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The Challenges of Being a Sustainable Edtech Venture – Your Weekend Long Reads

Earlier this month I attended FUTUR.E.S in Africa in Casablanca, the first event to connect French, Moroccan and African digital ecosystems. Startups, academics and government shared projects in various sectors, including education. It was refreshing to discuss edtech with Francophones, as usually the Anglo/Franco African divide is wide.

One particularly interesting workshop aimed to discuss the business models of edtech. In the end, it was more a discussion about how challenging it is to run an edtech venture in Africa. While the issues raised are not new, it was useful to be reminded of the frustration that passionate people feel in trying to launch their great idea and keep it sustained. As can be seen below, the issues really apply to most ICT4D initiatives.

Challenges Around Edtech Business Models

In no particular order, here are some of the big challenges:

  • Expectation of free. Much of edtech is based on great content. Content has value. It takes time and people to develop. Localising it into African languages is expensive. It is also quickly consumed, leaving people hungry for more. What do you do when the market has come to expect it for free?
  • Payment is difficult. Even when people decide to buy, there are issues. For the user the most friction-less method is to pay with airtime, but then 30-40% can be lost to mobile operators and other service providers. Most people in Africa don’t have credit cards. And let’s face it, m-Pesa only works in seven African countries, none of which where it is as successful as in Kenya.
  • People get “stuck” on islands. As the GSMA explains, many users are “stuck on ‘application islands’, primarily using only WhatsApp or Facebook, without being aware of the broader potential of the internet.” How do you get them to your app? How do you even get noticed?
  • Education is a long game. While in some cases grades can be shown to improve quickly, in general the impact of an education intervention takes years to show.
  • The trouble with MNOs. Mobile network operators (MNOs) have immense reach and power, and yet are notoriously difficult to partner with as a startup. Basically, you need them a lot more than they need you.

The MNO situation is slowly beginning to change, for example, Orange is investing EUR50m in startups in Africa, as are other MNOs, and across Africa a number of MNO APIs are now available. The next round of the GSMA Startup Accelerator Innovation Fund for Africa and Asia-Pacific, which tries to bring MNOs and startups closer together, is open for applications until 15 April.

Who’s Gotten it Right?

At the event I was asked to talk about sustainable and impactful edtech initiatives in Africa. It was useful to look at initiatives that have been operational for at least six years and think about how they’ve made it. Not all are for-profit, and sometimes their users are different from their paying customers, which could be funders or corporate sponsors.

  • Siyavula in South Africa (SA) – and soon in Nigeria – decided to embrace not only free content, but to openly license it. It has 10 million open textbooks on desks in SA – 100% penetration in government schools.The paid-for part is Siyavula Practice, a closed-content proprietary assessment service for learners, with a teacher dashboard. Some schools pay (usually private schools), but many are sponsored by external funders. Payment can be made by credit card, airtime or bank transfer. Google.org recently awarded Siyavula $1.5m to sponsor access to 300,000 learners, split between SA and Nigeria.
  • Eneza, the assessment and content delivery service for school learners in Kenya, Tanzania, Ghana and Zimbabwe has grown thanks to being invested in by Safaricom, which also provides integration and visibility support. They got it right to work with an MNO.
  • Fundza, the mobile novel library, also has a business model that draws on donor funding and commissioned content. Beyond content, it offers training and skills development for a fee. The content is not only in digital; Fundza’s stories are also printed, a format that is appealing to many donors. In the last year Fundza delivered over 33,000 print books.
  • Worldreader, another mobile library with a large African footprint, focused its early years on the Amazon Kindle as a delivery channel. In 2013, a mobisite was added to increase reach. The rest is history: thanks to widening the channel options it has reached over seven million readers. Both Fundza and Worldreader have experimented with paid-for content – but with limited success. Donor funding, public donations, sponsored activities like increasing access to reading materials, or services like conducting research, are key sources.
  • For pure-play commercial edtech consider GetSmarter, a South African startup founded by two brothers that delivers short online courses to students anywhere. Over a ten year period GetSmarter has steadily partnered with top universities around the world, offering courses for them and building both a partner and broad customer base. The courses are not cheap – the eight-week Harvard Cybersecurity course costs $2,800 – but they are good, aimed at professionals. The staff of over 400 includes performance coaches, technologists, video producers and tutors.  The key focus areas of partnerships and quality resulted in the company being sold for $103m last year.
  • The Talking Book, a ruggedized audio player and recorder by Literacy Bridge that offers agricultural, health and livelihoods education to deep rural communities in four African countries, has been going for ten years. It’s been run on a combination of donor funding (as it’s founder said to me, if a stream of donor funding can be sustained then this is a viable model) and commissioned implementations.For the latter it services the likes of UNICEF and CARE International to achieve their goals, for example, helping people to be healthier or better farmers. The key here is to demonstrate value to potential partners. Literacy Bridge has also developed an interesting “affiliate” model, that is worth reading about.

