Accessible and Affordable EdTech with Eneza Education's Wambura Kimunyu

March 11, 2021

In this episode, we talk edtech with Wambura Kimunyu, the Group CEO of Eneza Education.

Throughout the series of episodes, we’re exploring the entrepreneurs in start-ups digitizing informal and fragmented industries on the continent. And for Eneza Education to remain affordable and accessible, it means distributing text-based content to basic mobile phones via SMS, and acquiring customers via radio advertising. We talk to Wambura about building a product for low-income students - 70% of whom live in rural areas, the content development and distribution process, balancing available technologies with the needs of their customers, how to price for low-income consumers, and more.

[04:59] - First question, who are the customers that Eneza Education is serving?

[06:08] - A deep dive into Eneza Education's products - the SMS-based Shipavu291 and Ask-A-Teacher.

[12:20] - On the content development process and launching in a new country.

[14:29] - On expansion - what role do development agencies and foundations play here?

[16:22] - Eneza Education's pricing strategy.

[20:46] - How is the company measuring impact, and what of impact are they creating?

[22:26] - How does Eneza Education build their product with restraint? Why don't they have a mobile app?

This episode is part of our conversational series sponsored by MFS Africa. MFS Africa's competition is with cash, and throughout this series, we'll feature other startups and entrepreneurs who are digitizing, better organizing, and aggregating analog and fragmented industries.

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Wambura Kimunyu [00:11]: I would tell people we are SMS and you could just tell their eyes are glazing over, because SMS is very unsexy. It just sounds like seriously, you couldn't do anything more exciting, more visual, more tactile, more auditory, whatever it is?

Justin Norman [00:25]: That's Wambura Kimunyu, the Group CEO of Eneza Education.

Wambura Kimunyu [00:30]: But there are still some challenges when it comes to accessing the web. You have to have a device, you have to have data, you have a path to the internet, and you have to have electricity. And all these things existing in one place, I think, people take for granted.

Justin Norman [00:47]: Eneza Education, as an edtech company that digitizes local curriculum into bite-sized modules. Based in Nairobi, and in addition to Kenya, Eneza is currently serving over 2 million students across Côte d'Ivoire, Rwanda, and Ghana. Their curriculum is text-based content sent out to users by SMS...

Wambura Kimunyu [01:04]: ... To any mobile phone however basic. So we see our role as providing opportunities for young people within Africa, to access quality educational resources at an affordable price.

Justin Norman [01:21]: In this series of episodes, our exploration of the startups and entrepreneurs digitizing analog and fragmented industries, we've generally focused on a bit more technologically advanced startups. But in this episode, we explore a business servicing millions of students in East and West Africa, 70% of whom are in rural areas, using basic mobile technology.

Justin Norman [01:40]: It's an important point of emphasis, especially when moving from analog to digital, that when building products that take into consideration the realities of the customers you're serving, in this case, low-income families at the very last mile, those products will likely be pretty low tech for now. But in this episode, we'll hear more from Wambura about how the company thinks about growing and developing along with their users, about their approach to content development, partnerships, expansion and pricing, and much more.

Justin Norman [02:05]: Before we start, we'd like to thank MFS Africa for their sponsorship of this conversational series. When we talk about a topic like education, a public good provided by the government, it does raise questions about the role of different kinds of financing across certain sectors on the continent, and in environments where there are market failures. And that's something I talked to Anne-Marie Chidzero about. She is the Chief Investment Officer for FSD Africa Investments, whose biggest shareholder through the development agency UK Aid, is the UK government. FSD Africa is focused on the development of financial markets in particular, and their role involves taking a wider approach than just investment capital, in order to impact and improve the sector.

Anne-Marie Chidzero [02:40]: It's really about enabling the blending of capital. We do expect to get a return on our investments, but we are mandated to take potentially more risk than other investors, because we see that there could be a significant impact of investing that capital by its ability to crowd in not only commercial capital, but enhance what is being funded potentially from the public sector. So the better good of what we do, is really to try to leverage the fact that we can take that risk in order to bring more capital to bear on the investments that we make. It's really the concept of pioneering new solutions that are early in their evolution, or in their execution rather. And so there are risks associated with that, which could be a regulatory risk because it's something that's new, or there are certain barriers that the entity needs to address in order to expand.

