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Digital Inclusion

The state of Africa's edtech sector

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By 2050 Africa's population will double to over 2 billion inhabitants, according to the United Nations.

Additionally, over half of the population will fall under the age of 25 on a continent where employment prospects have long been hampered by highly unequal education outcomes.

The World Bank expects that by 2100 Africa will have the largest share of the global workforce, with 22 million Africans joining the workforce each year.

As digital disruption continues to transform the workplace and the rise of the digital economy gains momentum, many question where Africa's youth will fit into the labor market and what role education technology (edtech) can play in helping to prepare them for future jobs and skillsets.

The role of digital in future industry demands

Globally, a changing labor market is being driven by trends including the uptake of digital technologies, globalization and population growth.

The World Economic Forum says by 2027 23% of current jobs will change, 69 million new jobs will be created, and 83 million will be lost. Demand will grow for digital and technology skillsets, as well as "human-centered abilities” such as critical thinking and problem solving.

Addih Salim is the co-founder of AlgoSchool Morocco, a franchise of the global edtech Algorithmics Global. The school provides children, between the ages of six and 17, with hard skills including programming, game design, and website design, as well as soft skills such as teamwork, and project management.

Salim is confident that edtech ventures, such as his, play a vital role in promoting non-traditional learning styles to better aid in preparation for emerging high-demand jobs, in line with global trends.

Algortithmics Global's size and presence was a key factor in Salim's decision to become a franchisee, as opposed to implementing a local edtech solution. He opted for a solution that allows for a deeper experience for students, connecting them to other students and teachers from all over the world. He believes this provides some reassurance in a space that is very new for parents who are used to more traditional forms of teaching. However, he said he remains open to collaboration with local innovators as they scale.

Blending the best of traditional education and edtech

The prevailing consensus is that rather than pitting edtech against traditional schooling systems, it is important to blend, innovate and adapt digitally enabled solutions to existing education systems. For example, one of AlgoSchool Morocco's sites is hosted by a physical school, with added benefit of providing access to a potential client base of enrolled students.

"There is a lot of collaborative work with people involved in the ecosystem, including classical schools," Salim stated.

Jennifer Otieno, co-founder of EdTech East Africa, a network for education innovators, also notes the importance of building trust in edtech across the education value chain. She said that the focus of edtech should be on enabling teachers to feel empowered, and not threatened, by technology-enabled education, allowing them to view the solutions as a support to augment their work.

Meanwhile, it should also help parents to build digital skills and the confidence to lead learning within the home.

"When we think about who the actual users of technology are, of course learners are one of the key groups but also parents, teachers and school leaders have to be involved," Otieno reasoned.

Government and private sector success stories

The African edtech sector is also benefiting from moves to scale through existing public systems, as well as stronger collaboration between the public and private sector.

Efforts are being made to align funders, development partners, researchers, entrepreneurs, and the various government ministries involved in the wider ecosystem.

Otieno, Salim and Elvis Boniface – the CEO of Nigeria-based education lab and newsroom Edugist – all noted that many African governments are working on programs for digital upskilling of citizens. They recognize that tailwinds for edtech's development have come from the commitment to implement national education and digital policies and strategies.

The African edtech sector is benefiting from innovations in the existing public systems and collaborative public-private sector projects.   (Source: Photo by Simon Abrams on Unsplash.)
The African edtech sector is benefiting from innovations in the existing public systems and collaborative public-private sector projects.
(Source: Photo by Simon Abrams on Unsplash.)

In Morocco, for example, Salim credits the state's industrial policy, which is focused on creating "champions" in high-tech industries including automotive and aviation, as well as its funding of the 1337 Coding School initiative, a free project-based coding school he described as "Silicon Valley level."

In Nigeria, the government launched its National Policy on ICT in Education in 2019, to reform education in the country.

Otieno meanwhile notes the Kenyan government's strong efforts toward promoting digital education in civic awareness and financial inclusion, for example.

"It is really important that we don't forget that many of our citizens are also parents ... so as we are educating them to use digital tools for these areas [to] make sure they understand there are safe and effective ways for using their skills to help kids learn," she said.

The Mastercard Foundation also stands out for the work it is doing to support the growth of edtech ventures in the region – including the launch of the Mastercard Foundation EdTech Fellowship in 2019.

It also has a partnership with ALX, a technology training provider, to build a pool of African technical professionals in fields such as coding, data science, and data engineering.

Otieno stressed the role that edtech accelerators have played in building the ecosystem and helping local entrepreneurs. These include MEST Africa (founded in Ghana), iHub Kenya, Co-Creation Hub in Nigeria, and South Africa's Injini.

