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Claire Mongeau’s mother was a teacher at a primary school. Her younger days would be spent feeling intrigued with new approaches being employed for teaching. Later, her higher education in psychology coupled with her brief stints at Bridge International Academies and IDEX Accelerator led her to understand how there existed underutilization and lack of resources in the education sector globally, more so in Africa.
Although worldwide there are plenty of startups trying to work towards filling gaps and augmenting the efforts made by the state and private educators. But they work on the basic premise of internet connectivity and Africa was far from this. Claire had to find a way to connect with students who did not have smartphones and lacked access to the internet.
The pronounced significance of education is widely internalised by us today. It assumes an even greater role in countries of Africa where it is crucial in conflict-ridden and fragile situations because it provides security, facilitates peace building, and fosters resilience. Kenyans seem to second this, even though education stands to be long term investment and does not manifest an instant ROI. As per Claire, they are progressive people and really value education now, much evident from the major chunk of household income that goes into educating children.
M-Shule, Claire’s Edtech startup launched in January of 2016 in Kenya, is an SMS and web-based learning management platform which makes use of artificial intelligence to design tailored learning experiences. As students engage with platform, the data is provided to parents, teachers, and school administrators and stakeholders for insights and opportunities.
The product, which is technical at it’s core, has been built in-house. “Our customer strategy is a blend of machine and human efforts. Technology will support customer strategy, and not the other way round” says Mongeau, who is currently serving as CEO of the firm.
For parents, the company offers a basic learning subscription at $1 per month per child. For schools, it has tiered pricing options based on the number of students subscribed, additional services bought, and more.
Africa boasts of nearly 960M mobile subscribers, with a penetration rate of 80%; 216M of whom utilize mobile internet, which is 18% of subscription base. This makes what Mshule is trying to tap with its SMS product, a much bigger market that’ll usually exist for any other edtech startups offering internet based products. Globally, a new education world has begun with investments in edtech set to reach $252 billion by 2020, according to Bainbridge.
In January 2017, Mshule raised USD 112 K in convertible notes from friends/family for product development and research. Later in July, it got an investment to run a pilot for the product was pulled in from Engineers Without Borders Canada. During this, Mshule successfully worked with 15 primary schools engaging about 380 learners. The full fledged launch comes with the transition to partnering with schools first. Around a fifty more schools have been partnered with. One must take note, 60% of the continent population is under 25 years of age, according to a report launched by The Mo Ibrahim Foundation in 2017.
The same year in October, Mshule was accepted into the Injini Edtech Accelerator. The startup is currently in the process of raising a seed round of $300 K that will be utilized towards development of the product, automation and optimisation. For this year, the plan is to focus on Nairobi, and scale to South Asian markets, for reasons of similarities in the education system and Claire’s acquaintance with the market owing to her previous experience here. Owing to various difference in availability of technology and bandwidth in different countries, M-Shule plans to prepare its product to accordingly. “We will meet you where you are” quips Claire.
There isn’t a full fledged go to market strategy in place, Claire spend a good amount of time being on ground, talking to schools and spreading the word. Going forward, plans are to use print media and radio, along with online marketing campaigns.
Testimony to the startups’ success are multiple awards that it has won, including SeedStars at Switzerland, and second position at GESA Awards this January.
The biggest challenge faced is inadequate infrastructure and varying level of understanding of technology amongst the are communities. “There is no baseline understanding of technology” remarks Claire. Also, since Edtech sector is still growing and there arn’t any exemplary models to follow and learn from, Claire has to discover best practises through a method of hit and trial. Hence, the team understands the need to keep pivoting quickly, and evolving in a dynamic fashion.
“This is a historic moment for Edtech in Sub-Saharan Africa. Not only do all stakeholders – from parents and students, to schools and governments – want to use e-learning to propel learners forward, they’re already committed to testing out and investing in those innovations. That means it’s on us, the Edtech innovators, to work together to design the right solutions. The next big innovations can and should come from Africa to impact the world !” remarks Claire.
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Image courtesy: Innovation-Village
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