Upskilling Rwanda’s youth workforce with BAG Innovation
This is the second issue of our Startup Spotlight Series, where we highlight social entrepreneurs who have benefitted from our Incubation Programme. For more, please check us out at www.bridgesforenterprise.com or drop us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions.
Building A Generation (BAG) Innovation is a Rwandan-based ed-tech startup that aims to increase the employability rates of university graduates. To achieve this, BAG has created an online platform that provides students with market-relevant experience and skills to more effectively prepare them for the workforce. BAG has successfully created a vibrant educational and job-matching community that aids employers in talent acquisition and equips students with essential job skills.
BAG recently underwent the Consulting engagement with Bridges for Enterprise (BfE), during which associates from BfE’s New York Chapter provided guidance for BAG’s entry into different East African markets, and also helped them to develop their marketing strategies. BAG will be undergoing the Finance Advisory engagement with BfE’s New York Chapter starting this Fall.
In this second issue of our Startup Spotlight Series, we had the pleasure of sitting down with Gabriel Ekman and Yussouf Ntwali, co-founders of BAG Innovation, as well as Ally An, the BfE Consulting Director for BAG’s most recent engagement. We chatted about BAG Innovation’s innovative business model and how BfE has contributed to their development.
Interview conducted by Kristen Chiaranussati, BfE Summer Intern
To start, could you tell me a little about BAG Innovation? How does your platform work and who do you intend to serve?
Gabriel: BAG Innovation was founded after we realised that more than 70% of university graduates here in East Africa are unemployed in their first year after graduation. We started doing research in the community as to why students were not employable in job markets even though there was a huge need in the private sector for talent and capacity. We saw that one of the biggest reasons was that these students did not go through internships, and university curriculums were outdated and did not match what employers were looking for.
So with that in mind, 3 years ago we started as a youth consultancy trying to engage young people in practical projects, just like Bridges for Enterprise (BfE) is doing right now. It has changed since then, and we have grown into a larger ed-tech startup because we wanted to create an impact on a larger scale. Through our gamified platform, we have been able to help university students from first year to last year and put practical relevancy into each university course.
Today, BAG Innovation collaborates with universities and companies to create 5–10 minute exercises that are directly related to the local markets. In classrooms, we do not use companies such as Airbnb and Uber as examples. Instead, we use local companies to ensure that students know what kind of criteria is on the market.
We also deliver a career path for the students, by giving them feedback throughout their university studies to make sure that they reach a certain grade of market readiness before they graduate. Overall, we provide services to both universities in terms of subscriptions, as well as to businesses in terms of talent sourcing by helping them identify and train suitable employees.
That’s really interesting. How did you decide to start BAG Innovation?
Yussouf: The business started in around May 2017, and the idea for it started a couple of months before that. After looking at the current challenges in the markets, we saw that a lot of companies were struggling with the lack of skilled labour from Rwandans. Since we were very passionate about education and entrepreneurship, we tried to understand why there was a lack of a skilled workforce in Rwanda, and started to come up with different ideas after that.
Who are the different stakeholders that you benefit through BAG Innovation? How do you make a social impact?
Gabriel: We create a social impact by increasing the market readiness scores and employability rates of students. Right now, there is not a decent level of education for university students, but if they apply 5 minutes of their week onto the BAG Innovation platform, we’re increasing the market relevancy of their university degree by more than 60%. Ultimately, we’re not only looking at bringing quality education to young students, but also bridging the gap between the academic and business sectors. In doing so, we place students into jobs and make sure that they can access decent income-generating opportunities.
Based on that, what metrics do you use to measure the impact you create?
Gabriel: We measure impact through our gamification system. The technology we built has a gamification aspect to it, so the student starts on Level 1 and as they go through the platform, they gain experience, points and awards, upgrading their levels. Thus, one of our key measurements is how many students have increased their level on the platform, which shows us how many have actually increased their market readiness score through using our services.
Of course, other metrics we use are how many young people we can help to find jobs upon graduation, how many students we have as users, and how many companies and universities we collaborate with.
How do you advertise your platform, and how do you reach young people as well as employers?
Yussouf: One of the ways we reach out to young people and other stakeholders that we work with is through digital platforms. Social media is a really big way of scouting university students, and whenever we upload an opportunity or a training session on our social media, students are always really eager to apply. Also, since we are working with university students, our obvious first choice is to go to the university. Right now we have over 15 partnerships with different universities, so we’re able to advertise different opportunities to the university management and we can target students through them.
