Tech tools can solve Nigeria’s 80 million human capital challenge – Shagaya
From founding one of Nigeria’s biggest e-commerce companies, Konga, Sim Shagaya, now the founder and CEO of uLesson, certainly knows first-hand the promise of leveraging technology to address Nigerian’s many developmental problems. In this interview with BusinessDay’s Frank Eleanya, Shagaya explains how using digital tools can help the country resolve the problems in human capital development.
What was it like for you moving from e-commerce to education? Was it like moving from a bad relationship to a new environment?
I wouldn’t say it was a bad relationship. It was an incredible experience. We built an incredible brand that continues to function till today. I took a lot from that experience that – along with many things – have prepared me for what we are looking to do now. I think that there are some foundational problems that we face on the continent, some of them are infrastructural, but I think the most pressing ones are human capital related. The ones that are human capital related are around healthcare, financial inclusion, and education. We have seen a lot of progress in addressing the financial inclusion part. There is a lot of people doing incredible work in financial inclusion. Healthcare is a special beast. But I think there is no other sector at this point that is more ready, where you can apply these powerful tools that digital has brought to us, than education. There are so many tools that are available to us now that were not available when I started Konga. Even though the telco networks still leaves a lot to be desired, but they are doing a lot to try to improve that. I think that one thing they have done is that they have left in their wake, over the past decade, this massive install base of cell phones. These are incredibly powerful tools that come with all kinds of things; front camera, back camera, microphone, screens where you can do high resolution videos, and storage has gotten so much cheaper. Today, there are SD cards you can find for 64GB and 128GB. These were tools that were not available before. When you take all of these in totality, they are going to allow us at uLesson to start out with a product that I think is revolutionary, and to build on top of that going into the future to create really quality education that is affordable for Africa.
I think education is the foundational issue that we face right now on the continent. Everything stems from that.
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You have always found yourself in sectors that have a long way to go in terms of maturity. What is your drive?
Education is something that I care deeply about. My happiest moments have been in front of a blackboard. Whether that was teaching as a graduate student or as a graduate teaching assistant when I was doing my Masters. When I was with Konga, I took a year off to a university in Cape Town. Teaching and that whole universe that surrounds it is what I am passionate about. I tried to actually do this before Konga. In 2008 and 2009, I had two choices; either to pursue e-commerce or to do something that uses technology to address the educational problem. But the tools were not ready.
These tools that we have built up are very powerful. The West and the rest of the world are starting to realise some of the moral and social negatives that come with some of these tools with respect to privacy and the ability to interfere with politics. Like every technological tool on the other side, there is an opportunity to do good.
Education in the context of Africa is bad. In the United States, teacher to student ratio is about 1-10 and they are even complaining. In India, teacher-to-student ratio is 1-19. That is a really bad situation and any Indian will tell you. In parts of Nigeria, teacher-to-student ratio is 1-70 and even the one has not really received the training that they have to reach the students.
I am part Plateau and Delta, and in those two states as in much of Nigeria you see teacher absenteeism is a huge problem. When you dive into it you find that the problems are as little as the teacher has nowhere to stay in a village. In some parts of this country, 90 percent of the housing are mud houses. So you want to take somebody that have been trained in engineering, in Physics, Chemistry or Microbiology and you want them to stay in a mud home. Some of these factors drive teacher-absenteeism. The net-effect of all of these is that young people are not getting what they need. The students are not getting what they need and this is against the backdrop of a population that is exploding. We are adding more babies today in Nigeria in terms of nominal count than all of Western Europe.
If you look at the government’s budget for education; whether at LGA, state or federal, they all have various responsibilities, the fiscal allocation to education, recurring or capital expenditure assuming that all of the spends is efficient, there is no way for us to get the 80 million people that we need to get into classrooms over the next ten years. It is simply not possible. The only way to do it is to use digital tools. That makes for a profound opportunity. A big facet of that opportunity is that it is a commercial opportunity. I think that it is not just about doing good, it is also an opportunity to do well. There is no other way to address the problem. For me and my colleagues this makes it worthwhile to put in a large part of our lives and capital and effort and energy to fix this problem.
