Teachers have struggled for years to get students off their cell phones, but that logic is being turned on its head across sub-Saharan Africa as educators look to mobile technology to reach a population scrambling to prepare for economic growth in a region plagued by poor funding and infrastructure.
Now a growing group of entrepreneurs are capitalizing on the fact that the vast majority of people in sub-Saharan Africa don’t own a laptop or computer, but do have a phone, and know how to use it.
“Education is a space that is never going to be out of fashion, and in Africa, it's going to grow at a faster rate than anywhere else in the world,” said Sheraan Amod, co-founder of South African venture incubator Springlab, which is currently reviewing several startup applicants in the m-learning space.
“For most students in Africa, the first point of interaction with new content is via their mobile phones. It naturally follows that any new education startup seeking to captivate this market should have a mobile strategy as the cornerstone of their offering,”
This African “leapfrog” effect has spawned dozens of mobile-based startups like Square and Mpesa that are now spreading globally.
The region is rich in dichotomy. Most people live in poverty but almost everyone owns a cell phone. And although education levels there are rising, a teacher shortage and lack of resources means many children are illiterate after years of study, according to Unesco data.
Several startups are venturing into the fray to tackle the problem, each with a new idea about how to get kids to learn outside of the classroom. Whether it’s homework via text-message or an online MBA, entrepreneurs and teachers are embracing mobile education and encouraging students to get on their phones, rather than off.
“Compounding numerical challenges of teacher supply, are concerns about teacher quality, many children who are in school fail to develop basic competencies,” the report reads, citing data that shows 250 million students worldwide can’t read, write or count even after four years of school.
In OECD countries, the average number of students per teacher is 21. In Rwanda, it’s 65, in Malawi, its 79 and in the Central African Republic the rate jumps to 84, according to their research.
That’s where SMS-based materials come in.
Sterio.me is a startup that engages students in homework through text messages. Teachers can pre-record lessons that students can access after school with an SMS code, and see which students have finished the material and how well they scored on tests.
“It saves teachers time and gives them valuable insight, allowing them to track, monitor and compare both class effectiveness and learner progress,” a company statement said. “Learners are more engaged and remain connected to class content out of the classroom.”
This development can saves hours of time in a region with few teachers and little Internet access.
While other e-learning platforms use data to stream video or offer open-source materials Sterio.me uses ordinary cellphones and doesn’t require smartphones.
“A simple feature phone that without requiring data access or data-enabled devices, is all that a learner needs,” the firm’s promotional video explained.
It’s preparing a May launch in Lesotho in partnership with telecom firm Vodacom, and plans to sell the product to nonprofits with corporate funding cause marketing basis.
Kenya’s Enza Education, another new player in the field, describes itself as a “virtual tutor and teacher’s assistant on a low-cost mobile phone.”
Students can use text messages (on Safaricom phones) to take quizzes, view mini-lessons and get extra help. Meanwhile, their data is being logged for viewing by parents and teachers, and schools can see country-wide data to help understand where they rank.
For about 30 cents a month, Enza provides students unlimited access to its content, which conforms to Kenya’s standard curriculum. Students choose topics by class and unit. Then they respond to questions sent via text message, and get tailored responses depending on their answers. If students score less than 50 percent on a quiz, they receive a “mini lesson” that reviews the topic.
The service also allows users to do a Wikipedia search using only texts, and the option to ask questions of a teacher.
“The teacher-student ratio has been deteriorating over the years, and the overstretched teacher workforce culminated in this brilliant low cost idea that uses simple mobile technology,” reads a post on Enza’s blog.
Social media is also enabling students’ access to education. Facebook is one of the most visited websites in Africa according to a report from Deloitte, with most of the traffic coming from mobile phones. Analysts predict that social media use will grow almost 200 percent in Africa and the Middle East by 2017.
One Cape Town startup has harnessed this power for good to create Obami, a mobile and online platform sharing educational resources amongst teachers and students. Over Obami they conduct group discussions and solve problems, all with an interface similar to the Facebook they already use.
“By applying social media technologies to a learning management system, Obami provides a powerful solution for individuals, learning institutes and the communities that form within and between them,” reads their website.
Though all of these mobile projects hope to help improve the quality of African education, there’s also money to be made.
Revenues in the African mobile learning market will grow more than fives times to hit $530 million by 2017, according to a 2013 report from Ambient Insight. Its research shows that several countries in Africa have mobile penetration rates higher than 100 percent, and adoption rates are growing exponentially. For example, Zimbabwe had just two million mobile subscribers in 2009, a rate that jumped to 11 million by the end of 2012.