Sim Shagaya planned to tackle Africa’s education quality gap by taking a road less traveled.
Camped in a town nearly 1,000km away from Lagos, his edtech upstart uLesson meticulously produced over 3,000 colorfully-illustrated short video lessons delivered by human tutors, covering math and physical science subjects for senior high students in Nigeria. Instead of making the lessons accessible through a website—as edX, Coursera, Udacity and others do—uLesson distributed using 32- and 64 gigabyte memory devices. Shagaya was sure this was what Africa needed early in 2020.
But as covid-19 locked children at home towards the middle of that year, uLesson stopped selling the memory devices, instead inviting users to access lessons directly on its website and mobile app. Now, beyond making pre-recorded lessons watchable online, uLesson is leaping into new territory: livestreaming lessons to pupils and students.
Online learning existed in various forms before the pandemic but last year’s sudden experiment—triggered when 80% of the world’s school children had to stay home—rattled education stakeholders. Nigerian parents bemoaned the stress of juggling daily office tasks with playing co-teacher and providing tech support for their children’s needs. Schools scrambled to upload curriculums online at short notice. Governments in some places tried to help by televising school lessons or gifting radio sets to low-income households.
There is unfortunately no data with which to assess the online learning experiment in Africa so far, and students have resumed in-class learning in most countries despite the rise of omicron and other covid-19 variants. But uLesson took the explosion in live videos during the pandemic (on Instagram and other platforms) as a sign that user behavior matched the company’s interest in delivering quality over quantity.
Moving away from pre-recorded lessons sold on dongles, uLesson changed a tedious one-way learning environment to one where teachers and students interact in real-time. “It takes a great deal of self-motivation from a learner to address a pre-recorded screen and learn that way,” Shagaya tells Quartz. Younger learners would typically need more willpower to muster that kind of motivation, he says.
Since introducing live lessons in September, uLesson says demand for the feature has grown four fold. Instead of seeing a drop off in users complaining about the cost of data, they are seeing an uptick. Daily average users have grown 430% growth this year, videos have 12.3 million views, and the app has been downloaded 2 million times, the company says.
Pivoting early has made life a bit easier for uLesson from a business operations perspective. In the early days, they had to recall dongles or send new ones to users when new content was available, Shagaya says. Now uLesson simply updates its online library and users watch.
Yet delivering live online classes for learners in Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone, the Gambia, Liberia, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, South Africa, the US, and the UK will pose human resource and logistical challenges. Which probably explains why the startup has raised three rounds of funding from investors, the latest being $15 million announced this week. The startup’s investors include African VC firm TLcom Capital, and Tencent.
Tencent has backed at least three Chinese edtech firms since 2018, in a country where online tutoring is worth $40 billion. Being the owners of the WeChat super app that has over 1.2 billion monthly active users, Tencent has a pedigree for growing social platforms that achieve scale.
Shagaya expects to gain from the Chinese giant’s expertise for scale, even if China has now started clamping down on edtech. Among other things, companies teaching compulsory primary and middle school subjects in China must now register as “nonprofit institutions,” effectively rendering the sector unattractive to venture capital. Such regulation in Africa could put a strain on a company like uLesson.
uLesson is one of a very small number of African edtech companies that receive investor funding. Earlier this year, Egypt-based Almentor raised $6.5 million to serve the middle east and north Africa. As with the broader ecommerce market, which has barely 2% penetration on the continent, edtech may take a while to become mainstream.
That said, one factor that could help accelerate change in the minds of parents is measuring outcomes. Showing parents that they are getting bang for their buck could convince more about edtech in general, but especially live lessons.
“How do you measure subject matter mastery over cost of data? I think that ratio is difficult to get,” Shagaya says.
Maybe the audience insights firm Nielsen, whose investment arm, Nielsen Ventures, invested in uLesson’s latest funding, could help in that regard. For now, uLesson sends regular performance reports to parents on WhatsApp or through SMS. The company has entered a couple of partnerships to be present in more households. One with Tecno, perhaps Africa’s largest smartphone retailer, ensures the uLesson app is pre-installed.
The startup’s last two years have been about rapid experimentation. For the next 12 months at least, Shagaya’s focus is to dive deep into live content with high hopes that it sticks.
Sign up to the Quartz Africa Weekly Brief here for news and analysis on African business, tech and innovation in your inbox.