To reach companies, we have a team that works on marketing by targeting companies and sending emails to get the word out there. Before COVID-19, another way of reaching companies was also through networking events.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in starting BAG Innovation and how did you overcome them?
Yussouf: When we started BAG — initially as a student consulting service — it was very hard for companies to see how they could benefit from it and why they should actually pay for the service. Though we could see a lot of impact on the student side because they could gain practical experience and connections to the private sector, on the company side it was hard for them to see what they were getting as a return on investment for the company. That was a big question we reflected on for the first few months after we started.
One of the ways we overcame that was to try and shift the target market. We saw that the people we were impacting the most were actually universities, and when we made universities our target market, we saw that they were very interested in paying for a service like ours.
Gabriel: Another challenge that we faced was in accessing statistics and accurate data in order to build our organisation. For us to get any kind of accurate measurements on the student journey, the university, or some of the problems in the country, we had to create our own data. As a result, we had to spend a lot of time doing surveys and studies, and this will continue to pose a challenge as we expand our business. That’s one of the reasons why BfE has been working with us, so that we can be prepared for those kinds of situations. Also, since we have moved from an offline product to an online service, using the data we have to create an interactive platform has been another huge challenge. As a result, we’re not yet at a level where we feel really comfortable expanding outside of Rwanda.
Awesome. So what have been some of your biggest achievements thus far?
Yussouf: The biggest achievement we’re proud of is that we’ve impacted over 8,000 students thus far. We’ve been able to place over 600 students into jobs and different income-generating opportunities, which was great. We have collaborations with over 170 companies, and we help them with their talent acquisition while providing different data to help them grow their business.
Also, we’ve presented BAG in several different countries and won a couple of awards. We’ve been recognised as the best ed-tech in East Africa by Ed-Tech Ex Global, we’ve been awarded the “Best innovation” by the Private Sector Federation, and won the MEST competition here in Rwanda 2020.
Gabriel: We’ve also taken pre-seed investments to scale our technology, which right now amounts to around $100,000. We’ve also created a side product for migration integration, which we also won a competition for at the beginning of this year. Through the BAG platform and methodology, we’ve been able to use our data to create a product to help migrants integrate into another country, which has been very exciting to work with.
Alongside the different achievements you mentioned, I know you also recently won the MEST Africa challenge — could you tell me a bit about these awards and competitions and how you think that winning them benefits your business?
Yussouf: Most of the competitions we participate in look at different innovative solutions in the market that solve problems and impact lives. We compete with different startups, pitch for a few minutes, and the winner either gets a trip to go and pitch at the finals, or they get investments, grants, or other awards.
This impacts our business because it gives us a lot of credibility. Obviously, there is a lot of marketing around the event, so the companies that present there get publicity from it. Also, when we win there is a huge boost and we get lots of people reaching out to us, telling us that they love our idea and want to be a part of it. These competitions have really helped us get into different doors, because when people attend these events or tune in to watch our pitch, that’s when they get to understand what we do. We tend to find that right after these events, different partners will approach us — either clients or potential partners in terms of investment and so on. As a small and growing startup, it is very important to get our name out there and gain the credibility these competitions give us.
Got it, thanks. This past Spring, you first underwent the Consulting engagement with the New York Chapter and will next move on to the Finance Advisory engagement this Fall. Based on your experiences thus far, how has BfE impacted your startup? Has it helped you overcome some of the business challenges you wanted to address?
Gabriel: It has definitely helped us with the challenge I mentioned earlier: statistics. Even though that groundwork is accessible and it’s out there, it takes up to 3 people from our team 3 weeks just to get that groundwork done. So, BfE’s assistance in providing statistics has given us a huge advantage when explaining to both investors and our board why we choose to expand to certain countries. Before, we only had amateur arguments to support our choices, but now we actually have legitimate reasons and can discuss and negotiate the current market situation.
Additionally, the report BfE produced for us provides us not just with statistics, but also with information on the competitors in different markets. This gives us the ability to really plan our entry into a new market, which was the whole goal with the BfE consulting engagement. So overall, that’s been the absolute biggest advantage for us, in terms of both the preparation and the ability to get that groundwork out of the way so we could focus on what really matters.
Your first BfE engagement concluded in May earlier this year — could you tell me a bit about what has happened to BAG Innovation after the engagement?
Yussouf: We won the MEST Africa challenge, of course, which we’re super proud of. We concluded that project at the beginning of the lockdown, and since then we’ve been focused on continually developing the platform, and growing the number of users. During this time, we’ve also been securing different partnerships, and we won a grant with the German Corporation for International Cooperation (GIZ) in that period. So currently we are collaborating with GIZ on a new project where we’re going to be working with different education startups here in Rwanda.
