Innovating Education In The Developing World

Education is a hot topic these days. At Startup Hook we’ve previously profiled a number of innovative companies that are challenging the status quo when it comes to the way education is provided in the 21st century. This is especially important in developing countries where the barriers to accessing a quality education are far greater.

One African company, Kytabu, is revolutionising the way that textbook materials are delivered to school children in impoverished communities, whilst overcoming problems of access, availability and affordability. In the process, it is tapping into existing trends towards digital learning, mobile tech and micro-pay SMS payment systems.

  • user pays / micro pay; pay only for the section that you need = low cost for students from struggling socio-economic backgrounds

How Is It Doing This?

Founded in 2012 by Kenyan tech entrepreneur Tonee Ndungu (the son of a teacher), Kytabu is a textbook subscription app. Ndungu was inspired to found Kytabu (from the word “Kitabu which is Swahili for ‘book’) after years of listening to his father complain about the difficulty parents had affording the textbooks that their children were required to use. Whilst primary education is provided free of charge by the Kenyan government, it has been estimated that the average family was spending as much as 45% of it’s limited disposable income on education costs. Over half of this was spending on textbooks. The end result is that as many as 74% of the students in an average Kenyan class do not have the required textbooks.

By enabling access to a low cost tablet, Kytabu makes it possible for students to rent books on an hourly, daily, weekly, monthly or annual basis via mobile payment plan. Users are able to pay for only the part of the book that they desire. This can be a particular chapter, or even individual pages. In Swahili this is called kadogo, which means “little economy”.

US Secretary of State John Kerry has been reported as saying that “…the genius in the application is the ability to micro-pay for byte-sized content only when it is needed.”

Screen Shot 2015-03-17 at 4.18.40 PM

Currently available to primary and high school students in Kenya, Kytabu provides access to all textbooks required under the Kenyan Education Curriculum. The books are pre-installed on a solar powered mobile tablet (the cost of which is subsidised), eliminating the need to download them to a network in a country where broadband is not widely available. The tablets, which are manufactured in India by Canadian firm Datawind, are available for purchase or lease.

The digital model of Kytabu eliminates printing and distribution costs, reducing the overall cost of textbooks by up to 80%.

To support Kytabu’s vision, in 2014 Microsoft made available an innovation grant under the banner of its 4Africa initiative. This enabled a pilot program to be established, accommodating an initial 7,300 students.

In addition to its core textbook app, Kytabu is also working to provide access to:

  • Audio Books: An audio library of text-heavy literature content; especially useful for group learning
  • Educational Games: Learning games that improve retention over reading alone; portal for local developers to create games with a focus on Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM)
  • Exams: An online examination portal, including access to past exams

Kenya is one of the most significant and fastest growing economies in Africa. Its education system looks after approximately 7.5 million children formally enrolled in schools, taught by 250,000 teachers. It is estimated that a further 7.2 million children are involved in informal learning environments; i.e. home and community based “under-the-tree” schooling, which is especially prevalent in Kenya’s rural areas.

The Kenyan market is a sizeable one, and that is where the revolution has started. However, with the company’s plans to expand it is likely it won’t end there.

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