Africa’s current education system is in question. Despite the fact that there are an estimated 90 million children out of school, governments continue to skirt around the widespread issues of school accessibility and quality of teaching. Even in South Africa, the continent’s most industrialized economy, only 40 percent of pupils finish high school. An educational revamp is desperately needed, and many innovators are putting forward potential solutions.
In fact, a combination of Africa’s aptitude for entrepreneurialism and the proliferation of smartphones has made the continent a breeding ground for edtech innovation. Edtech startups are making education feasible and accessible, tailoring learning to the individual, and supplementing school curriculums. And, thanks to a spike in the number of active internet users, the adoption of these online learning apps is on the rise.
However, getting these edtech solutions off the ground is no easy task. African edtech providers are faced with roadblock after roadblock – whether that be internet connectivity limitations, or lack of interested investors. Here’s how they can overcome some of these challenges:
Although Africa has seen an increase in mobile internet traffic, particularly in Kenya (83 percent) and South Africa (71 percent), the majority of the continent remain offline. Due to relative expensive mobile data costs, even those with access to internet only go online once or twice a day to check social media or messaging apps. Therefore, online distribution channels alone will not reach the majority of edtech target users.
To cater to “offline” users and grow a customer base, edtech startups must utilize offline distribution channels. This can be achieved by partnering with governmental bodies or directly with schools. Schools arguably give edtech startups the best platform to cater to offline users because with teacher support, more students are likely to use the app or product, resulting in a higher retention rate. Edtech startups that partner with the government or exam boards also have luck distributing their content at various accredited centers where most students across Africa are required to go to register for standardized exams.
A popular approach to offline distribution channels is therefore through CDs that can be easily installed on a computer. Myschool.ng, a Nigerian edtech company, has perhaps the highest market penetration in Nigeria because in addition to its resource website and exam prep apps the company sells exam prep CDs offline. These CDs can then be easily sold on its website, at exam centers or in schools. Myadmission has found its offline channel in the form of scratch cards. The edtech startup provides a database of questions for students to practice, but instead of charging users per test online or via airtime billing, they sell a pin in scratch cards at registration and lesson centers.
Perhaps the main constraint holding back edtech startups in Africa is the lack of established payment options. Taking into consideration that these edtech solutions are targeting low-income students, finding a way for them to pay online is close to impossible. One route around this is to market to the parents instead; however, it is not uncommon to find that even parents are without access to online financial services. While Kenya has made impressive steps to improving its fintech services, most African countries have been slow to offer convenient online payment systems.
One solution to this setback lies in direct carrier billing where customers can pay for an app via their telecommunication network provider. Users can simply send a code to a number to download the app, which automatically deducts money from their mobile credit. The only downside to this is that it forces edtech startups into splitting revenue with the network providers. Often an unfair revenue split, many Edtech startups are then pressured into raising their prices in order to break even.
Close collaboration with schools can also address the payment puzzle. Rather than finding a way for each student to pay for the app, the students pay the school and the school pays the edtech startup. Revenue would also have to be split in this scenario, however, schools will take a much lower cut compared to carrier billing. Distributing e-learning software directly within schools also creates the much needed offline channel. In South Africa, edtech companies such as Rethink Education, Creed Learning, NetLearn and EduSkill, have all thrived thanks to school partnerships.
Exam prep apps are particularly popular in Nigeria. However, what many of these startups end up grappling with is the fluctuations in user retention. The most common high school exams in West Africa (WAEC, NECO, or JAMB) only take place once or twice a year, and therefore startups see a sudden climb in users and payments during this time, but then struggle the rest of the year. Edtech startups which respond to the needs of Africa’s education system all year round will be more likely to scale because of their steady user base.
Tailoring the product to fit with school curriculums will also maximise a steady influx of users. By providing exam prep coverage that is spread out over a year, or a product that acts as a companion for students to help them through homework, startups can sail past the student cycle problems. For example, Pass.ng has become one of Nigeria’s top e-testing apps because it helps students prepare for their examinations throughout the year by not simply assessing them through a series of mock tests, but allowing them to track their progress, and compete and connect with fellow exam mates.
Juggling user retention, different levels of internet connectivity and limited payment options is a difficult task for African edtech startups, but it can be done. While the infrastructure on the continent continues to cause hiccups in the edtech scene, startups would benefit from linking up with schools or teachers to really drive student adoption and make using these apps possible.
About the Author: Elvis Chidera, is a Nigerian entrepreneur currently working as an engineer at Careem. He also founded Prepup, an app that provides data-light and personalized educational content to students in Nigeria.