The Talking Book is not strictly an edtech initiative, but it’s aim is to educate and change behaviour. This point was raised in the workshop: unless you’re focused in formal education it may be better not to call yourself an edtech provider. Offer learning in m-Health, m-Agri or Fintech, where there may be more access to funding.

As a parting shot: Injini, Africa’s only incubator dedicated to edtech, is calling for applicants until 3 April to receive $50K in investment and five month’s of incubation.

Thanks to Calixte Tayoro and Lola Laurent for a great workshop.

Image: CC by Trevor Samson / World Bank

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Why Digital Skills Really Matter for ICT4D – Your Weekend Long Reads

In an increasingly online world, people need digital skills to work and live productively. One of the major barriers to digital uptake is a lack of these skills.

Across Africa, seven in ten people who don’t use the Internet say they just don’t know how to use it. This is not only a developing country problem: 44% of the European Union population has low or no (19%) digital skills!

It is no surprise, therefore, that the theme for this year’s UNESCO Mobile Learning Week is “Skills for a connected world”. (It runs from 26-30 March in Paris — don’t miss it!)

Global Target for Digital Skills

At Davos last month, the UN Broadband Commission set global broadband targets to bring online the 3.8 billion people not yet connected to the Internet. Goal 4 is that by 2025: 60% of youth and adults should have achieved at least a minimum level of proficiency in sustainable digital skills.

(I’m not quite sure what the difference is between digital skills and sustainable digital skills.) Having a target such as this is good for focusing global efforts towards skilling up.

The Spectrum of Digital Skills

Digital skills is a broad term. While definitions vary, the Broadband Commission report proposes seeing digital skills and competences on a spectrum, including: 

  • Basic functional digital skills, which allow users to access and conduct basic operations on digital technologies;
  • Generic digital skills, which include using digital technologies in meaningful and beneficial ways, such as content creation and online collaboration; and 
  • Higher-level skills, which mean using digital technology in empowering and transformative ways, for example for software development. These skills include 21st century skills and critical digital literacies.

Beyond skills, digital competences include awareness and attitudes concerning technology use. Most of the people served in ICT4D projects fall into the first and second categories. Understanding where your users are and need to be is important, and a spectrum lens helps in that exercise.

Why Skills Really Matter

Beyond the global stats, goals and definitions, why should you really care about the digital skills of your users, other than that they know enough to navigate your IVR menu or your app?

The answers come from the GSMA’s recent pilot evaluation of its Mobile Internet Skills Training Toolkit (MISTT), implemented last year in Rwanda.

Over 300 sales agents from Tigo, the mobile network operator, were trained on MISTT, and they in turn trained over 83,000 customers. The evaluation found that MISTT training:

  • Gives users confidence and helps them overcome the belief that “the Internet is not for me”;
  • Has the potential to help customers move beyond application “islands” — and get them using more applications/services;
  • Has a ripple effect, as customers are training other people on what they have learned (a study in Cape Town also found this); and
  • Increased data usage among trained customers, which led to increased data revenues for Tigo.

