A device in someone’s hand is just the first step. Potential digital learners then need affordable data, digital literacy, and of course localised content and services that fill what they see as the gap in their educational opportunities.
The way forward
To overcome these infrastructural, technological, and financial barriers, Ligon says there is a need to build “bridge” solutions that take users a step at a time from traditional to 21st century learning.
“This is something that we at Ubongo have been working really hard at,” she said.
The startup’s pre-school edutainment series Akili and Me is available on TV, FM radio and YouTube, while it also has a number of print products like worksheets and posters. Its primary school math and science series Ubongo Kids has content on TV, DVD, YouTube, Android, SMS and interactive voice response.
“The families who watch or listen to our edutainment shows get started on digital learning through traditional broadcast media, and then we use those channels to introduce them to the other products and platforms available,” Ligon said.
“The transition to e-learning has a number of steps along the way, and we’re trying to help our users along that journey as they get access to new technologies.”
For product-market fit, meanwhile, it’s all about localisation and knowing your customer. Ligon highlights the example of Eneza Education in Kenya.
“They literally call hundreds of customers a week, and are so in tune with their users,” she said. “Companies like Shule Direct, eLimu and iSchool have done a great job in mapping content to the national curriculum of the countries they’re working in.”
One of the difficulties for e-learning for adult learners is that African countries generally do not have a set national curriculum, meaning content providers cannot prove to customers that their offering is relevant and will result in real returns for the customer.
Mukherjee believes government must play a part here, and with the development of the sector as a whole.
“Government should pre-approve some innovative solutions to disrupt public education. As Mark Turcano of the World Bank said, “business as usual is not working”. Schools have not changed the way they approach learning since we gained independence. Schools should be given an innovation budget to try different disruptive solutions and the government should research which of them have the most impact.”