This article forms part of the Youth Month 2016 – focusing on a University Tutoring Startup – series in which SME South Africa, throughout the month of June, will shine the spotlight on youth issues and highlight the work of young entrepreneurs and innovators who are shaping SA’s future.
The economic plight of university students in South Africa has helped to spark unique and impactful businesses on the very same campuses.
Kealeboga Mokolobate (29), a postgraduate university student at the University of the Witswatersrand in Johannesburg, in 2011 launched A-Plus Learning, an on campus tutoring startup offering academic support services for students.
They not only hope to help students who require their services, but their tutors, who are students themselves.
Mokolobate’s team is made up of academically strong students who work on a freelance basis. This has proven to be an advantageous strategy, not only for the tutors who are earning additional income, but also the students who are benefiting from the experience of their academically strong tutors.
”The beauty is that the tutors understand all the dynamics of life on campus and balancing well and putting in the hours needed,” she says.
As Mokolobate – who originally hails from Kagiso – explains, the startup advertises their services on campus. Students are then able to contact the team when they need assistance with their courses, and are then allocated a student tutor.
Growth for the startup has been gradual, from a team of five tutors and less than 10 clients, A-Plus now has a team of 30 freelance tutors ready and on call at any given time and boasts a client base of over a 100 students.
This year the startup got a major boost when Mokolobate landed a major contract with Wits University. A-Plus will be providing their tutoring services to the students in the university’s bursary programme.
“Under the contract, we make sure they get the help they need academically, and throughout the year. We help the students stay in step with their courses; we help them prepare for tests, exams and practicals.”
Mokolobate shares with SME South Africa how she took advantage of an opportunity in plain sight, and the challenges of being a young entrepreneur learning on the job.
Opportunity and necessity
I started A-Plus Learning as a Masters student when I realised that I needed to supplement my scholarship funds as I am completing my MSc (Med) in Pharmaceutical Biomaterials and Polymer-Engineered Drug Delivery Technologies. It was also a way to avoid having to ask my single parent mother for money every month.
I identified a lucrative need- tutor
I started putting up posters on campus offering tutoring services. However, after that, not only did I receive requests for tutoring, but I also received requests from people wanting to tutor. In our first year, there were about five tutors, tutoring a handful of courses.
We now tutor across all five faculties at Wits and we have a large database of tutors able to tutor everything from anatomy to auditing, and, physics to criminal law. We tutor over 50 courses and are able to source tutors for some of the most difficult courses (if we do not currently have the tutor). We now also assist postgraduates, especially in the Business School as well as high school students.
The goal is to be both sustainable and impactful
I felt the need to be there for students because as an SRC subcommittee member at Wits, I assisted students who were academically excluded and saw the disappointment students went through after being denied access to education due to poor performance. Although Wits has many programmes to support students, especially at first year level, it seemed to me that something was missing.
I also realised that we could assist those students that were academically strong, but were perhaps struggling financially. It was fulfilling to receive calls and messages from students who were saved from failing tests and exams, and I was especially happy to be able to pay students for their academic talents, [to help them] with money for groceries or to survive on campus. It was then that I realised that the model was sustainable and impactful.
I am also so humbled to be able to give back to an institution that had taught me to work hard and dream big. It gave me a world-class education, allowed me to meet wonderful people, and now, it was my turn to give back, and I was able to.
Being a student put me in a unique position
I think many people may not have pursued the idea fully simply because of how massive the challenge was to run such an operation. I was very fortunate that all my tutors believed in me and gave me the courage to be a good leader and visionary. Many of my tutors, I know, will be my friends for life. I think I have been a bit lucky, and the growth was gradual.
Tutors’ freelance opportunity
The Wits academic programme is quite grueling and intense and many students do not have the time to do many activities on the side, such as start a business.
I had to make some sacrifices and sometimes my academics did suffer if I did not balance the two aspects of my life. Furthermore, because of the financial situation at home; throughout all my degrees, I always had a weekend/evening job and had to balance that with academics, so that was good training for me.
How I landed my first major contract
A combination of luck and preparation was how I managed to get the contract. A colleague of mine worked at the department that deals with some of the bursary students (at Wits) and asked if I knew any good tutoring companies. I actually initially recommended another company that was smaller than mine (I had no idea at the time they were no longer on campus). I was invited to a short interview where they checked if I could in deed deliver and once they were satisfied, they allowed me to proceed.
The contract entails A-Plus Learning ensuring the academic wellbeing of the students under the bursary. The bursary programme is offered by a multinational company, although facilitated by Wits. Getting this contract has been a privilege.
I believe the lessons have been immensely helpful to the students and because they know they have a support system, they can be confident and have the courage to work harder
As a young entrepreneur
One of my biggest challenges is pricing. I need to ensure that I set prices that students are willing to pay. However, I also need to respect the time the tutors take to prepare for a session and skip their own work to help others. This is a challenging balance to strike.
I would like to overcome this challenge by having a fundraising drive, not for A-Plus Learning, but for the students. The fundraising drive will target our employed tutees and will hopefully extend to corporate companies. With these funds, we will tutor students who so desperately require our services, but cannot afford them.
I would also like to play a role in ensuring that the Wits campus becomes a more entrepreneurial environment. I would like to help build an environment where Witsies (and students at other campuses) sell their skills, services and goods to fellow Witsies, and thus never have to go hungry on campus and would be able to get the academic assistance they desire.
We care about our clients
One of my other challenges is helping students to see that there are many different ways of learning and digesting information. Getting a tutor helps you to discuss and digest information easier, getting a tutor will allow you to have a support system and a mentor. If in the first year, you fail your first test, grit your teeth, get back up and find another way to win. Getting a tutor will help you to understand your intelligence and will give you a safe ground to explore your academic capabilities. Getting a tutor is a sign of academic strength, not failure. I will have to overcome this challenge by ensuring we have the best customer service, and I will tackle this challenge, one tutoring session at a time.
I am a typical millenial
I think that caring about your community needs to be high on your priority list. If you add value to your community, you will make an impact and inspire others too.