Why we have a lot to learn from EdTech Kenya

Last week I met with Tonee Ndungu, EdTech-preneur and founder of the first IT incubator in Nairobi, Kenya. And I’ve learnt my very first word in swahili : kytabu. That means “book” and this is the name of the startup founded by Tonee in 2012.

The concept ? Providing children and students with affordable, relevant, and engaging learning content thanks to pre-installed digital textbooks on modems and low cost tablets. What is the innovation? You pay just what you need. Or more precisely, you LEASE just what you need, because you’ve never need to BUY knowledge forever.

Tonee also promotes a local vision of EdTech, emphasizing on the reasons why this is crucial to develop a relevant EdTech market and local entrepreneurs network in Africa.

Digital pragmatism : meeting with a genuine problem-solver

The starting point is straightforward : about 70% of students in Kenya can’t afford the mandatory textbooks required for school… but once a child is 6 years, it receives a tablet ! Here came up the idea to digitize hundreds of textbooks required for primary and secondary schools, plus thousands of TED Talks recorded in 42 languages (english, swahili and local dialects), learning games, a virtual classroom for in-class chats and some past tests and exams.

The tablet is provided with a personal and secured SIM card which allows cellular data connectivity. This is crazy to imagine that in Kenya you are connected everywhere and for free (see BRCK, the reliable Internet connection made by Ushaidi for Africa), while in France we still have national “broadband plans” and a dozen of people at Bercy who are in charge to find a (costly) solution to connect “les zones blanches” (= areas without access to Internet)… It seems that the lack of infrastructure and bureaucracy in the country encourage people to adopt digital solutions in their everyday lives in a more natural and efficient way.

If connectivity is not a problem, the broadband required to download the learning material can be costly, that’s why the content comes pre-installed on the tablet. Then, each student can lease a page, a chapter or the whole book for the time needed. It can be for a school term, a month, a week, a day or even an hour !

As Tonee says, “in Africa, your bank is your mobile”, so Kytabu uses mobile money transaction systems.

If you want to access some learning content, you just have to send a message through M-Pesa which is the mobile wallet service in Kenya. But sometimes, when you want to lease one page for one day for example, this is too cheap to use M-Pesa because it’s something like $0,00008. So then, Kytabu has also created its own digital currency, so that people can really get just what they need.

No minimum required to access knowledge.

Thanks to Kytabu, families pay 40% lower cost for the learning material of their children ! This technology significantly expand access to education in the developing countries.

Adaptive learning and new publisher strategy

Being French, I have to admit that it is very difficult to imagine the leading education publishers collaborating to such an extent with a social startup… Tonee explains that it is not difficult to convince them to get involved because Kytabu provides them with a suitable delivery platform to make their learning content accessible in a wider and more efficient way.

Publishers get the basic statistics about the use of their content (number of downloads, location, duration…) but the personalized learning process database belongs to Kytabu. Thanks to these data, Kytabu knows how you like reading, how you like learning, how you like searching your content… The startup takes into account that each person has a specific learning process, so Kytabu adapts the publisher’s content to the different learner profiles : it engages in “adaptive learning”.

There are 5 formats available : Text-Text / Text-Rich Media / Text-Audio / Audio-Pictures / Video-Pictures. Artificial intelligence enhances the suitability of the content to each learner profile, and consequently the improvement of the skills as well. This system also allows dyslexic or dyspractic children to access to the regular learning content.

The stroke of genius of Kytabu is to create its own content by adapting the initial publisher’s one. In this way, Kytabu becomes a new type of publisher itself… participating fully in the reinvention of the classical educational industries !

Global VS. Local EdTech

As various reports and figures have shown, Africa’s economy and population has grown on an impressive scale in the last few years. Many international companies perfectly understand the importance of developing their services in Africa. Education has become a profitable and global market. Last November I was in San Francisco and some of the biggest MOOC factories have explained that one of the major trends among the learning content producers (mainly US universities) is the production of content in french (750 million people are expected to speak French by 2050, mainly in La Francophonie) and arabic on a massive scale to meet those education needs…

But do we really want/need a new global and standardized industry for education ??

Tonee promotes a local vision of EdTech that really meets the needs and cultural specificities of the country. In the eyes of the world Africa has became a “land of opportunity”. For Tonee, this is obviously an advantage for the local entrepreneurs because it’s easy to raise funds, as they build from almost nothing and everybody wants to invest in Africa.

But the other side of the coin is that they see many “Ivy League-type” people arriving in Nairobi so as to build their startup directly in Africa, including some local people in the team, and raise money more easily from there.

Tonee defends Keyan talents.

He wants to show that there are many local entrepreneurs who propose relevant and meaningful solutions because they are genuine problem solvers, as they perfectly know what problems need to be solved.

He also criticizes the global tech companies which are coming in the country to simply duplicate their products and services to be present in Africa. For example, it doesn’t make any sense to spend millions of dollars to install the very latest fablab, when dozens of low tech and low cost tech workshops are popping up everywhere in Africa. The ultra modern fablab remains empty because these people don’t take the time to really understand what are the needs and the problems to solve.