Education: is it the flagship sector of the future unicorns of the African continent?
Ten years ago, nobody could have foreseen the current boom in entrepreneurship in Africa. It has been so successful that a new term has sprung up to describe these new players in the continental economy: ‘Afropreneurs’. Cynics see in it the necessity to find opportunities for the young people, increasingly well-educated, who make up the major part of the hordes of unemployed Africans: 60% of young Africans aged under 25 have no job. But in any event, initiatives to encourage entrepreneurship are multiplying, and the map of African business incubators is illuminating. Among the sectors preferred by emerging African start-ups are fintech, renewable energies, digital technology, and education. The Enko blog checks in on the trends that are emerging among education-related start-ups in Africa.
Educating the population of Africa, the youngest continent in the world with 400 million young people aged under 16, is a crucial priority. It is the second-highest priority for the African panel of respondents to the Afro-barometer survey. However, after periods of structural adjustment to government budgets in many sub-Saharan African countries during the 1980s, education budgets have been reduced to a bare minimum. In the majority of African countries, education systems are not set up to cope with demographic pressure and cannot meet the increasingly demanding expectations of the burgeoning middle classes on this issue, which was not one their parents had to deal with. Although access to education has improved, many young people study in overcrowded and badly equipped classrooms and this does not prepare them well for the job market.
The WEF for Africa, which was held in May 2017 in Durban, also devoted a session to the subject, presenting initiatives undertaken in southern countries ranging from the creation of ‘edutainment’ videos, subtitling on TV programmes to improve adults’ reading skills, Bridge schools (low-cost schools financed by the Bill Gates Foundation and Facebook) and the mission organised by the BCG to improve public-sector schools in the state of Haryana, in India. The requirements in the education sector are many and varied. Entrepreneurs are well aware of this and many have decided to venture into this area.
Education start-ups are the teacher’s pets of the Development Agencies and the major international philanthropic institutions, because they cover multiple essential issues. Some start-ups are social enterprises, which invest in education to promote long-term development, which is an investment in future generations. Start-ups using digital technology are the most common, because of the opportunities created by digitisation and also because of their low capital requirements (at least initially). Education start-ups can be classified in multiple categories.
- There are those aimed directly at schoolchildren and students, offering them specific courses, course extensions, exam revision, and mentoring systems with peers who can offer them advice. This is the e-learning sector, which targets the offspring of the urbanised middle classes who have the means to pay a subscription or pay for specific courses.
- Then there are the start-ups that support teachers in the public sector, offering solutions to optimise their teaching, support platforms for their courses, and tools for analysis of the performance and progress of their classes, etc. (see interview with Adrien Bouillot, founder of Chalkboard Education, which will appear on this blog in the near future).
We can only celebrate these well-intentioned entrepreneurs who are hurrying to take advantage of the immense opportunity offered by Africa’s education challenges. However, as noted by Tom Jackson on the website Disrupt Africa, although it is easy to get excited about these potentially enormous and almost untouched markets, the digital revolution in education on the continent faces a number of (infra)structural issues. Some parts of Africa still have an erratic supply of electricity (620 million Africans do not have access to electricity, according to the African Development Bank). The rate of use of mobile phones does not suggest that most Africans have a smartphone or tablet. Access to the internet is far from widespread. If technical accessibility is not a problem, the cost of the data is still exorbitant and unaffordable for many Africans. Finally, the digital literacy rate is very low for the reasons we have just mentioned.
Digital solutions can offer only partial solutions, meeting a specific need or patching up a part of the system. There has been no holistic analysis on innovation in education; this must be driven by the African governments and should not be the result of fragmented initiatives proposed by private-sector operators, however well-intentioned they may be.
Other start-ups have not played the digital card, deciding instead to invest in niche markets and set up physical schools in the private sector, which meet requirements that the traditional education sector has not taken into consideration. This is the strategy launched by Enko Education in sub-Saharan Africa, with its affordable international schools that prepare African students for admission to the best universities in the world.
So, will these “African unicorns”, these start-ups that raise hundreds of millions of dollars and are promising to be hugely successful, be those in the education sector? Nothing can confirm this yet. Still, education remains a sector for those who are looking for an investment that is meaningful. As Joël de Rosnay writes: “Education is at the heart of all the strategies built around the future. It is a global issue, and one of the major challenges of the third millennium.”
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