opinion

The Edtech Secret Shared by Great Schools in Kenya and the U.S.

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Kenya and the U.S. are seemingly disparate markets. But as an American edtech founder in Kenya, I’m writing this little section to make you see that these markets are surprisingly similar. (Check out my earlier article introducing some of these issues.) Let’s take lessons from both and use them.

What’s the best type of edtech founder? Here’s my international opinion: A teacher who's also a parent and remains closely connected to the classroom while also maintaining the largest network of educators possible. (Pretty much describes my high school teacher, Mr. McCusker, if you ask me.)

Now, I’m not that person. I may have a deep understanding of what teachers want and what it’s like to live in rural Africa, but that doesn’t mean I understand every teacher, nor do I 100% understand how kids use technology to learn. We all fall somewhere on this spectrum:

Our job as entrepreneurs is to be as close to that “Omniscient Educational Being” as possible--especially when it comes to that ever-scary niche, K-12 education. Why?

My mother is an architect. As a child, I would sometimes go to work with her and get to play with the fancy rulers, computers, and the blueprint machine. Year after year, I’d learn new tricks and new skills. However, I’m pretty sure my mother’s clients wouldn’t want me designing the mezzanine addition of their restaurant. I could fake things with intricate tape measures and talk about scale, but they kinda wanted an experienced architect to do their thing. Not me.

In the same way, we want--no--we need experts that deeply understand the educational system. They live it; they don't just throw cool things into the space. They can eventually shake up the whole dang system.

How? Well it’s the same both in the U.S. and Kenya, my edtechie friends. Be your market. Know it. Deeply. Especially when it comes to K-12 education--we’re not just thinking of making big bucks here. We have other intentions in mind. (Cue image from Braveheart.)

The entrepreneurs that are succeeding in each of these markets have done just that.

Let me give you a couple of examples:

Kickboard: I highly respect Kickboard because it was started by a teacher. I met the founder Jen Medbery when I was still a writing teacher and had the toughest time utilizing any type of grading system for my 105 students. I mentioned this to Jen, and she listened intently as I discussed what I needed to make things work with technology and grading. What Jen does when it comes to product development is delve deep into classrooms--and not just for five minutes. Her team gets out of the office and into classrooms for days, observing how often teachers are in front of a computer or tablet, how they use Kickboard’s product, and what the dev team could do to make their product more efficient and useful for teachers. She talks a lot about how they do this here.

Tusqee Systems: Tusqee Systems provides communications products to principals here in Kenya, focusing on technology already prevalent in the market--SMS. The founder, Boniface Githinji, got the idea because he remembered examples in which his school used radio advertisements to contact parents. Those schools spent over $600 on ads with messages that could’ve just been sent through SMS. Githinji himself seems quite in tune to what principals need. He sets up school accounts with the information already in the system before his team even demos at a school. Teachers hate wasted time during the school day and Githinji is quite sensitive to that. He also said that they get a lot of feedback from the principals using their products by “physically interacting and following up often.” Basically, Tusqee reads principals’ minds.

Both of these companies influenced me in the beginning of setting up my own company. What I learned from them was quite simple: A deep market understanding helps. A lot. It brings an intuition that other entrepreneurs can’t mirror. It builds trust.

I’ve spent the past eight years either in the classroom as a teacher myself or as a manager of teachers. I deeply know and understand the intricacies of the school year, what it feels like to be on your feet for nine hours a day, how to juggle lunch and lunch detention at the same time, and the systems that make your work go faster. I know what a parent’s going to say to me when I call home after their child forgets their homework. I know exactly what’s going to happen when I try to teach improper fractions for the first time. After teaching over 350 kids in the span of my time, I can now classify personality types and learning modalities of children in a flash.

And in the same way, I lived with a 7th grade boy in a hut in Africa. I know what he struggles with when he doesn’t have electricity to study, when he has to roll up his pants and swim through a river during rainy season just to get to school, when he has to bring the cows in, how often he sleeps at school in order to take review sessions with teachers. Being a teacher and living in a hut was the best market research I could’ve ever done for MPrep. It gave me a first-person perspective of my market, and every time I talk to teachers in rural Africa, they know that I get it.

These founders obviously had deep market understandings because of their backgrounds, but they also taught me something else. Pull from, don’t push things on the market. People know what they want--listen to them, provide them with something and then watch them; observe their actions scrupulously while using your prototype or even fully-launched product. They will show you how you should change things.

Watch your users every single day. Sit in a classroom with them. Sit in hundreds of classrooms; demo to hundreds of users, feel what it’s like to be them, and most importantly, listen. I teach a class of 7th and 8th graders for 2 hours a week using oSur student product, and it’s the best-spent two hours of the week. Stay connected to your users and stay as educationally omniscient as possible.

I’m not here to give advice; I just really like to observe what will and will not work. What I’ve learned the past two years as an edtech entrepreneur is that having a great idea means nothing. Deeply understanding why people need it and how it will work for them is everything.

The companies that have done and continue to understand their customers deeply will be the ones that are successful. There you have it, kids. Yet another reason why doing edtech in Kenya’s not so different from the U.S. after all. 

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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