uLesson, Nigeria’s leading ed-tech, recently announced it had become a group with a private open university under it, the first in Nigeria. Here’s how they moved from K-12 to tertiary education.

At 10:20 a.m. on October 28, 2023, Professor Tayo Arulogun, Miva open university’s vice chancellor, mounted the stage at The Podium event centre in Lagos, Nigeria, and kicked off the university’s first matriculation ceremony. With 532 students in Lagos and Abuja, Miva was making history as Nigeria’s first fully accredited private open university.

Miva’s launch will contribute to solving the capacity problem in Nigeria’s tertiary education system. In 2014, for instance, almost 1.2 million candidates who sat for college-entry exams into Nigerian tertiary institutions didn’t gain admission. Nigeria’s 170 universities can only hold 1.8 million students, and there are not enough places for even those who pass college entry exams. 

“The traditional method of brick and mortar cannot address the demands of 50 to 60 million Nigerians trying to get into tertiary institutions at the same time,” said Sim Shagaya, the founder of uLesson Group, Miva’s parent company. “We have to be able to use the internet somehow.” 

Shagaya shared those thoughts in a 2014 interview when he was still CEO of Konga, Jumia’s e-commerce rival. He had a thesis for online education but would dedicate the next four years to building Konga before selling the company in 2018.

With time on his hands, Shagaya launched uLesson, an edtech company targeting the k-12 category, in 2019.  “I decided to revisit this education opportunity, which I had been thinking about for a while,” he told TechCabal in a virtual interview.

Unlike most businesses, uLesson refined its business model away from Nigeria’s economic capital, Lagos, and major cities like Port Harcourt or Abuja. uLesson started building in Jos, a city not bothered by traffic congestion while taking advantage of a lockdown that forced staff to work from one building. Within four years, uLesson would grow to birth Miva University in one of the fastest business expansions in the edtech space. Here is how uLesson did it.

uLesson’s Day 1 in Jos

uLesson’s focus on K-12 education was new and important. As K-12 education was changing globally with technology-assisted learning, ed-techs like uLesson helped Nigeria attempt to catch up. uLesson’s approach involved three phases: pre-recorded content, live content, and personalised services.

uLesson’s time in Jos (early 2019 to late 2020) was spent building the pre-recorded content library, which eventually became their best-selling product when they went to market in 2020. At inception, the learning content was accessible to students through USB dongles and an Android app which students could access without the internet. The live content had educators teach students in real time, and the personalised services allowed teachers to help students directly and also give them homework

Having all the staff in one place, and building a massive library of educational content, meant that, for a long time, uLesson couldn’t pursue revenue. “We were trying to teach academic principles in a way that’s fun and engaging through rich animation and interaction between live humans and animation, and to test efficacy while we’re doing that,” Shagaya said. “It was very tough. It took a year and a half before we could even reasonably go to market.” 

uLesson planned to go to market in February 2020 in Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone, and Gambia. To achieve that, they went into overdrive.

First raise, COVID-19, and expansion challenges

Late in 2019, Shagaya was on the phone with an old friend, Omobola Johnson, a one-time ICT Minister in Nigeria and now a partner at startup investment firm, TLCom. He mentioned uLesson to her and she was excited to invest in uLesson, as its overall objective matched what TLCom was looking to invest in.

Johnson and her partner, Ido Sum, travelled from London to Abuja, from where they took a four-hour road trip to Jos, to see the uLesson team, discuss growth plans, and figure out how TLCom could support the company.

In November 2019, uLesson announced its $3.1 million seed round led by TLCom. Johnson was not just a friend of Shagaya’s; she was now on uLesson’s board of directors with Sum.

In 2020, months after uLesson brought all its staff to its Jos hub where they all lived and worked, and after it had raised capital, the COVID-19 lockdown started.

Abdulafeez “Penzu” Ojetola, who was the pioneering illustrator at uLesson said of those days that: “Work needed to keep going, the library needed to be completed, [so] we didn’t stop work at all. We had two different lockdown shelters. One was the [residential] mansion and the other was the office complex. We had people who were cooking for us. Work was going on. We were not commuting, we lived in the same place. We got our salaries. We got our allowances. We needed to work overtime because we weren’t going anywhere.” 

Two other former employees who did not want to be quoted shared similar sentiments about work not stopping and everyone in Jos working round the clock.

