Digital innovators are trying to plug gaps in Nigeria’s broken education system

Shagaya’s uLesson will combine online and offline components.
Shagaya’s uLesson will combine online and offline components.
Image: uLesson
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There’s an easy way to check how much of a priority education is to the Nigerian government: look at the national budget.

Last year, the allocation for education stood at less than 10% of the entire $29 billion budget—much less than the 26% recommendation for developing countries by the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).

Years of perennial under-funding of education has seen infrastructure whittle while teaching standards and quality continue to fall short, especially at government-owned schools. Wise to the shortcomings of the national education system and the lagging teacher to pupil ratio in high schools, parents have long attempted to shore up learning gaps by employing after-school tutors, known locally as “lesson teachers.”

But Sim Shagaya, one of the key actors in Nigeria’s digital tech space since its early-days, is looking to offer an alternative through technology. After a hiatus from actively running a tech venture since stepping down from the troubled Konga in 2016, Shagaya launched uLesson, an edtech startup that’s attempting to merge online and offline components to meet learning needs of millions of Nigerian students while the public sector struggles.

“The [education] system has not kept up with the numbers,” says Shagaya. “That’s a quantity discussion but also qualitatively, we’re delivering much less quality than before so there’s a huge market there.” After nearly a year which entailed building a team, developing a vast video library of pre-recorded learning content and beta tests, uLesson to the market next week.

Nigeria’s long-running shortcomings with the sector means education has always been big business offline ranging from elite private schools and expensive tutors to more affordable options which are only marginally better than public schools.

Over the last decade digital innovators and entrepreneurs have launched startups including PrepClass and PassNowNow. For its part, PrepClass operates as a amartketplace for connecting after-school tutors to learners while PassNowNow allows users access high school class notes for several subjects and past exam questions for a fee.

Last October, CCHub, the influential Lagos-based tech and social enterprise hub, opened an edtech center at The Tai Solarin University of Education in Ijebu-Ode, about two hours outside of Lagos. “Education is the bedrock of healthy societies,” wrote CCHub co-founder Bosun Tijani in a tweet celebrating the launch. “As we continue to contribute to shaping the innovation ecosystem in Africa, accelerating the application of innovation and technology in improving education outcomes will be crucial to driving our overall agenda.”

ULessson’s  service and features are anchored on its mobile app through which users can register, take tests and have their learning progress measured, uLesson’s offline component will see it send its full library of learning content to registered users on SD cards. Content on the cards can then be plugged into phones and accessed seamlessly and without the associated cost of downloads or streaming online.

Taking “a uLesson.”
Taking “a uLesson.”
Image: uLesson

With the problem of under-funding education also prevalent in other African countries, Shagaya has pan-African ambitions for uLesson. The service will be immediately available to secondary school students in Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone, The Gambia and Liberia—the five Anglophone West African countries that share similar curricula and take school-leaving tests set by the West African Examinations Council.

Despite dropping costs of smartphones and mobile internet, gaps in quality network coverage and inadvertently high cost of online streaming means “the pre-recorded model is what works really well for Africa,” Shagaya says.

ULesson is designed to undercut the after-school tutorial market with refined service delivery and a $80 annual subscription fee.  The model has already proven enough to win investor backing: uLesson raised $3.1 million in a seed round led by TLcom Capital last November. Konga, which he founded raise over $70 million amid early-day skepticism for the viability of local tech startups in the mid-2010s.

Ultimately, Shagaya will be hoping uLesson fares much better than Konga which was sold, likely at a major loss to investors, in early 2018. But a long history of demand for better education alternatives among Nigerians suggests uLesson will find a willing market. In 2018 alone, the economic impact of spending by Nigerian students studying in the United States reached $514 million while better education choices is also a factor  driving migration of middle-class Nigerians to Canada and Europe.

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