Anne-Marie Chidzero [03:48]: We recognize that the solution is not only about capital. There are many other problems in the markets that need to be addressed. And so we do put resources through my colleagues in other departments in FSD Africa, that really focus on helping the policymaker to understand the particular innovation, to understand what it means from a regulatory perspective, et cetera. So it's that kind of early-stage risk capital, that we are wanting to be able to provide, to test these innovative solutions that might solve a particular market failure. And then provide an opportunity for the promoters to demonstrate the case that would then lend itself to other investors having better appetite, or higher appetite to participate.

Justin Norman [04:38]: We'll hear a bit more from Anne-Marie and FSD Africa later in the show. But for now without any further ado, here's Eneza Education's, Wambura Kimunyu.

VO: You're listening to The Flip, the podcast exploring contextually relevant stories from entrepreneurs around Africa.

Justin Norman [04:59]: I saw a stat that said that 70% of your subscribers are in rural areas. Can you talk a little bit about the customers, or the students that you're serving, in terms of the school and the access to education that they have, and then also connectivity. All of the things also, I think, that go into the product and the service that you're offering. Can you just talk a little bit about the environment in which you're operating, especially amongst your rural users?

Wambura Kimunyu [05:24]: Our key customers, you are right, are 70% rural customers. And then we have the rest perry urban or what we call poor urban users. They're economically constrained, they're farmers, they are blue-collar workers, but they're hardworking people with big aspirations for their children. And these are the families we are excited to cater to and cater for and provide, as best as we can, resources to help them advance the academic fortunes and ambitions of their children. Because they want quality education, because they understand that a quality education now will mean a better life in the future.

Justin Norman [06:08]: And in terms of the product itself, can we talk a little bit about what exactly is it? Especially the ways in which the product is built and distributed, to make sure that you're really catering to this group of users that you just described.

Wambura Kimunyu [06:23]: Our flagship product is an SMS product, or a USSD product, *291#, and you get a menu and you're able to navigate that. That's one of the ways we deliver our product and the other is SMS. In both cases, you do not need access to the internet to access content. And that's very important to us, because we want to make sure that we are able to reach all and any of the 91% of African households, who have access to at least a 2G mobile phone.

Wambura Kimunyu [06:54]: We've digitized the local curriculum. We get our curriculum from the local curriculum body, the government curriculum body in Kenya, that would be Kenyan Curriculum Development, in Rwanda that will be the Rwanda Education Board, so on and so forth. We take this curriculum and we break it down systematically into bite-size modules. On mobile of course, you need to design it in a very particular way. We understand that on mobile, especially the kind of mobile phone that we're looking to service, has got a small screen, so brevity is important. We get right to the point, we take a subject, or a topic and summarize it in three SMS, for example.

Wambura Kimunyu [07:36]: So if we're teaching you about osmosis, there'll be three succinct SMSs about osmosis that you will receive. After that, you will receive five questions to test the content you have just consumed. And those will have an increasing level of difficulty. So the first one will be simple enough and then by the end, we'll ask the most difficult question. That's our flagship product.

Wambura Kimunyu [08:01]: We also have a long side this, another functionality within our platform, which is very important to us, which is what we call our Ask-A-Teacher teacher platform. Ask-A-Teacher, enables learners to ask any questions. When they're in the process of landing on our platform, they can ask questions if they do not understand what they're learning. So they send in a question, we send that question to a teacher working in the background. That teacher will respond to the questions, send it back to our platform, and we'll send the response to the learner. We try to respond to each of the questions that we receive in this way, within five minutes. So far, we've managed to respond to about 80% of the questions within five minutes. And we are currently servicing between 70 at the low end and 100,000 such questions every week in Kenya alone.

Justin Norman [09:00]: Wow. And all of these questions are answered by actual teachers, it's not a chatbot or anything like that, is that correct?

Wambura Kimunyu [09:06]: Yes. Right now, they're answered by an actual teacher.

