What's Kenya Got to Do With It?

What's Kenya Got to Do With It?

Edtech entrepreneurs face similar problems--whether in Africa or the U.S.

By Toni Maraviglia     Feb 13, 2013

What's Kenya Got to Do With It?

When people think of starting an edtech company, they usually don’t think of Kenya as a great launching point. (I was at an Edtech Meetup in SF back in July of 2012 and people kept asking me what mprep.co.ke stood for. “Coke? I don’t get it.” We actually changed our domain to mprep.it because of it.) But from what I know after living and working in Kenya since 2008, the climate here is ripe for an edtech ecosystem, and the problems we face as entrepreneurs in Nairobi are quite similar to the problems faced by edtech entrepreneurs across the States.

My whole point in writing this little section is to make you, oh faithful EdSurge Readers, keen to what’s happening in edtech outside the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. Cities like Nairobi, Johannesburg, Lagos, Accra, Kampala, Dar Es Salaam, heck, even Kinshasa are creeping out of nowhere to become Silicon Valleys in and of themselves, and before you know it the latest innovations will be exported from the African continent to other developing countries around the world. (And you may be left out of the picture…) Perhaps I can convince you that these markets are ripe for you. Perhaps I can show you that problems American edtech entrepreneurs face are similar to our markets across the pond on this dark, ol’ scary continent. Or perhaps not. Whatever the case, I have your attention, so now it’s Kenya’s time to shine.

A bit about me: Now, I’m fortunate enough to have gained a firsthand perspective in education over the past eight years in both the States and Kenya. I taught four years in Harlem, two at a public school through the classic Teach For America experience and two at a high-performing charter school in NYC. In 2007, I managed 45 teachers across the South Bronx for Teach For America, and I started an educational program back in 2008 for over 400 students in a very rural area of Kenya. (I lived in a hut for a year without water/electricity. Bam.) For the past two years, I’ve been working on MPrep, an edtech company that utilizes simple technology to provide educational content and communication tools to schools in the most remote areas of Kenya.

Furthermore, I’m an opinionated teacher that was a huge technology cynic until about two years ago. If you were at this same EdTech Meetup I talked about earlier, I was probably the person that stood listening to your pitch thoughtfully, asked a lot of questions, and then said quite abruptly, “Yeah, I’d never use that in my classroom,” while flashing a big smile across my face.

The entire reason I became an edtech founder was because I felt as though no one was creating solutions for the pains I felt as a teacher. No one was making my job of grading 105 essays, carefully calculating scripted notes on an Excel doc, and merging them into individualized reports, any easier. No one was creating solutions that all my students could access. No one really listened to what I wanted. So, I went on using Youtube, Excel, nightly text messages to my kids, and a lot of sassiness in my classroom as my biggest teaching tools.

And in Kenya, the situation was even worse. Charity projects run by large tech companies as “corporate social responsibility” propaganda campaigns flood the educational market with technology that teachers don’t really use or want to use. Computers collect dust and teachers often look confused when you mention using the Internet in classrooms. No one was creating solutions for my village, one without water, without reliable electricity, and 45 km away from a paved road. No one was taking advantage of the technology Kenyans already have access to, with 95% of households having at least one mobile phone.

The more I talk to educational entrepreneurs in Kenya and in the U.S., the more I realize that both ecosystems parallel each other. Problems with deep market understandings, lucrative business models, distribution channels, marketing, teacher adoption, and government regulation and bureaucracy in primary and secondary education are ridiculously similar. And there are definitely things that work and don’t work in both markets. In this series, I’m going to talk about these problematic similarities in edtech on both ends of the development spectrum and how I have seen them overcome in the U.S. and in Kenya.

Out here in Nairobi, it’s a lot like the Wild West; we’re a “frontier market with a lot of risk,” as our investors continually remind me. But what you don’t know is that we have the opportunity to steal all the best ideas from the (not so wild) west, adapt them to the Kenyan market, and implement them with companies like MPrep. I suppose that’s the luxury of being able to see what’s the best of the best from afar…

Toni is the co-founder and CEO of MPrep, a company that makes educational resources accessible to the most remote areas of Kenya using simple, widely-used technology. Before MPrep, Toni co-founded an educational organization in rural Kenya called WISERBridge in 2008. She was a Teach For America corps member and Program Director in New York City and taught at Harlem Village Academies. She enjoys working, speaking Luo and hula hooping.

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