Rwandan startup Haystack expanding its online courses across continent

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Rwandan ed-tech startup Haystack is in the process of expanding across the continent after seeing sizeable uptake of its online learning solutions.

An online training programme with more than 250 learners having signed up since its launch in February, Haystack has already expanded to Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania, and is now also launching in Ghana.

Yet it has been a circuitous route to get to this point. The co-founders, Canadian accountants Erin Godard and Pascal Ambrosino, moved to Rwanda in 2017 to launched FinanceYOU, an accounting consulting and professional development firm. Since then, the company has helped a wide range of clients in East Africa navigate their accounting challenges, but also helped the pair identify another entrepreneurial opportunity.  

“Through our consulting work, we identified a huge gap in the market for skilled accountants, from entry-level to senior roles. Our clients constantly struggled to find qualified staff that could perform the roles they needed,” Ambrosino told Disrupt Africa.

To address this problem, last year they launched the African Accounting Academy, an innovative training programme they developed based on their on-the-ground experience. Initially focused on entry-level talent, the first cohort of graduates from an in-person pilot are now in the workforce, working at audit firms, banks, startups and non-profits across Rwanda.

Scaling in-person training is a challenge, however, so in February Godard and Ambrosino launched e-learning platform Haystack, and moved its signature course completely online. 

“Moving the course online has drastically decreased administration costs, increased our reach significantly, and has allowed us to achieve our mission of delivering high-quality affordable training to the masses,” said Ambrosino.

With a mission to deliver practical, job-relevant training at an affordable cost, the Haystack course is interactive, simulating the day-to-day tasks of a junior accountant. 

“It’s not just a series of YouTube videos, but a course focused on applying accounting concepts to real life scenarios. It is offered to both job-seeking students and to employers looking for additional training for their team,” Ambrosino said.

“Our students are rigorously tested throughout the course ensuring they have what it takes to succeed in an accounting role. Once they graduate from our programme, they become our network of qualified accountants. We then match them with employment opportunities.”

The startup is filling a gaping skills gap. East Africa alone requires an estimated 400,000 qualified accountants, and though this is recognised by regional accounting bodies, the industry has struggled to solve this issue quickly, effectively and efficiently. Ambrosino thinks Haystack is that solution. 

Self-funded so far, and charging students and corporate employers course fees, Haystack recently onboarded its 250th student, which was its target for 2019. Launches have taken place in Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, and now Ghana, while the company has facilitated the placement of over 30 students into meaningful accounting roles. 

“Many of our graduates are finding their own employment with the skills we taught them. Three graduates were recently hired at PwC Rwanda,” said Ambrosino.

Nonetheless, the team has been pleasantly surprised by its speed of growth.

“We knew that mobile and internet penetration is quite high now across Africa but still thought we would face internet connectivity challenges. Eighty per cent of our course can be done on mobile and has very low bandwidth requirements. As a result, uptake has exceeded our expectations,” Ambrosino said.

“We find that as soon as a student takes the course, they recommend it to their entire network of friends, family and colleagues. We feel that going into 2020, growth will be exponential given our now growing user base and this network effect. Frankly, there is no course like ours available on the market targeting our demographic, at an affordable cost.”

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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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