She credits them with helping to build evidence-based, sustainable solutions that can benefit learners across the continent.

The COVID-19 pandemic also provided a boost for edtech's profile in Africa. Otieno highlighted the Keep Kenya Learning project, a collaboration between EdTech East Africa, Metis Collective and the Regional Education Learning Initiative. The project was created to leverage digital and non-digital resources for learning after the onset of the pandemic shuttered classes, shifting the burden of education to parents and caregivers.

"Particularly post-COVID, we see something here – we see that there's an opportunity and really interesting work that's being done in this ecosystem," said Otieno.

Scaling edtech to close the education divide

Despite its growing prominence, edtech providers still face the challenge of ensuring that the benefits of technology-enabled education solutions can be experienced equitably by students regardless of their location and socioeconomic background.

Connectivity, too, remains a barrier to the uptake of edtech. According to the GSMA, only 22% of sub-Saharan Africans were using mobile Internet at the end of 2021.

GSMA statistics show that only 22% of people in sub-Saharan Africa were using mobile Internet at the end of 2021.   (Source: Photo by Angelo Moleele on Unsplash.)
GSMA statistics show that only 22% of people in sub-Saharan Africa were using mobile Internet at the end of 2021.
(Source: Photo by Angelo Moleele on Unsplash.)

Otieno said that prospects for edtech adoption in Africa improve as governments invest in expanding connectivity and power infrastructure, reduce data costs and create an enabling policy environment.

She argued that this will help to reduce the costs for the entrepreneurs themselves, in providing inclusive edtech solutions.

She also cautioned that if edtech is to be adequately scaled in the region, it needs to be inclusive with a focus on learners with disabilities, language barriers, and women and girls.

A strained funding landscape for African edtechs

Both Otieno and Boniface agree that edtech, particularly that which targets lower income groups, has traditionally been largely donor funded and supported. Some private investors appear wary to assume the risk associated with investing in the segment.

"There is definitely a very real tension between profitable business models and inclusivity ... It is not unique to edtech, but it is a very real tension for a lot of entrepreneurs," Otieno noted.

Boniface lamented the low prominence that edtech is receiving in terms of funding, in comparison to other sectors like fintech.

According to Disrupt Africa's 2022 African Tech Startups Funding Report, startups in the edtech sector received $24.6 million in investor funding in 2022, compared to almost $1.5 billion for fintechs, $556.7 million for e-commerce companies, and $220 million for transport-focused startups.

Boniface argued that this underfunding is hampering the growth of the sector.

Local innovators are indeed going up against well-funded global players who benefit from large budgets for research and development, and investment in tools and technologies to improve the user experience and create high-performing, efficient solutions.

He called for more impact investors to enter the segment, with a primary focus on enabling local innovators to develop solutions that make a case for edtech.

"We do not have sufficient use-cases of success in edtech," added Boniface.

Nonetheless, he remains positive about the future of edtech, noting that it "has come to stay."

An African edtech in focus: Digemy

Digemy was founded in 2017 by Kobus Louw and is headquartered in Cape Town, South Africa. It serves clients and learners in over 40 countries, including South Africa, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Mauritius as well as international markets like Australia, Hong Kong and the United Kingdom.

The Software-as-a Service (SaaS) learning platform employs a unique approach to micro-learning and gamification to help organizations optimize the onboarding of their employees, clients and consumers.

It aims to reduce training costs and increase performance and revenue by combining micro-learning technology with best-in-class learning strategies and methodologies.

According to Louw, the Digemy platform serves as an "intelligent teacher" in the pocket of each learner, identifying knowledge gaps that could be hurting their learning growth and closing those gaps in real time by repeating concepts and questions that are tailored to each individual learner.

Digemy's mission is to be the best micro-learning platform in Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA), and its vision is to leverage its technology to change 100 million lives through accessible digital education.

It aims to continue its aggressive growth into EMEA, and to establish channel partners and resellers in 50 countries before the end of 2024.

Speaking to the challenges the firm has faced, Louw said the 80% decline in venture capital funding in 2022 forced him and his team to "dig deeper, work harder, and sell ourselves into a cashflow-positive position as opposed to being reliant on funding."

"We have made nearly all the mistakes a startup can make and have faced most of the challenges a small business can face, from losing key employees to being close to the end of our runway with just a few weeks to spare," he recalled.

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*Top image source: Image by Freepik.

— Chiti Mbizule, correspondent, special to Connecting Africa

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