How One Man is Using Disruptive Innovation to Transform Higher Education in Nigeria… and Why He Will Succeed.

It is no news that the state of higher education in Nigeria is sub-par at best. Every year almost two million students try to gain admission into one of the nation’s 141 accredited universities. These institutions can barely manage to accept half a million students. In other words, with a default acceptance rate of about 30%, the average Nigerian university’s acceptance rate is on par with University of Michigan, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and several of America’s best universities. While the acceptance rates might be on par with these top-notch universities, unfortunately the quality is not.

Of the select few that are admitted into the average Nigerian university, they gain access to sub-standard teaching facilities and dreadful living conditions. This 2010 report, although dated, indicates that universities have a 40% shortfall of faculty. Take Enugu State University, for instance (now occupied by the Institute of Management Technology). The pictures below show some of the learning facilities for students at the university.

As the world continues to globalize, so has the competitive landscape for talent. 50 years ago a Nigerian engineer competed with other Nigerian engineers. But today, she competes with engineers from other countries. It is very difficult to see how Nigerian graduates will be able to compete with graduates from other countries where education in general, but higher education in particular, is taken more seriously. That is where Gossy Ukanwoke comes in. (Check out a podcast I recorded with fellow researchers at Harvard Business School — https://soundcloud.com/hbsfgi/04-higher-education-in-nigeria-today)

Gossy is working to solve — or at the very least put a noticeable dent in — the higher education problem in Nigeria. In 2013 Gossy founded Nigeria’s first online higher institution, BAU Online. In order to get the institution licensed by Nigeria’s National Universities Commission, Gossy has had to purchase over 100 hectares of land amongst other things. His mission is to build a university that stands on the following three pillars: access, quality, and relevance.

Access is of utmost importance to him because the numbers are not on our side. In addition to the low acceptance rates, Nigeria is currently home to about 180 million people where the median age is 18 years. By 2050, Nigeria’s population would have more than doubled to about 440 million with the median age inching up just three years to 21. At the current trajectory, there will be many young people in Nigeria without opportunities for productive work. Gossy plans to create an affordable university for the average Nigerian with modest means.

The school will also provide financial aid for gifted students in order to reduce the poverty discrimination that exists in the country. But access alone cannot solve our problem, hence his focus on quality and relevance.

Quality and Relevance of higher education in Nigeria is more difficult to measure than access. With access, it is easy to calculate how many people want to get into school and how many spots are available. Quality and relevance metrics give room for more subjectivity. For instance, 100 students might have access to a Chemistry class but how do we measure quality? Is it by judging from the lecturer’s qualifications? Or her teaching ability? Or perhaps by the students’ propensity to pursue higher education? Either way one looks at it, quality and relevance are harder to measure. For that purpose, he will focus on employability and available infrastructure.

In Nigeria, by some estimates, the unemployment amongst university graduates hovers around 60%. Gossy was faced with this reality when he tried to employ 50 people at BAU. For the 50 available spots, he received more than 9,500 applications and was not able to find 50 quality candidates. To make matters worse, Gossy is not looking for highly technical and advanced degree employees. He is simply looking for applicants can accomplish simple tasks and take initiative. He did not find 50 in the 9,500 applicants he got. His school is going to fix this problem by working with employers to ensure that the knowledge and skills being taught are relevant to their needs.

For my research, I have asked many executives and business practitioners in Africa about the difficulties in doing business on the continent. While some complain about infrastructure, corruption, and oscillating government policy, all have complained about the lack of well-educated staff. Additionally, the increasing number of Nigerians that opts to pursue higher education overseas is telling.

In 2007, about 23,000 Nigerians were studying in the following five countries — UK, USA, Malaysia, Ghana, and Canada. By 2010, the number of students had grown by about 70% to almost 40,000. As Gossy works to reverse this trend, I have analyzed his business through the lens of disruptive innovation and the theories we study at the Harvard Business School and have identified six reasons Gossy will be wildly successful.

The Six Reasons Gossy will be Successful with BAU

Patient for growth, impatient for profits

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Gossy is the fact that he is patient for growth, but impatient for profits as he builds this university. One of the key attributes of disruptive innovations is that they tend to take a bit longer than other types of innovations. As such, it is important to be patient during this incubation period because when you scale a business, you scale both its positive and negative attributes. After receiving a multimillion dollar investment, Gossy had the opportunity to scale his university, but he knew that the investor would not be patient for growth, and after much deliberation, returned the investment. That is the kind of entrepreneur that can execute on a disruptive innovation.

Integrating across unreliable interfaces in a system

Another reason Gossy’s BAU will succeed is because he has a distinct ability to focus intently on the interfaces in a system that are unreliable and to outsource the ones that are already reliable and good enough. For instance, Gossy says one of the most unreliable things about attending university in Nigeria is the fact that students don’t know if they will get a job. In fact, today, more students don’t get hired than hired after they complete their higher education studies. Gossy is focusing heavily across that interface and ensuring that students are employed after attending BAU. The other impressive thing about his ability to integrate is that he is outsourcing components that already work. He is not spending his time trying to develop curricula that already exist; instead he is leveraging technology to beam some of the best teachers in the world into his classrooms.

Enabling technology

The proliferation of mobile telephony in Africa over the past 15 years has inspired a new generation of entrepreneurs of which Gossy is at the forefront. Gossy is currently working on developing technology that will allow people who either have a smart phone or a regular phone to receive instruction and learn. He is going beyond the conventional streaming technology and is focusing on how to meet people in their current circumstance.

Business model targeting non-consumption

The most important thing about a disruptive innovation is that a business model targets non-consumption. And Gossy’s business model is doing just that. His pricing strategy and his focus on access is clear. He seeks to improve the state of higher education by focusing on the vast majority of people that do not have access for lack of skill, money, or time. See below for a diagram of how a disruptive innovation’s business model targets non-consumption. Non-consumption is when a large group of people in a society struggle because they do not have the money, time, or skill to afford a particular product that can help them make progress with their lives.

Emergent Strategy

Because Gossy is targeting non-consumption, a segment of the population that historically has been overlooked, he needs to employ an emergent strategy. In other words, he needs to learn and evolve as he builds his business. Entrepreneurs employ a deliberate strategy when they know exactly what market they are going after and how that market hopes to be served. In many conversations with Gossy, I have learned how he has changed some of the assumptions he had when he started this journey. He has been flexible because he understands that going after this market is new for people who care about education in Nigeria.

Organizational Capabilities — RPPs

In my first podcast, I talked about Resources, Processes, and Priorities (RPPs) as they relate to building and maintaining wells in parts of the world that don’t have access to water. RPPs also apply in this case. As a quick reminder, RPPs are an organization’s capabilities. These capabilities, whether the organization likes it or not, define what the organization can and can’t do. For instance, Gossy plans to make his classes very inexpensive and convenient. As such, he is working to ensure that the capabilities (RPPs) of his school are aligned with the capabilities (RPPs) of his students.

It is not every day I meet entrepreneurs like Gossy Ukanwoke — young, passionate, and patient; a man with the resolve of a seasoned professional. Building a disruptive business is very difficult. Building a disruptive business in Nigeria is even more so. My research suggests that it is disruptive innovation that can catapult us into prosperity in Nigeria, and ultimately Africa. I believe that Gossy is one of the entrepreneurs we will be speaking about five to ten years from today.

To learn more about Beni-American University, please visit http://bau.edu.ng/ 
 If you would like to get in contact with Gossy to find out how you can get involved with BAU, please email me at eojomo@hbs.edu