Investor interest in African education technology (edtech) has cooled since the end of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns highlighted how technology aids learning. Yet there’s an argument that a continent chock full of young people must continue its focus on education and technology. It’s the premise for the Mastercard Foundation Edtech conference which began in Abuja on Monday. 

Hundreds of conference participants from 13 African countries caused traffic delays on Aguiyi Ironsi Road, Maitama, and the adjoining roads leading to Transcorp Hilton Abuja on Monday morning. The participants, are a healthy mix of edtech founders, CEOs, investors, development institutions, university lecturers, students, and government officials. 

Many African tech conferences take broad outlooks and focus on big problems and regulators. It has created a gap for over 300 edtech companies that have taken time out this week to discuss the peculiar challenges of their industry. 

“This is the Web Summit of edtech startups,” said an excited founder who joined the queue of participants trying to access the main hall – a large tenth with a 600 seater capacity and an exhibition area with 24 companies.

While 600 people are far from the hundreds of thousands of attendees the Web Summit records yearly, for the edtech industry the attendance at the Mastercard Foundation Edtech Conference was a feat. 

PICTURE: Attendees get their tags at one of the registration points. 

Attendance of 600 edtech who-is-who in Africa was impressive for an inaugural conference. It brought edtech startups into the same room with two parties critical to the industry’s growth – government and investors. 8 education ministers are at the conference with panel discussions scheduled for Monday and Tuesday.

Mastercard Foundation believes that edtech can bridge the education gap and enable over 600 million young people in Africa to access quality education. Joseph Nsengimana, director, Centre for Innovative Teaching and Learning, Mastercard Foundation, said the edtech conference was important as it gets every stakeholder in the industry talking to each other towards finding solutions to the many problems that the education sector faces in Africa. These solutions would include ways to make edtech services profit-oriented while still affordable to the underserved, to attract investors. 

Edtech startups have been trying to convince investors for many years that they can help people in underserved communities get needed quality education and make money for them by doing so. Only a few investors have been convinced. In 2023, over 300 edtech startups accounted for a paltry 0.7% of total funding to tech companies in Africa. Even in 2021 when funding to the industry rose to its highest at $81 million, it was still less than 2% of total funding. 

“The challenge is that many do not see where to come in. Companies need to pick areas of specialisation in edtech which gives a clearer picture for investment,” Chimdi Neliaki, Youth Reference Committee, Office of the AU Youth Envoy.

The decline in edtech funds is also a result of issues with the scalability of the models, according to Ruth Wairimu, investment manager of Acumen Fund who spoke during an investors’ panel. The edtech models that scale are usually those that are B2B-focused and create solutions for private schools and public schools as well. The B2C edtech companies find it hard to scale because they depend on decisions from parents facing income inequalities. Nonetheless, investing in any edtech company, B2B model or B2C model, requires a different approach. 

“We need to encourage more investors to be more patient,” Wairimu said. 

But before getting more investors to fund startups, the infrastructure that powers the industry needs to be built. Tochukwu Ezeukwu, regional director of AVPA divides infrastructure into broadband and internet penetration. 

CAPTION: L-R: Rory Fynn, country director Nigeria, Mastercard Foundation, Bosun Tijani, Federal Minister of Communication, Innovation, and Digital Economy, Joseph Nsengimana, director, Mastercard Foundation, and Hon. Albert Nsengiyumva, executive secretary, Association for the Development of Education in Africa. 

“Edtech is not an end in itself. It is supposed to do something. Across many markets in Africa, there is little developed infrastructure that edtech would ride on and scale,” Ezeukwu said. 

The edtech industry may also be leaving funds on the table by working in silos while disconnected from government programmes on education, according to Bosun Tijani, Minister of Communications, Innovation, and Digital Economy. 

“The edtech industry is not taking advantage of the Universal Service Provision Fund (USPF),” Tijani said. The fund which is under the Ministry of Communications, Innovation, and Digital Economy, is to facilitate the achievement of national policy goals for universal access and universal service to information and communication technologies (ICTs) in rural, un-served, and under-served areas in Nigeria. 

It is more important to prioritize the content and how teachers use it to achieve learning outcomes in edtech solutions rather than just buying laptops for schools. This was the consensus of three-panel sessions that included the minister, Joseph Nsengimana, director, Centre for Innovative Teaching and Learning, Mastercard Foundation, Albert Nsegiyumva, executive secretary of Association for the Development of Education in Africa (ADEA), Alex Twinomugisha, Risian Kanya, deputy vice-chancellor, Baze University, and Adefunke Ekine, deputy director, Research and External Relations, Tai Solarin University of Education. 

Frank Eleanya Senior Reporter, TechCabal

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