According to startuplist.africa, Africa’s 141 edtech start-ups have so far accumulated $935.7 million of investments. Not only does the COVID-19 crisis emphasize the need for and the potential of effective edtech solutions, but also do conflict, displacement, inequality, poverty and the lack of access to education in rural areas reemphasize the need for holistic solutions. Without a doubt, such solutions need to be accompanied by policy action, for instance, because securing access to the most basic tools (i.e. computers, electricity) of education is a prerequisite for catapulting innovation. Especially, where education is not a priority of policy-makers, international companies, NGOs and educational institutions could cooperate with local organizations to realize this ambition. This article will provide reasons for foreign investors and founders to support Africa’s digital education and edtech sector with a few anecdotes serving to inspire meaningful solutions.
Making Education a Right and a Reality
The quality of education in Africa, its inclusiveness, accessibility, diversity and international recognition need to be improved. Despite that tertiary school enrollment rapidly increased from 1999 (4,1%) to 2019 (9,4%) with the primary school and lower secondary completion rates showing a similar trend, regional inequality is a significant issue. In post-apartheid South Africa, only 4,3% of the black population and 4,6% of the coloured population were enrolled in higher education in 2019, while 20% of the white population and 17,4% of the Indian/Asian population had access to university. The latter is particularly saddening, because Statista estimates from 2019 reveal that 81,2% of South Africa’s population is black. Whereas South Africa is thus facing ongoing issues with racial discrimination and inequality, Nigeria is facing a different issue.
As University World News revealed in an 2020 article, less than 40% of its university applicants actually get accepted into higher education. Whether or not this will be changed through a more recent adaptation of admission rules is yet to be analyzed, especially in the light that recent headlines suggest that 706,189 ‘illegal’ admissions were maneuvered by Nigerian universities, colleges of education, polytechnics and other tertiary education institutions. Whether or not one may believe admission fraud to be a reality, the most important question is how motivated youth can be aided in the pursuit of knowledge and skills. Maybe, policies were in fact too rigid with Nigerians stepping up for themselves…
The Edtech Sector and the Importance of Local Content
Education is a tool, which allows individuals to learn about their rights. It is a right in itself, but – at least in theory, it also allows individuals to claim other rights such as the right to work, to free choice of employment and protection against unemployment (§24 UDHR). Only by accumulating knowledge, including knowledge from other regions and across different domains, can we learn to be critical and participate in society. As such, education is not only integral to promoting local and sustainable development, but also to promote a democratic and equal participation in society. Generally, this is nothing new. Indeed, it could for instance be traced back to the European enlightenment, which Kant described as “man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity” as he dared others to think for themselves (‘Sapere Aude’).
However, despite that education was considered to constitute a ‘natural right’ during the European Enlightenment – one which according to Aristotle “create[s] governmental organization [and understands that] ‘the first and fundamental aim of justice is not freedom for its own sake, but order’”, this natural right was destroyed by the entire narrative of Western colonialism and imperialism in Africa. Not only was colonial education justified as a “‘civilizing mission’”, which undermined the value of local knowledge, but also did Western imperialism postpone Africa’s chance to determine how education would be defined and carried out. Especially, because the recognition of education from ‘abroad’ is still an issue or at least an obstacle today in Europe, foreign edtech start-ups and investors with an interest in Africa should certainly think about how their projects could promote African independence long after the 1960s.
Local content must not only be a part of Africa’s schedule, but it must also be redefined…What does African civil society want to see on their education agendas, which knowledge and skill sets do they need to realize their future ambitions and which policies, guidelines and content do they consider outdated? Start-ups should not simply offer solutions based on what they think Africans need – they should consult different groups and offer targeted solutions. The contributions of edtech start-ups could certainly innovate more than the educational sector alone, but this requires to understand local challenges and to cooperate with actors and institutions of different kinds. Especially, because a lot of university graduates from Nigeria and South Africa are struggling with unemployment currently, edtech start-ups should for instance keep in mind how they might be able to connect learners to the job market of tomorrow. But, this is just one anecdote. Below are a few more insights for edtech start-ups and investors, which will hopefully spark innovative ideas.
4 Anecdotes for Founders, Start-ups and Investors: The Impact of Edtech
- To address inequality of access
Inequality of access to education can be derived from a variety of issues such as geographic location (i.e. rural neighbourhood), geographic conditions (i.e. lack of access to electricity, weather conditions, infrastructure, housing), policies and/or societal attitudes (i.e. discrimination), safety concerns (i.e. conflict, displacement), income (i.e. poverty, child labour) etc. Therefore, an advice for edtech start-ups with an interest to expand or start up in Africa is to consult with different local populations and groups about what they think are the biggest hurdles. It is great that moving education online allows working from home – but as much as it may benefit some, it might not benefit others – unless…This is where you’ll have to dig!
