Two years ago, Etornam Fianoo-Vidza, a French and Spanish teacher, set out to learn Swahili. She expected to find an abundance of learning materials online, given that Swahili is the most spoken language in Africa, but she was wrong. After trying out different sites and apps, she found most of their teaching methods ineffective. Here, Etornam saw a gap to be filled, and she decided to begin teaching languages online. This eventually led to the birth of her language-learning startup, Spiika.
Unlike other language learning apps that offer only text and audio lessons, Spiika goes a step further and offers its users live interactive lessons with tutors, engaging activities and video lessons, and a community of learners to interact with online.
TechCabal spoke to Etornam about Spiika and what it’s like running an edtech startup in Ghana.
TechCabal: Did you always want to build a startup or did Spiika just happen along the way?
Etornam Fianoo-Vidza: I love languages, fundamentally, I have a passion for languages. I speak five: English, French, Spanish, our local language here in Ghana, Twi, and Swahili. I’ll be adding German and Chinese to that list very soon. I’m just a language fanatic, and growing up, I knew that I wanted to do something with my love for languages and make something out of it. I also have always loved business, so at one point, I just decided to align my love for languages with my love for business by starting a language school.
I have a Masters in Teaching French as a Foreign Language from the University of Arizona, and when I returned to Ghana, I started to teach French. However, I found that local African languages also needed to be taught and so I incorporated them and took it online. The existing platforms had only words and AI voices in foreign accents were pronouncing these words, which I found appalling. At that point, I decided that we could work on helping people across Africa learn local languages alongside foreign languages.
TC: What does Spiika do differently from the regular language classes taught at Ghanaian secondary schools?
EFV: Language is the most studied subject area in Africa but while students are taught foreign languages like French—which is compulsory—they end up not remembering anything as soon as they leave school. This is mainly a result of the way they are taught. Our schools here use a very mechanical and rule-based approach, and that doesn’t yield long-term results as it’s not practical. From my experience teaching French in the United States as a teaching assistant, I saw how people respond to different methodologies. With language learning, interaction is key, and technology is an important tool in facilitating this. It’s very important for us to move away from the traditional classroom-based mechanical approaches to incorporating really diversified methodologies that highlight human interaction.
You can use word-based platforms to learn, which will teach you vocabulary and common expressions, but unless you are interacting, you will remain the same and eventually even forget what you’ve learned. Our app now does three things: live interactive lessons with tutors, engaging activities and video lessons, and a community of learners to interact with online. The human component gets people to progress faster.
TC: What does it take to successfully run an edtech startup in Ghana?
EFV: The first thing to come to mind is grit; grit and perseverance. The passion is really what has to drive you. Passion for what you do and passion to keep learning, because as a founder you have to be willing and able to learn things on the go as well as be adaptable and open to change. When I started Spiika, I didn’t start with any official business background, no MBAs or anything, my background was just languages. Once I started, I had to begin attending a lot of business workshops and reading books, just to keep up. Running a startup in Ghana takes a lot of grit, perseverance, and willingness to learn.
TC: What are some of the challenges that you’ve faced in building Spiika?
EFV: One of the challenges we’ve faced is talent. As we grow, we need to employ even more people to fill more roles which has been a bit of a hassle. Really good talent comes with really good money and sometimes we’re not necessarily able to afford that.
Another challenge that we’ve faced is payments. Because our services are online and cater to people across the world, receiving payments from different countries can be a hassle. We have a lot of fintechs but I still think that there’s more that can be done in terms of simplifying payments between African countries. We’ve had instances of users from other countries having difficulty with payments because they’d much rather use simpler transfer methods than cards.
Fintech in Ghana is also not as advanced as in other countries, Nigeria for example. 90% of our clients in Ghana pay using the Mobile Money option, but getting that option alone can be a challenge— especially with running around the telecom providers.
TC: How has the reception for Spiika been? How well have people received it so far?
EFV: So far, it’s been good. We started with French to validate the need for it, as we are surrounded by Francophone countries and there’s a need to learn French. In terms of demand, we’ve seen more people trying to learn French compared to any other language. Also, due to the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) which is headquartered here in Ghana, more Ghanaians are looking to learn French as it’s the official language.
TC: How’s the edtech scene in Ghana?
EFV: The edtechs in Ghana are blooming but not as vast as I’d like or to the extent of our true potential as we still do not have a lot of exposure compared to countries like Nigeria or North Africa. These countries have more developed tech ecosystems in general, which when combined with country size, looks more appealing to investors.
This lack of exposure directly translates to very little to no capital for local edtechs in the country, which is a problem for entrepreneurs as they have to bootstrap or work on consultancy projects to fund their operations. Even in the edtech space in Ghana, the ones that typically receive the most mainstream attention are coding hubs or startups, not K12 or language edtechs like Spiika.
TC: What are things you’d like to see happen in the Ghanaian tech ecosystem?
There’s a popular saying on how entrepreneurs are over-mentored and underfunded, and that holds true. I’d like to see more funding into edtech, not just a series of advice and tips. While these are important, we need the money to actually implement the advice.
I’d also love to see more collaboration with the fintech or payments market. We had to step back from exploring the Nigerian market even though we had a lot of users due to payment problems. Payments is an essential part of scaling for a lot of startups and so I’d love to see fundamental issues in the payments space addressed.
Another thing I’d like to see is more transparency in the ecosystem. There seems to be a culture of information hoarding and you have to meet someone personally or network in certain circles to be able to access certain information. In other more advanced ecosystems, there’s information readily available online. You don’t have to know someone to find out what investors to pitch to, how big their ticket sizes are, what grants to apply for, what percentage equity is normal, etc. Concrete information like this isn’t available readily and is only open on an exclusive basis.