Ojetola said he “worked from 6 a.m. till 10 p.m. for weeks on end. There wasn’t much to be done because of the lockdown so we worked double time. The workload of six months was done in three months.”

In 2020, uLesson went to market as planned. “The first product was very basic and was Android only. We covered only senior secondary school sciences,” Shagaya told TechCabal. 

While they had initially hoped to benefit from growing internet usage, Shagaya said the market let them know convincingly that “for us to provide a compelling academic experience, there had to be a physical component because of the internet issues that continued to challenge us.” As uLesson made more USB dongles, they experienced new problems.

“It was buggy,” Shagaya told TechCabal. “They [the customers] would put the SD cards in their phones and sometimes they won’t work, and we’d have to ship out another one. But they were buying and we had a core base of users that were patient with us, and we tried very hard to make them happy and just focused on that base which was very small. There were less than 1,000 for the entire first year.”

Customers also complained that the USB dongles were susceptible to computer viruses. An insider said uLesson spent a lot of time resolving customer complaints instead of shipping new products. Despite the challenges, uLesson continued to expand its database through the lockdown.

Many people, including former employees, believe that the lockdown helped uLesson grow significantly. Ojetola told TechCabal that “the pandemic was the era where we introduced the online classes. The pandemic helped the company grow to new heights.” 

However, Shagaya has a different perspective: “I think what COVID did was, it set up the environment for our longer-term growth, but didn’t provide a short-term boost or anything like that.”

Whether it was a long-term boost or a short-term accelerant, the COVID-19 lockdowns soon ended, and so did uLesson’s time in Jos.

The curtain closes on Jos

As lockdowns started to ease and uLesson started thinking about expansion, it started looking outside of Jos to hire engineers. According to Shagaya, most of the talents they needed in that period were available in the south-west and south-south regions of Nigeria. uLesson would have to fly them to Abuja where they’d travel by road to Jos because there weren’t many flights available to Jos. In some cases, people refused to travel due to insecurity in the north-central region.

After the lockdown, the company’s leadership also needed to speak to more investors and pitch at events to get more people to support the uLesson goal. At this time, Shagaya said uLesson was mostly B2B as most of their products were being sold directly to schools, with a smaller fraction being B2C. The resources they needed to scale were elsewhere. So, uLesson started considering a relocation to Abuja.

“It was very difficult to broach it to the team,” Shagaya said. “It’s something I struggled with for a while because they were all settled in. Some of them started finding romantic partners and I said, look, we have to go to Abuja. Everybody protested.” Several early-day employees, including Ojetola, refused to make the relocation with uLesson at the end of 2020, although uLesson managed to retain a lot of talent and hired fast for replacements.

The company’s relocation did not stop its lofty plans. In January 2021 it announced a $7.5 million Series A raise, led by US-based Owl ventures. It modified its strategy and shifted from dongle hardware to focus fully on online learning. “The issues with that [SD cards] were just too much,” Shagaya said.

In July 2021 uLesson started operating physical centres across Lagos, Port Harcourt, Asaba and Abuja. But the company quickly realised that the model wasn’t sustainable as schools were back fully onsite and uLesson could only get the primary-secondary-level students for barely three months in a year. As revenues couldn’t carry the cost of operation, uLesson shut down the centres that same year.

Despite the challenges, Shagaya told Techcabal that uLesson is now cash flow positive. “Every financial goal that we set for investors we achieved.”

uLesson has evolved to a learning bundle model, selling tabs with pre-installed learning resources and a subscription that means students don’t have to worry about additional internet costs.

From uLesson to Miva

Having recorded success with the K-12 division, Shagaya and the board knew it was time to expand. So, uLesson tried opening offices in South Africa, Kenya, Uganda, and Ghana to grow the distribution of its bundled products and services. However, they faced several challenges, especially with K-12 syllabuses being different across those countries.

Shagaya told TechCabal in a virtual call that as an alternative, around this time, “I started interacting with the National Universities Commission (NUC), calling them and trying to explain to them what we could set up [an online university].” But the NUC didn’t seem to be ready.

The NUC, which regulates the creation of tertiary institutions in Nigeria, does not currently have guidelines for establishing online universities. However, it has one for open and distance learning (ODL), a learning method which doesn’t happen in real-time. The current NUC guidelines for ODL state that “For all academic programmes to be taught by ODL, interactive texts shall be at the heart of teaching and learning. These shall be supplemented with other resources such as: CD-ROM, DVD or USB sticks to deliver ebooks, simulations, assessment etc”, all of which uLesson excelled at with its pre-university clients.