What we are building in uLesson is that we have found the very best teachers – many of them young people that aced WAEC, JAMB, these are geniuses that we found. They are able to explain complex concepts like Newton’s Law of Motion, the Citric Acid Cycle in biology, concepts that are foundations for all kinds of professions. They take these concepts and break them down in fun and entertaining ways using animation built on digital. This allows young people to learn and remember things in a way that even folks in the West couldn’t with textbooks. We then take this content and apply it to digital to make it infinitely available and affordable.
What are the criteria you have to recruiting the teachers?
There are three legs to what we are doing. The three are technology, media and academics. We are combining all of these quite delicately but boldly to create this product. The technology bit is what my experience at Konga has always been. For media, we all know that Nigeria is the continental centre for media. On the academic side, we have found talents or geniuses who were once languishing in different corners of this country. We took some of these people and gave them income levels that they could never have dreamed of and said “Here is our challenge; can we digitise and create a library here that is unlike anything that has been built on this continent before?” we started this a year ago, so it has taken us a year to build out this library. So it is not just the ability to pass exams which all these people have, but the ability to break down incredible concepts.
Africa as a continent has not really participated in the creation of the body of knowledge of science as much as we should have. That is not because we do not have creative people here. The West and the East have done a huge amount of work in creating this vast body of knowledge. Because of the way schools in Nigeria were built up, kids deify science like it is something that sits apart from them. It is in the realm of God, but this is a body of knowledge that have been created by men. So what we are trying to do is to have an African face teaching these contents, use African context to teach these concepts and to do it in a way that is fun. Fun learning in most public schools is an oxymoron; you shouldn’t have fun while you are learning. But that is not the case at all. They say what you learn with pleasure, you never forget. It is the driving dictum for uLesson; we try to make learning fun. By the time we got to the beginning of the second quarter of 2019, we started to see that we could actually do this. The level of understanding and comprehension we are seeing among young people, which can be quantitatively measured by testing, is encouraging.
Do you think you are going to require a lot of partners to make this a success and how are you going about this?
In terms of going to the market, we are going to be testing out every channel. Our primary objective is to get to the customer. This is what we are trying to do. In seriousness, we have been approached by one state government that said “How can we use this?” We have been approached by schools that said “How can we get this into the core learning experience?” But we have also been approached by parents that have said, “How can I get this into my home?” We have also been approached by tutors, lesson teachers. All of these stakeholders are going to play a role in what we are trying to build. We are going to try and get to that customer, not just through the schools, or through the government agencies, but also through the lesson teacher who has a relationship with the family. All of these are going to be channels for us to get to the market.
There are partners like TLcom that have invested in our business. It has been an incredible boost of support. When I started this journey, I thought I was going to do this alone, but this partner said, “No, we want to join you on this journey. Here is some fuel to allow you to do this.” That is another partner that has proven to be critical. But as we go on, there is now an environment that wasn’t available at the beginning of Konga. The telcos are much more robust; they are much more open to the application layer of their ecosystem. Ten years ago, it was all about voice, then we started moving to data, and now are looking to the application layer. The telcos have built pipes that span the continent. The question now is, “What goes through those pipes?” “What are the applications that flow through those pipes?” Our application will be one of those.
Now that you have investors, how are you positioning yourself not to come under pressure to make returns, giving that what you are building is for the long term?
I will actually challenge the assumption; we are a commercial entity from Day 1, so the economics of this business has to make sense. Fortunately, the nature of this business suggest it should make sense. We have had 60 years of structured foreign aid or something that looks like foreign aid trying to attack this human capital problems of education and health care, it hasn’t worked. Attacking this problem has to have a huge private sector commercial approach to it.