In short, more digital skills (beyond just what you need from your users) presents the opportunity for increased engagement, higher numbers of users and, if services are paid-for or data drives revenue, greater earnings. Now those are compelling ICT4D motivators.

Skills as Strategy

Therefore, we need to see skills development as one of the core components of our:

  • Product development strategy (leveraging users who can interact more deeply with features);
  • Growth strategy (leveraging users who train and recruit other users);
  • Revenue strategy (leveraging users who click, share, and maybe even buy).

But what about the cost, you might wonder? As Alex Smith of the GSMA points out, with the data revenues, for Tigo the MISTT pilot returned the investment within a month and saw an ROI of 240% within a quarter. That’s for a mobile operator — it would be fascinating to measure ROI for non-profits.

To get training, the Mobile Information Literacy Curriculum from TASCHA is also work checking out, as is the older GSMA Mobile Literacy Toolkit.

Image: CC by Lau Rey

 

Creating Killer ICT4D Content – Your Weekend Long Reads

Creating killer content is critical to ICT4D success. One of the major barriers to digital uptake is a lack of incentives to go online because of a lack of relevant or attractive content.

This weekend we look at resources for creating great content, drawing on lessons from the mhealth and mAgri sectors. If you are not an mhealth or mAgri practitioner, don’t stop reading now. While professions and sectors like to silo, in reality the ICT4D fields overlap enormously. For example, does a programme that educates nurses for improved obstetrics practices fall under mhealth or meducation? The details may differ, but the approaches, lessons and tech might as well be the same. From each sector there is much to learn and transfer to other m-sectors.

Let’s Get Practical and Make Some Content

Not long ago Dr. Peris Kagotho left medical practice to focus on mhealth. Since then she has successfully categorized, edited and contextualized over 10,000 health tips Kenyans. In a four-part blog series, she highlights techniques and learnings for effective and impactful content development. Read about the prerequisites for quality mhealth content; the principles of behaviour change messaging; creating content that is fit for purpose; and scheduling content for impactful delivery.

Making Content Meaningful Without Re-inventing the Wheel

While there is apparently an abundance of openly accessible health content, this alone is insufficient to make the world healthy and happy. The Knowledge for Health (K4Health) project knows the importance of providing the content in the appropriate context and the language of the people who will use it.

K4Health and USAID have therefore created a guide to adapting existing global health content for different audiences with the goal of expanding the reach, usefulness, and use of evidence-based global health content. Fantastic.

+ The Nutrition Knowledge Bank is an open access library of free to use nutrituion content.

Lessons on Content Placement, Format, Data and More

The Talking Book, a ruggedized audio player and recorder by Literacy Bridge, offers agricultural, health and livelihoods education to deep rural communities in four African countries. The UNESCO-Pearson case study on the project highlights key content development approaches and lessons, drawn from over ten years of experience. For example, it’s important not to overload users with too much content; the fist few messages in a content category get played the most, so those are the best slots for the most important messages; and these rural audiences prefer content as songs and dramas over lectures. The content strategy is highly data-driven.

Content Isn’t Delivered in a Vacuum

In 2016, the Government of India launched a nation-wide mobile health programme called ‘Kilkari’ to benefit 10 million new and expecting mothers by providing audio-based maternal and child health messages on a weekly basis. The service was designed by BBC Media Action and the GSMA case study describes its evolution, learnings and best practices, covering content and more. It is useful to zoom out and see the bigger picture of an mhealth initiative, and how content forms one part of the whole.

Image: CC by TTCMobile

Empowering digital citizenship through mobile technology

mobile_360_africa_logoAt GSMA Mobile 360 Africa, held in Cape Town in November, I sat on a panel about Empowering the Digital Citizen. Below are my speaking notes. An excellent summary of the session was written by Leigh Andrews.

What is digital citizenship?

