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Hot startup of the month: Nigeria's Akowe

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Getting one's academic records or transcripts from a Nigerian tertiary institution can be a very time-consuming exercise. Sometimes the person requiring those documents can get so despondent and even give up before getting their documents.

Furthermore, the issuing of certificates to thousands of students in the West African country is also very difficult to do successfully.

"Therefore, there needs to be a system that makes these tasks a seamless, fast and effective experience," said Akowe's Founder and CEO Ayodeji Agboola in an interview with Connecting Africa.

Akowe is a digital wallet for verified and verifiable academic records that uses blockchain technology. The startup also features a digital issuance engine where educators can create and issue credentials to their students electronically.

Akowe's beginnings

The idea for Akowe came when Agboola, who was a digital marketing professional running a digital agency in 2018, worked with a Facebook-sponsored agency to train business owners on how to use the social media platform for their businesses.

"After the training, those business owners needed certificates, about 20,000 certificates to be precise, which we did not want to physically print.

"However, in the second year, Facebook had changed its certificate design, the software we were using was unable to position the names appropriately, so we had to get a developer to build us a new software," he explained.

After that, Agboola contracted another software developer to build a tool that would issue the new certificates and the idea of digitizing certifications was born in 2020.

"I wasn't the only Facebook partner that was experiencing the certification issue, so I knew that I could offer the service to about three other Facebook partners who had been experiencing the same problems," Agboola continued.

"So, if the idea failed, at least, I would have solved those partners' problems," he joked.

Akowe started by helping institutions that offer online training, issue bulk certificates.

"We then started getting requests from HR companies asking us whether we could verify qualifications, leading to us expanding," the CEO added.

Akowe's blockchain effect

According to Agboola, there is a lucrative underground industry that counterfeits certificates.

"There is a booming market out there where anyone can forge a qualification, so, using blockchain technology makes that near impossible," he explained.

"Also, universities fear being hacked, therefore, many do not want their certificates available digitally," Agboola added.

Akowe is a digital wallet for verified and verifiable academic records that uses blockchain technology.   (Source: Image by Freepik).
Akowe is a digital wallet for verified and verifiable academic records that uses blockchain technology.
(Source: Image by Freepik).

With blockchain, Akowe offers a decentralized storage system, that makes it impossible to make changes to the information stored on a blockchain network.

"If someone wants to do anything on that network, everyone within the network needs to agree. Blockchain technology makes the information stored easy to make credible. With blockchain, everything is transparent and authentic," he explained.

He added that a blockchain, a decentralized storage system, is a network of ledgers as opposed to a central storage system that is only one ledger.

"To alter information in the single ledger system, a hacker only needs to get their hands on that ledger, however, with blockchain, any change must happen across all the ledgers," he said.

Akowe automatically secures certificates it issues on the blockchain network and assists all its clients with putting a version on a blockchain network.

"We are not saying tertiary institutions should stop issuing physical certificates, we are saying let us help you transform and move to doing it digitally," he continued.

"In addition to digital certificates, we help by using tamper-proof technology to verify those certificates," Agboola explained.

Akowe's funding model

Agboola said the company funds itself in different ways. Firstly, training platforms purchase credits for each certificate issued; secondly, students who receive their digital certificates are able to share them on social media, which works as a form of free advertising for the firms using Akowe's solution.

Furthermore, for companies requiring verification solutions, a subscription model is used, he explained.

"All this can be done on our app, where clients can choose to use our services monthly or on a once-off basis," he added.

Agboola said once universities offer digital certificates, those certificates become verifiable, thus Akowe's portal is used to help not only Akowe but universities to unlock revenue.

He added that Akowe allows customers to upload a certificate template, once bulk certificates are printed, they have the option of using that same template in the future.

Regulation pitfalls

Agboola said it has been quite challenging to navigate the regulatory framework in Nigeria.

"For quite some time now, the federal government has been struggling to classify us, they said we are an edtech company, but we are not as we are not teaching anyone, we just work with educational institutions," he said.

"Right now, there is currently no one who is regulating what we do, because what we do is so unique and is cutting across different industries and we are keeping our ear on the ground and keeping an eye out on any regulation that will come from the government," he added.

"We want to sit down with regulation bodies and plead with them that when it is time to come up with regulation, we are at that table," Agboola explained.

Be that as it may, he said that earlier this year the Nigerian government released a blockchain white paper policy document.

"That policy document is great, as it helps us to go to universities and show them that this is the policy document we are operating from," he added.

However, he said it is still early days on the regulation front, as he believes innovation comes first and then governments tend to follow.

African growth story

"We are currently working with many organizations from Nigeria, Cameroon, and Kenya who use the platform to issue certificates or use our verification solution," Agboola continued.

Agboola explained that they are also working with other African governments who are interested in getting Akowe's services.

"Akowe has also gone through the Founder's Institute in Lagos which has helped the company with different things like making sure that it is investment-ready to open room for more expansion," he concluded.

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*Top image is of Akowe Founder and CEO Ayodeji Agboola. (Source: Akowe).

— Matshepo Sehloho, Associate Editor, Connecting Africa

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