- To target different learners
Learning styles vary! The VARK model (Visual, Aural, Read/Write, and Kinesthetic) counts four, but according to AvadoA there are at least seven: 1) visual, 2) kinaesthetic, 3) aural, 4) social, 5) solitary, 6) verbal, and 7) logical…The latter has not only confronted teachers with classroom challenges in the past, but will most likely confront them with challenges in the virtual classroom. However, they can arguably be helped by start-ups. Whereas visual learners might for instance benefit from the work of software start-ups who specialize on improving graphic design, video and visualization tools (i.e. from factsheets to educational movies), auditory learners might already be satisfied with a better user experience. Zoom calls are tiring! While tips for improving one’s own audio set-up exist, there also need to be tips and tricks around noisy colleagues. Yes…sorry!
In addition, teachers need to be consulted with regard to the tools, which would support them in being more innovative. If there was a way to make a really cool podcast out of a lecture at no time – maybe this would be exciting for either side…and if such lectures could be translated by an intelligent audio voice – wouldn’t that be cool? AI tools certainly could serve to improve learning experiences. Both writers and kinesthetic learners might thereby benefit from more interactive forms of learning such as roleplays. To sum up, what start-ups should definitely try to understand is how local communities and their members prefer to learn, what their cultures are like and how communities can actually get engaged. Playing your preferred team role could also be exciting, because learning should feel natural! More concretely, Belbin lists nine team roles such as plant, monitor/evaluator and specialist. Learning should not be boring – moving education online is a chance to connect, network and be social. Let’s end isolation today and give learners incentives to complete education!
- To promote inclusion and offer mental support
Another relevant feature for promoting school and university completion could be mental health support. Especially, where inclusion is not a given and where social injustice drives suffering, individuals need to be able to express themselves. The latter thought has for instance been taken up by the Nigerian start-up Truth Share, which is an app/service that gives individuals access to certified counselors with whom they can share their concerns anonymously. Speaking of social justice, alongside promoting mental health through innovative applications, it must also be worked on promoting societal inclusion. As mentioned before, discrimination with regard to access to education is still a relevant issue in South Africa and in Nigeria – however for different reasons.
Depending on how the new policies from August 2021 work out for Nigerian university applicants, start-ups and investors could also consider working on a different solution and liaise with universities and the government. Especially, because entrance exams are usually targeting only one particular skill profile – despite that there are many different ways to succeed in the same field, start-ups who would design alternative entrance exams could be a great success. Have you ever imagined a software that provides you an alternate task measuring the same skill or knowledge in a different way – some kind of tool, which adapts to what you have to offer to mirror your very individual strengths? There is certainly much to be understood about learning, which means there is also much to learn about assessing skills.
- To diversify education, promote international mobility and bridge theory/practise
Next to promoting inclusion, local content and community engagement, edtech start-ups might also want to work together with graduates and foreign institutions to offer a wider range of education with a particular eye for promoting the international recognition of diplomas through partnerships. These partnerships should both include educational institutions and local/foreign companies – seeking to provide learners with real working opportunities in the future. Self-speaking is that such opportunities will only arise at the local level, if cross-sectoral growth is simultaneously promoted within Africa’s communities. Edtech start-ups who want to promote education in a certain field might want to team up with other start-ups and companies with the same interest, who are willing to promote large-scale sectoral growth starting today making sure that the skills of future graduates match the future needs of society.
Beyond that, it would also be interesting how edtech start-ups could involve companies more actively into the learning process of students – company and thesis projects surely are one option in this regard, but wouldn’t it be exciting to see a platform where students can work as ‘freelancers’? Say – a platform, where companies can register small tasks and where employed students can take up any of such tasks registered by various company in the network once they sign in and against a fair wage? We’re waiting for innovation, but feel free to dislike this idea…What however needs to be remarked is that improving what edtech has to offer for Africa should involve monitoring, impact assessments and the voices of civil society – students, parents, partners etc. should have a say about how edtech influences their livelihoods…If this got you excited, tell us your business idea!
Whether you are a founder or a start-up with an interest in scaling up your business in Africa or an investor seeing your purpose in supporting African youth, we will happily support you with our expertise! We employ legal experts with knowledge across various African jurisdictions and have experience with giving advice on topics such as labour and immigration, tax and customs, contracts and negotiations, corporate governance and compliance as well as data protection, which means as much as we are competent in assisting you and your business across continents – especially however within Africa and Europe! Contact us today for an initial consultation.