Shagaya convened an emergency board meeting where he tried to make the case for Miva. “The thing about online universities or universities, in general,” he said, “is that the curriculum is the same everywhere.” This meant that if they made it work in Nigeria, they could easily replicate it elsewhere without having to build a new syllabus. He said that the business could either keep trying to figure out K-12 expansion or they could become a pan-African tertiary institution within months, applying the lessons they had learned from building large educational resources with uLesson.

The board unanimously supported a university expansion. 

In May 2023, after several meetings with the NUC, Miva Online University became accredited to provide open and distance learning education.

Miva University had two faculties at inception: the Faculties of Computing, and Management and Social Sciences. Months later, it added the Allied Health Sciences faculty. Together, they offer 10 bachelor of science degrees.

To gain admission into tertiary institutions in Nigeria, candidates have to have a minimum of five credits in the Senior School Certificate Examination (SSCE) before writing matriculation exams organised by Nigeria’s Joint Admissions and Matriculation Board (JAMB). Afterwards, candidates who reach marks set out by both JAMB and the institution can then proceed to write another matriculation exam set by the institution. At Miva, the exams end at SSCE.

Arulogun, Miva’s first VC, told TechCabal over WhatsApp that “Miva Open University recognises the unique opportunities and challenges associated with using technology to bridge educational gaps in Nigeria and beyond. We are committed to addressing the identified educational gaps, which is critical to achieving the national education goals in the areas of access, affordability, and quality education.”

Fifteen years ago when Shagaya first thought about building an open university in Nigeria, Muneerat Shitta-Bey had just been born. Fifteen years later, she is matriculating as a Miva student. 

Shitta-Bey’s relationship with Miva started in 2020 during the COVID-19 lockdown, her mother, Mrs Shitta-Bey, told TechCabal at the matriculation event in Lagos. “During the COVID-19 pandemic, when everybody was locked down, they were doing online classes at her [Muneerat’s] school. But we needed extra lessons to help her focus and do better. It was difficult getting lesson teachers. I was wondering, why can’t we get lesson teachers from wherever? I went online and discovered uLesson.”

When Muneerat finished her secondary school education, she was looking forward to  gaining admission into university. In Nigeria, traditional tertiary institutions are not excited about giving university admission to students under 16 years old. As a 15-year-old, she would have had to wait one more year.

Speaking about her daughter’s matriculation and not having to wait an extra year, Mrs Shitta-Bey said, “When I knew that they [uLesson] had a university, we were so happy. COVID taught us that you don’t need to be there physically to learn.”

Muneerat, who is studying for a BSc in public policy for the next three years, as against four years in a traditional university, told TechCabal that “uLesson was very good for me because, in school, sometimes when teachers talk, it was difficult for me to pay attention. uLesson helped me because the lessons were broken down and well visualised. I had a private teacher monitoring my progress. Miva is almost the same. I wanted to do animation, but they don’t offer that yet.”

Another opportunity that Miva provides to people like Muneerat is that they can do multiple courses at the same time, experimenting with their preferences and settling on what they’re most interested in. Muneerat told TechCabal that she’s doing other programmes outside Miva, and she’s happy she has the opportunity to do other things. Her mother confirms that “she is doing software engineering as well”.

Shagaya said Miva will operate with a similar model as uLesson’s with pre-recorded sessions, live classes and personalised support, which will come from top professionals and professors globally.

While Miva seems a promising alternative to traditional universities, one wonders if Nigerians with a minimum wage of ₦30,000 can afford the ₦200,000 to ₦250,000 annual tuition. As uLesson has done, time will tell where Miva will go in the next few years.

On October 23, 2023, Shagaya announced on Twitter that he was transitioning out of his role as CEO of uLesson into a broader role as the CEO of uLesson group and chancellor of Miva University. 

He announced Ayooluwa Nihinlola, who has been at the company since 2019, as the new CEO of the uLesson K-12 division.

Nihinlola said, “By showing what’s possible via this expansion into tertiary, we hope to inspire other organisations in the ecosystem to leverage the resources at their disposal to

provide world-class education at scale.”

Muhammed Akinyemi Senior editor

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