Africa's digital learning revolution

Can tech reach wide enough to fix Africa’s education sector?

8 February 2017
Tanzanian company Ubongo creates fun, localised 'edutainment'.

It’s fair to say Africa’s education sector faces challenges, with 17 million of the school-aged children on the continent unlikely to ever see the inside of a classroom.

Even those that do make it to school face problems. In Nigeria, for example, less than two percent of students that sat examinations in the last five years obtained five subject passes, while around 20% of primary school teachers are underqualified.

In Africa’s technological development, however, from the Silicon Savannah to the Silicon Cape, there lies an opportunity to improve education in both rural and urban regions. Increasingly, governments are embracing technology, providing laptops in schools and committing to Sustainable Development Goals with ICT at the heart.

Reaching rural rookies
Startup businesses are playing a significant role in this, using a variety of mediums. Tanzanian company Ubongo creates fun, localised 'edutainment' via TV and radio, entertaining children while helping them improve their mathematics skills.

Its shows Akili and Me and Ubongo Kids reach 5.2 million households weekly across East Africa. CEO Nisha Ligon says the startup’s impact has been huge.
“Randomised control trials of both programmes have shown that children who watch them show significantly greater improvement in school readiness, numeracy and math scores than classmates who watch non-educational cartoons,” she says.

Ubongo is also moving into online learning with an app. Ligon says with access to smartphones and the internet in Africa growing exponentially, the market for such products will only continue to grow. Yet it is still early days. Hence other companies, such as Kenya’s Eneza Education, are using other forms of tech, such as SMS, to reach a broader audience.

It’s not just in terms of reaching rural children that tech is being employed in Africa. Brook Negussie is CEO of the recently launched eLearnAfrica, a web portal and online app that allows Africans to find and enrol for trusted online educational courses, degrees and certifications from around the world.  

The company has partnered with universities and online institutions such as Harvard’s ed-X and FutureLearn to make such courses more easily available for struggling Africans.

Negussie says e-learning offers huge opportunities for Africa, both in the academic space and in workforce development.

“There is an opportunity to produce workforce development programmes where content can be white-labelled and served up as a corporation's own workforce development content programmes and career development initiatives,” he says.

Digital learning can also be implemented in higher education, something one South African entrepreneur believes can be sped along by the current crisis engulfing the country’s universities. Hertzy Kabeyus is founder of The Student Hub, which has developed an online platform for tertiary education.

The startup’s ERAOnline platform publishes e-books with links to other resources, and allows students to react to content, like sending messages to authors, publishers and peers.

Kabeyus believes the current South African university crisis should serve as a wake-up call to change the way education is organised to suit students, something for which tech is perfect.

“Our approach is bringing all key stakeholders around one platform and creating a new trading and content delivery model that will benefit them all while solving their problems and contributing to their long-term objectives,” he says.

Barriers to growth
For e-learning to fulfil its true potential, especially in rural areas, there are challenges that still need to be overcome. The lack of electricity outside of major cities is a key issue, with almost 620 million Africans still lacking access to power.

Although both are on the rise, smartphone and internet penetration is still low compared to elsewhere in the world, while many teachers are not trained to use technological solutions even if these are available to them.

“High data costs and slow data speeds outside of urban centres are hindering uptake. Some projects have been zero-rating educational content, but the content tends to be international, which may not be relevant for local audiences,” Ligon says.

“Storage for rich media is also an issue. We created an app designed to be used offline, as a one-time download, but a large number of users did not have sufficient space available on their phones for installation.”

There is also an issue with changing attitudes on how education should be delivered. Kenyan company Eneza Education, which has over one million users, has found ways of overcoming connectivity issues by delivering educational lessons via SMS. But operations associate Michelle Wangari says there is just as large a challenge when it comes to changing mindsets.

“Many people believe in the physical `being in front of a teacher and reading from books’ type of learning. Changing that mindset takes a lot of sensitisation and training on the new ways of learning from wherever you are,” she says.

Kenyan company BRCK initially launched with its modem-cum-router device, which allows rural users to connect to the internet in areas with no or limited connectivity and poor electricity supply. It has since moved into the education space, launching a digital classroom in a box stuffed with thousands of lessons.

BRCK education president Nivi Sharma believes too often, the mindset in Africa is to look to the developed world for solutions to African problems. “We always put our chips on 'safe' technology that was designed and developed somewhere in London, Tokyo or California. We need to believe that good, relevant solutions can come out of Africa,” she maintains.

Sharma believes in providing digital educational content via a means that can overcome connectivity and power issues. An understanding of the problems faced in rural classroom is key to this.

“We are the only people designing technology while sitting in African classrooms. We don't believe the average teacher should know the difference between an Ethernet cable, a VGA cable and a USB cable. Technology has to be simple and intuitive to use,” she says.

Backing education
In spite of the obvious developments in the e-learning space, it has received little backing from investors. According to the recent Disrupt Africa African Tech Startups Funding Report, total e-learning funding for 2015 is estimated at less than $500 000.

“There is quite a bit of investor interest, but we haven't seen a lot of deal flow,” Ligon says, adding that this partly stems from issues around monetising education-focused startups.

“Few students in Africa have access to credit cards or PayPal. It's still quite hard to integrate directly with mobile money to receive payments, and often involves a complicated, multi-step payment process for end-users. What's more, for products to reach masses, the price point needs to be very low.”

Sharma says donor money in the space is distorting the market a little, but the interest is there and investments will come. For Ligon, more success stories are needed to attract further funding.

One such success story is Eneza Education, which recently raised funding from Kenyan mobile operator Safaricom’s Spark startup fund. Wangari is confident everything is moving in a direction where more Africans can benefit from digital learning solutions and the companies providing these products can monetise effectively.

“ICT policies are being implemented, and schools are incorporating ICT into their curriculum. Governments and stakeholders are creating awareness on how embracing technology can improve lives,” she says.