Startups bring education to African students’ fingertips

Foreign investment in sub-Saharan Africa on the rise

Foreign investment in sub-Saharan Africa on the riseA growing group of entrepreneurs is capitalising on Africa’s lack of access to laptops and computers. These entrepreneurs are banking on the fact that this population does have cellphones and know how to use them.

Teachers have struggled for years to get students off their cell phones. Two startups are turning that logic around across Africa with more and more educators turning to mobile technology to reach their students.

Capitalising on education

“Education is a space that is never going to be out of fashion, and in Africa, it’s going to grow at a faster rate than anywhere else in the world,” said Sheraan Amod, co-founder of South African venture incubator Springlab, which is currently reviewing several startup applicants in the m-learning (mobile learning) space.

A new education startup called Sterio.me is a result of the first ever StartupBus Africa – a 2,500km tour from Harare, Zimbabwe to Cape Town, South Africa aimed at developing technology solutions across a variety of sectors. The African leg of the tour took place in November last year. The StartupBus initiative was initially launched in 2010 in the US and Europe.

“Education is a space that is never going to be out of fashion, and in Africa, it’s going to grow at a faster rate than anywhere else in the world”

The start of SMS education

London-based Sterio.me is a free platform that enables teachers to pre-record lessons, in any language, and provide learners with a unique SMS code that directs them to a mobile quiz. When a learner texts this code, an automated call from the servers to the learner is triggered. The call is interactive and include multiple-choice answers and open-ended questions in the same way a call from a bank would work. The only different is that the voice on the other end is the familiar voice of their teacher.

The teachers receive real-time analytics on the platform. These analytics empower teachers to measure how their individual learners understand class content, as well as providing regional and national comparisons with other learners using the platform, allowing long-term tracking and measurable learning improvement.

Sterio.me was created by 21 year-old UK-born and raised Christopher Pruijsen — founder of StartupBus UK, together with StartupBus Africa co-founder, German designer, Danielle Reid, and Cape Townian developer, Dean Rotherham. The concept was formed while team was on the StartupBus Africa tour.

“We were thinking initially about methods of learning and teaching skills without requiring internet – with SMS messaging and USSD [a technology that allows users to access various services through the use of short codes] being the staple solution,” Pruijsen says.

“The idea is not to replace teachers but rather to reinforce learning outside the classroom”

Pruijsen says Rotherham came with the idea of applying audio delivery of educational content to primary school learners, that would not require any internet or smartphone access. “We then interviewed both teachers and learners and validated interest in our product – upon which we started demo design.”

Pruijsen says that Sterio.me will be rolled out in Zimbabwe first, working with the Higher Life Foundation in Zimbabwe to reach schools in rural parts of the country.

He says the idea behind Sterio.me is not to replace teachers, nor to provide new content to students, but rather to “reinforce learning outside the classroom.” At a minimum it serves as a teaching aid. Pruijsen adds, “we enable teachers to give, for example, homework assignments in a much easier way.”

Pruijsen’s advice to entrepreneurs who are struggling to get their businesses off the ground is not to hide away. “Go meet your customers in order to test, validate, and improve your product,” he says. “Be in touch with the industry – meet investors, potential partners, employees and press.”

A Cape Town-based intiative

A little closer to home, a Cape Town startup and social learning platform called Obami has launched Obami Tutor, a mobile tutoring service for teachers and students. The Obami platform (pictured below) allows students and teachers to conduct group discussions and solve problems, all with an interface similar to Facebook.

Obami was founded by Cape Townian Barbara Mallinson who was also selected as this years Forbes 10 Female Tech Founders. Mallison believes private tutoring can help solve South Africa’s education system, which is ranked among the worst in the world. “Traditional tutoring can help but it’s incredibly expensive and can become a logistical chore.”

After completing her studies at the University of Cape Town, Mallinson moved to London where she worked for a large corporation and like most entrepreneurs, decided to look to their own passions for job satisfaction.

As a result, she founded and developed Obami, which is a Zulu word meaning “mine”.

“By applying social media technologies to a learning management system, Obami provides a powerful solution for individuals, learning institutes and the communities that form within and between them,” reads their website.

Obami currently has 35 schools registered in South Africa – with many more waiting in queue – and schools from the UK, France and Greece in the pipeline.

Obami Tutor is currently being used by 400 registered organisations across Africa and is a subscription based service that is payable either monthly or annually.

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