Why the World’s Youngest Continent Got an Edtech Accelerator


Why the World’s Youngest Continent Got an Edtech Accelerator

By Tony Wan     Oct 10, 2017

Why the World’s Youngest Continent Got an Edtech Accelerator

Humanity’s future may well be in Africa, where 60 percent of the population are under the age of 25. Yet their prospects are perilous. In 2012, 30 million primary-age children (or 1 out of 5) in sub-Saharan Africa did not attend any school. Secondary schools can only take in 36 percent of students who finish primary school. In South Africa, the youth unemployment rate topped 50 percent in 2016.

The magnitude of the problem may be disheartening. Yet for Jamie Martin, the most daunting challenges also present the greatest opportunities. He is the founder of Injini, an edtech accelerator based in South Africa, that launched this year to support education startups from across the continent.

Today, Injini announced its first cohort of startups, comprised of teams from Ethiopia, Kenya, South Africa, South Sudan and Tanzania. The eight were chosen from 180 applications.

Previously a consultant and policy adviser to Michael Gove, the United Kingdom’s former Secretary of Education, Martin first explored growth opportunities for international education companies in Africa in 2015, after leaving his gig at Boston Consulting Group. That was when he saw firsthand “not only the scale of educational failure on the continent, but also the barriers to solving it,” he recalls via email.

It wasn’t for a lack of effort from educators who wanted to tackle the problem. Rather, he adds, “on speaking to local teachers and entrepreneurs, I realized the reason these innovations weren't getting off the ground was there was next to no early stage funding or support.”

The Injini accelerator is part of the Cape Innovation and Technology Initiative (CiTi), established in 1999 to support entrepreneurs in Cape Town. (CiTi also supports innovation “clusters” for the banking and travel industries.) Other financial backers for Injini include an European impact investor, as well as the South African arm of a major international foundation, Martin shares.

Each participating startup will receive roughly $40,000 in cash (U.S. dollars), along with additional support that Martin values at another $40,000. These services include access to an in-house “technical team to help support our startups,” Martin adds. “We’re going to hire four junior [developers] to help the teams build, and hire one senior-level developer.”

In return, Injini takes up to 15 percent of equity in each company.

“We want these businesses to tackle African education problems and create African educational solutions,” says Martin. “If you engage local entrepreneurs, they can get creative solutions that will work in the local context, in a way that is nearly impossible for a team based in another continent.” More specifically, he adds, “we need [solutions] that work when electricity fails, and things that don’t need much data.”

To that point, several teams are building solutions for “feature phones,” mobile devices that can connect to the internet but have limited storage and support for third-party apps. (Their capabilities are often described as a halfway between basic and smartphones.) Across Africa, feature phones make up 56 percent of the overall mobile phone market, according to technology research firm IDC.

Mtabe, one of the eight Injini startups and based in Tanzania, is building an offline search engine that allows students to text questions and receive answers on their phones. M-Shule, based in Kenya, claims it can deliver personalized lessons and performance analytics through SMS messages. Yo Books, a company from South Sudan, aims to deliver and distribute books on low-cost devices across remote regions.

Injini plans on running two six-month programs each year, both of which will culminate in a demo day for not only investors, but also local education ministries, foundations and private school chains. “Crucial to education startups is scaling their businesses, and that requires securing agreements with customers,” notes Martin. In Africa, “your customers can also be your investors. Sometimes a school chain will even buy out a company.”

Africa rarely features prominently in business and education headlines, particularly for Western-based media outlets. Yet the U.S. edtech industry got a peek when 2U, the publicly-traded American company that helps universities create online graduate-level programs, paid $103 million to acquire South African startup, GetSmarter. Its CEO, Sam Paddock, is an advisor at Injini.

Pearson, through its Affordable Learning Fund, has also invested in several Africa-based education companies. So has Village Capital, which runs regional competitions where entrepreneurs vie to win investments.

Here are the eight companies in Injini’s inaugural cohort:

  • Accelerated (Ethiopia): teacher training services that helps educators use technology effectively;
  • Early Bird (South Africa): game-based assessments that help parents & teachers track a child’s development;
  • M-Shule (Kenya): an adaptive learning platform designed for feature phones;
  • Mtabe (Tanzania): an offline search engine for students;
  • Syafunda (South Africa): multimedia math and science lessons for low-income communities;
  • Uthini (South Africa): a language learning app that connects learners with human tutors and a chatbot assistant;
  • Yo Books! (South Sudan): reading platform that distributes books on low-cost devices;
  • Zelda (South Africa): a platform that helps students explore educational and career opportunities.
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