According to Wikipedia, “A digital citizen refers to a person utilizing/using information technology (IT) in order to engage in society, politics, and government participation.” The act of digital citizenship is participation. This is enabled by mobile technologies that are in the hands of everyday people. The benefit of digital citizenship is engagement and I would say, empowerment, for both citizens and government. Citizenship implies both rights and responsibilities.

Citizen rights are increased access to information and services, and having a voice that can be heard. Remember that access to information alone is meaningless if one cannot act upon that information (for more on this see Economics Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen’s work Development as Freedom). There must be the opportunity for a response.

Responsibilities are exercising that voice, and doing so wisely. If citizens have the ability to talk to government and each other, then they must use those channels. Equally, citizens should also make use of government self-service. If not, the result is a decline in the offering of such services.

Government responsibilities are the need to be open about its data, to share information, to empower citizens to help themselves and, most critically, to actively respond to citizen voices and participation in an engaged way. For example, if the city of Cape Town allows its citizens to report broken street lights and potholes in the roads, but does nothing with that information, then the service has not only been pointless, it has eroded peoples’ belief in government’s desire to listen, act and be accountable.

A personal example comes from Cape Gateway (as it was known then), a ground-breaking service founded in 2002 that increased accessed to government information for citizens of the Western Cape through three channels: a web portal, walk-in centre and call centre. I was the Design and Usability Lead for three years, constantly trying to make the information and channels as accessible to people as possible. So, our content team would always try to offer the most direct contact details of government departments and people. Not a general contact number, but the number of Mrs Nozuka, the primary contact for driver’s licence renewals. We made government employees so accessible that some asked us to change the numbers – their phones had never rung so much!

It always struck everyone on the project that while we would try to get people as close to Government as possible, we only offered the introduction. If Mrs Nozuka never responded to calls or emails to assist in licence renewals, then ultimately the citizens would not be empowered, only somewhat informed.

So, what does this mean for education?

INCREASED LEARNING OPPORTUNITIES

There is the possibility now for an offering that is much better suited to the needs and realities of adults and children, whose daily routines are filled with work, with chores or even baby-sitting in many child-headed households. According to UNESCO, this increased flexibility is one the necessary changes that education will undergo in the post-2015 world.

For too long education has been a rigid framework into which people must fit, or be excluded by.   Now, with mobile technology in particular, teaching and learning can happen in different ways and at different times. Examples include face-to-face learning that is complemented by self-study in a blended model, increased access to educational resources, access to online teacher and learner communities where peer-to-peer learning can happen, virtual tutoring (even via IM chat as with Dr Math on Mxit), and variations of MOOCs that are sensitive to the needs of developing country students. Overall, greater flexibility in learning opportunities will lead to greater education uptake.

More efficient management of resources

There is also the possibility of more efficient management of education administration and resources. Education Management Information Systems (EMIS) are traditionally used by administrators to report on school results, infrastructure, teacher attendance, etc. — to better inform planning at the district, provincial or national level. Now teachers, students and parents can also report in.

Drawing from the field of citizen science, we would say that teachers, students and parents are part of the sensor network, using their eyes and ears to report back into the grid that can help to manage resources more effectively and efficiently through the aggregation and analysis of real-time data. Of course this reporting is done by SMS, phone camera, GPS readings, email and more.

Increased education transparency

Finally, increased transparency and visibility in education is key to increased digital citizenship. Teachers, students and parents should have access to the information that is collectively gathered by and about them, and to the responses by government. This not only serves as an incentive to participate in the process (you see the fruits of your labour by improved services), but provides the possibility for oversight (if there are no fruits you will know and should complain/campaign).

The transparency also applies to self-service within education. If student records were kept in a more open, digital and standards-based way, then they could be accessed throughout the educational career of the student, even as she leaves formal education and embarks on the lifelong learning journey. This is obviously empowering for students, but also government as more data is gathered about the learning habits of citizens which can better inform policymaking.