Gabriel: We also launched our new website, bag.rw. Right now it’s live and running, and we’re testing it with around 100 students. This platform has been highly anticipated for a long time, so we’re really excited about it.
How has COVID-19 impacted your business? With so many schools being closed and learning now taking place online, I imagine it’s been a net positive for BAG, correct?
Gabriel: Yes, it has. We’ve been very blessed in that many companies have struggled and closed down as a result of COVID-19, but for BAG it’s been the direct opposite. The first day of the lockdown, we got a grant, and after that we got several universities reaching out to us. We had one of the biggest universities here in Rwanda ask us for a contract to work with them for the next 10 years and onboard their students. Because the need for digitalised learning — which we call ‘virtual internships’ — has boomed during this time, it’s been great for us.
Obviously, there have been some barriers in our normal revenues, our B2B business has taken a hit. However, we were lucky enough to be in a phase where we were focusing much more on the technology and the platform, and we weren’t intending on focusing on our B2B for the first half this year either way. So the university need has been growing every second and we’re really happy to be launching at this time.
Moving forward, what are your plans for next year?
Gabriel: To get around 15% of students in the country using the BAG Innovation platform on the current version, and also to sign up more universities on our subscription model. We also want to develop our technology further, to get it perfect and very competitive, so we plan on needing at least 2 or 3 more updates with our technology before we feel comfortable entering a new country in East Africa.
That’s really exciting. Ultimately, what is your long-term vision for your business?
Yussouf: Since we’re working in the education sector, the long-term goal for our business is to use the data we collect on our platform to influence some of the teaching materials in different universities and schools. We want to collect as much information as possible from the private sector, and be able to sit in meeting rooms with the Minister of Education here in Rwanda and say, “this is what we’ve been doing for the past couple of years and this is how we believe we can change the education system and make sure students are graduating with the right skills.” Being that go-to guide is what we believe we’re going to be in the next 5+ years, and that’s what we’re starting to become.
What has been the most rewarding aspect of starting BAG Innovation?
Yussouf: I would say that the most rewarding aspect has always been being able to connect young people like myself to different opportunities, and seeing them thrive. That has always put a smile on my face and made sure that I came to work with a lot of energy, because being able to say “you’ve got a job,” or “you’ve got an internship that’s going to help you” has always been something that makes me smile.
Gabriel: I concur with Yussouf, it’s definitely satisfying to see that our product bears fruit when it comes to these students’ development, and when it comes to how many people we place into jobs. However, what’s even more interesting is when we actually help businesses create more jobs, because one of the issues that we’re facing here in Rwanda is the lack of jobs. One of our KPIs (key performance indicators) is when we’re able to support SMEs (small and medium enterprises) and give good services that they can use to grow their business. It’s definitely rewarding to see that we’ve been able to work with so many businesses here in Rwanda.
Last question: what advice would you give to other startups operating in the ed-tech sector, or to entrepreneurs considering starting an ed-tech business?
Gabriel: Ed-tech companies in particular are in desperate need of being agile. The educational system all over the world is changing so fast, so that if you launch a product and invest all your money into one specific way of operating but don’t have an agile business model, it may be great for a few years but it won’t work in the long run. We’ve seen many ed-tech companies with over 200,000 users on their platform fail because they don’t know how to adjust their revenue model or their business model for the correct market. So, my best advice would be to stay agile and be able to shift — even parts of the core of your business model — to the market need, so that you don’t stay stubborn with something that worked a few years ago but doesn’t work today.
Yussouf: Mine would be to really understand the target market, and also understand how you plan on measuring impact. One of the biggest pieces of advice I would give to anyone starting a business in the education sector is that it is crucial to really understand what you are doing and how you measure that impact.
Transition to discussion with Ally…
Could you give me a brief overview of how this engagement worked and what your team dynamic was like?
We started this engagement at a very exciting time in BAG’s growth. When we first talked to them, they had just received significant investment and had already attained a lot of engagement within Rwanda, so for us it was about helping them figure out how and where they wanted to grow. At the start, we worked closely with Yussouf and Gabriel to set out the project scope, which was initially to identify the types of markets to enter after Rwanda. To do that, we completed a macro-analysis of both Ethiopia and Tanzania, their potential target audiences, and then completed a competitive analysis for both countries. This helped us to better understand the different social, political, economic and educational factors that existed within their interest markets, and also helped us identify the competitors in each interest market and see how they compared to BAG Innovation. Overall, this really helped us to set up a macro landscape of the markets that BAG was interested in entering.
