JANUARY 24, 2021 This newsletter is a weekly in-depth analysis of tech and innovation in Africa that will serve as a post-pandemic guide. Subscribe here to get it directly in your inbox every Sunday at 3 pm WAT
It’s hard to sustain motivation during an online course. I’ve tried MIT’s microeconomics on edX twice but Professor Gruber’s delivery is too fast for a beginner. I can’t slow him down in real-time because, duh, the lectures were recorded in the summer of 2016. Are his modules even still relevant in a post-Trump world?
If online learning is a chore for adults, imagine how much harder it must be for K12 learners.
In 2020, we saw that consuming education through technology was a burden for parents and inconvenience for their children. The pandemic revealed just how complex edtech is and why it’s not for everyone.
But instead of being subdued by this complexity, edtech’s potential grew globally and African startups are relishing the challenge.
Before we dive in, let’s do some housekeeping: subscribe so you don’t miss out on future editions of this must-read newsletter on African innovation. Also, can catch up onour previous editions here.
Seeing the light
That is the number of privately-owned edtech companies in the world that are worth at least $1bn; unicorns in venture capital parlance. Holon IQ, the research firm that tracks this data, says global edtech ventures received $16.1bn in VC money in 2020.
It was a record year for the industry and a seismic change in fortunes. VCs only spent $500m on edtech in 2010, $8.2bn in 2018 and $7bn in 2019.
A chunk of those billions were mostly spent outside Africa. The industry’s unicorns – Coursera, Duolingo, Yuanfudao – are majorly in China and the United States. Africa’s presence on the global edtech map is represented by a flickering candle, if at all it registers. It will be a while before we see $1bn spent on African edtech; $10bn was spent in China last year alone.
But interest is growing. Africans are seeing the edtech light and so are VCs. According to Disrupt Africa’s 2020 funding report, at least 17 African edtech companies received funding last year, from Gradely’s $25,000 to Valenture Institute’s $7m. eLimu, a Kenyan startup, was acquired by Co-creation Hub last October.
This year has started well for edtech businesses. uLesson’s $7.5m Series A was received with loud cheers, as validation of a growing ecosystem and affirmation of African edtech’s appeal to global audiences. The round was led by Owl Ventures, the US firm with a large portfolio of edtech companies including Masterclass and Quizlet (one of the 19 unicorns).
Sim Shagaya, uLesson’s founder and CEO, has built a strong enough career credibility to attract Owl Ventures, owing to his past endeavors in ecommerce with Konga. He is taking on the challenge of selling education with relative comfort, even though his initial plan to build the company outside Nigeria’s Abuja-Lagos urban centres faltered.
There will be more consequential setbacks for startups getting on Africa’s Edtech Express. uLesson is very much a work in progress. A Series A is not a guarantee of success. But the backing of a big global investor accelerates a march towards greater global visibility.
Holon IQ’s list of Africa’s top 50 edtech startups covers multiple aspects of the education value chain. Gradely and uLesson are in the tutoring and test preparation subsector. South Africa-based Zibuza and Green Shoots build management solutions for teachers. In Tanzania, Ubongo is creating a workable intersection between education and media.
More VCs are needed to power these solutions. 10 out of the 19 global edtech unicorns raised money in 2020. Considering Africa’s peculiarly rough terrain, where governments have failed to provide foundational infrastructure for education, funding will even be more crucial to scale African edtech.
So watch this space. If 2020 was a record year globally, bet on 2021 to compete, and for Africa to grab more of the spoils.
FROM THE CABAL
What good is satellite imagery to a fruit farmer?
Aerobotics, a South African startup, says: more than you can imagine. Investors seem to agree. The startup closed a $17m Series B round with participation from Naspers Foundry, to improve capacity to serve its big market in the US and other geographies. Aerobotics joins Gro Intelligence in agritech’s desire to take our minds off fintech and focus on what really matters – food.
There’s a Ghanaian startup on this list of 12 African fintechs to watch in 2021. But you should check out OZÉ, another startup in the West African country bidding to change how SME financing is done. Look out for their explanation for pivoting from francophone Africa.
Google broke hearts by announcing the end of Loon, their moonshot project to provide internet to some corners of the earth by floating balloons. Just last year, Kenya became the first country to benefit from the ambitious engineering feat. It turns out financial sustainability has been a problem with Loon since its founding. As Google’s balloons pop, African governments face a reality check; your internet problems won’t be outsourced to charity.
THE CRYSTAL BALL
Every week, we ask our readers, stakeholders, and operators in Africa’s tech ecosystem what they think the new normal looks like. We share their thoughts and opinions in this section of The Next Wave. You can share yours with us via email [firstname.lastname@example.org] with ‘The Crystal Ball’ in the subject line.
Tasha is a tertiary education student in Nigeria who has been home for six months due to the pandemic. Her siblings in high school can study some of their subjects on uLesson and also have access to instructors and practice quizzes. Tasha, on the other hand can acquire digital skills online but there are neither online instructors nor quizzes for her school courses.
According to TechCabal’s mini-report on Edtech in Africa, 805 edtech startups applied to Injini, Africa’s first edtech incubator for Cohort 2 of its incubation program. Of the 805, 383 startups were focused on K-12 education, 238 on tertiary education, 156 for adult / corporate education and the rest on Early Childhood Development (ECD).
Majority of the edtech startups focused on tertiary education do not offer subjects taught in the classroom but are instead dedicated to training students in digital skills. This means that there are not many edtech startups dedicated to online tertiary classroom learning.
The low numbers of these startups can be attributed to the complicated nature of the tertiary education sector. Most students take large numbers of courses from different departments and it can be difficult to keep track of. The teaching methods and curriculum are also rarely structured in a way that encourages online learning. In Nigeria for example, the tertiary education system appears to be riddled with plenty of unnecessary regulations.
Unlike the K-12 level, the pandemic does not seem to have encouraged an increase in African tertiary edtech platforms and asides from Nigeria’s Edutech and South Africa’s Quillo that are focused on a form of online learning, there aren’t many others.
In light of the new normal, Africa’s tertiary education system still needs a lot of work in terms of making classroom learning easily adaptable for digital platforms and edtech entrepreneurs need to keep an eye out for possible innovations.
Thank you for taking the time to read today’s edition of The Next Wave. Remember to stay safe when you are out in public places– protect others by wearing your mask and sanitizing your hands.
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