Once we established Tanzania as the most preferable entry market, we came up with a go-to-market strategy for this country, which involved looking at: who BAG is trying to address, how BAG should address them, as well as any risk factors and possible mitigation strategies. That was all progressively built up according to feedback from Gabriel and Yussouf throughout the engagement because we really wanted to make sure this was going to be useful for them.
The entire team consisted of me, a professional mentor, and 4 associates. As for the team dynamic, the tone was set by Gabriel and Yussouf, because you could definitely feel their passion and energy and our whole team was so inspired and pumped up every time we saw them on a call. We were also super lucky that they trusted us a lot to help them with their company — they told us about their background, gave us data, and were really helpful whenever we had questions. We also benefited greatly from our professional mentor, Dan, who works at a boutique consulting company in New York City and helped us a lot with the more structural components of the deliverable, including setting up the bigger picture, tackling the problem and identifying the main strategies to highlight. Overall, the team dynamic and the team members were great and we were really lucky to work on such an amazing project.
What have you learnt from this engagement and how has it helped you to grow as both a leader and a professional?
Firstly, at BfE we’re all college students who are still learning, and we all come from very different backgrounds. In order to work together, it was very important for me to understand what everyone’s strengths were and how we could leverage them in a way that would be most beneficial to our overall goal. For example, if one person had finance skills and the other had macro research skills, we could pair them together on a smaller team and have them work on certain components of the deliverable. Not only did this really increase collaboration and help the team work together more effectively, but also where one person had a weakness, someone else had a strength and they were able to fill in those gaps for each other.
Also, in terms of leveraging on strengths, something else we did that was really helpful was that we reached out to a lot of people on LinkedIn. We talked to two people who are putting together a database of ed-tech startups in Africa right now, and they gave us a really interesting macro perspective of what startups in Africa have looked like and what common trends they’ve seen. We also talked to another founder of an ed-tech startup that is no longer in operation, and it was really helpful to hear what challenges she hit and why she was ultimately unable to scale.
Secondly, given the nature of BfE’s work, we wish we could be in Rwanda but unfortunately given the circumstances, everything we do is virtual. So something else that we learnt was the importance of communication — making sure we’re on the same page as Gabriel and Yussouf and that we’re really addressing issues in a way that is helpful to them.
Lastly, I learnt that understanding both the big picture and the small details really matter. Especially if you’re in a leadership position, you need to make sure that you’re guiding the team towards the right goals, and that along the way you take all the different steps in order to have the most comprehensive recommendation possible. To do so, it’s really important to have both the macro and micro perspectives, and also to know when to push what during different stages of the engagement.
That’s great. So what was the biggest challenge you faced in this engagement and how did you overcome it?
I think this is the case whenever we start a new engagement: the big challenge is putting ourselves in the shoes of our clients, the people they serve, and the local markets. It can be difficult to get a very strong understanding of the local context, and what political, economic and social factors might affect the way people interact with different products and services there. That is definitely the most important part, because you can’t create solutions to a problem within a context that you don’t understand. Making sure that we very structurally addressed all those different issues was super important, but it was also the most interesting part for us. When we started this engagement, a lot of us didn’t know much about Rwanda, let alone the ed-tech industry within Rwanda — that’s definitely a niche — but that was something we were so excited to learn about, because only after doing that groundwork and setting that foundation were we then able to create more catered recommendations for our clients.
What would you say to other students who would be interested in working on an engagement like this one?
I would say 3 things. Firstly, it’s important to know why you are going into these kinds of engagements to begin with. In these engagements, technical skills are not the most important, because everyone can learn those. Instead, you must be really interested in the work, and have a passion for social impact and for creating a more sustainable and inclusive future. You must care about the fact that the companies you’re working with are not just for-profit — they’re serving their communities, helping people around them, and having an impact much broader than just the profit that they earn. For BfE, creating recommendations that fall in line with the purpose and goal of the founders is never going to be just about profit — impact is always involved.
My second point, which I already touched upon briefly, is about really having that empathy and understanding of where your clients are located, who their customers are, and what the local factors are.
Lastly, it is about empowerment. This isn’t charity — it’s about empowering our clients to reach their goals. They’ve already done all the hard work and we’re just coming in and trying our best to help them reach their next goal. Creating solutions that work for our clients in their local context is truly key, because there might be certain solutions that could work in the U.S. that would not make sense in their local context. So understanding that and creating recommendations and tools that are actually useful for our clients and the people they serve is ultimately always our goal. For any students who are interested in working for BfE, those are some considerations you should really care about.