Justin Norman [09:10]: And how many teachers do you have that are working behind the scenes to be able to answer those questions so quickly?

Wambura Kimunyu [09:15]: So that number fluctuates a little bit, but it is between at the peak, we could have up to 80, but usually we sit around 50.

Justin Norman [09:23]: And so these two products and please correct me if I'm wrong, but they're meant to augment the classroom, right? They're not entirely a substitute for traditional classroom, in-person learning, is that correct?

Wambura Kimunyu [09:36]: We do not see ourselves as a replacement for the traditional classroom, we see ourselves as supplementary. We help children fortify and concretize what they've learned in the classroom. That said, a lot of times again, because of our target audience and our customers, oftentimes you will see that a student has been sent home from school because they could not afford the school fees.

Wambura Kimunyu [10:03]: And during the period they're at home, we'll receive back enough anecdotes to know, to try and keep up with what they should be learning. They use our platform to sort of follow on because we, again, follow the curriculum as it goes through the year. But that said, I will repeat, we're not looking to replace the classroom, or trying to supplement it.

Justin Norman [10:27]: Yeah. Absolutely. You talked a little bit earlier about... Because of the nature of how the content is distributed and the devices that you're using, focusing on making sure that it's simple, concise language, are there other things that you take into consideration or lessons that you and your team have learned over the years, about the type of language you use? Is all of the content in English or is it in local languages? Or are there other things like that, that are relevant from a localization perspective, in particular?

Wambura Kimunyu [10:59]: So first of all, our content is in English, in Kenya, in French in Côte d'Ivoire and English in Rwanda. So we use the language of instruction to communicate our content or for our content. That said, on a platform Ask-A-Teacher because students are able to write in freeform, then we receive questions in whatever language, or in whatever form that they choose to write. So we have some Kiswahili, some mix of English and Kiswahili there, as well.

Wambura Kimunyu [11:29]: And what we've learned though, most of all, is that our platform has high value during exam time, during exam periods. So what we try to do in response to that, is sort of situate and create our product, or our platform in such a way that it is helpful, is responsive to students who want to concretize their existing knowledge, who want to practice, who want to see whether they understand concepts. So this in itself is in response to understanding what value our customers gain from our platform.

Wambura Kimunyu [12:05]: So we have a lot of what we call Shipavu tests, which because students come to our platform and say, "Okay, so we want a mock test to test our ability to remember our understanding of this concept." So we do a lot of that because of what we've learned from our users over the years.

Justin Norman [12:20]: I read that when you, in planning to launch in Rwanda, you had to develop over 5,000 SMS lessons. Can you talk a little bit about it? I'd be very interested as it relates to opening up a new market or expanding into a new market, what work does it take and what is the process like to develop the curriculum and to digitize rather, the curriculum so that the platform or the product is ready to go in a new country like Rwanda?

Wambura Kimunyu [12:45]: We digitized actually 8,000 lessons in Rwanda to get into that country. And that's based on our philosophy that we don't want to sort of take what is in Kenya and just simply deployed it in Rwanda. We want to base our content on the curriculum in that country. And that's because again, our target audience are usually in the public school system. And what we want to do is help them succeed in that public school system. And the best way to do that, is to provide them the resources that are used in their public school learning process already. So we've taken a conscious decision to do that.

Wambura Kimunyu [13:22]: So we get into a country and the first thing we do, is acquire the official curriculum as it has been designed by the curriculum board in that country. We have an internal team that maps out what the different modules are, what the different topics are across every class and topic.

Wambura Kimunyu [13:42]: And then we take this plan and we distribute it to outside teachers. Teachers who are in service. And we commission them to develop... We train them first of all and how to develop this in this content and summarize it into bite-size modules. And then we commission it out to them. And so we have again, somewhere between 50 and 150 teachers working on this content together, over a period of time and digitizing it. And then it comes in and it's edited by a different set of teachers, so that this group of 150 includes the developers and then there's editors, and then it is reviewed. And then we go to the curriculum body for a final review and then we deploy.

Justin Norman [14:29]: Yeah. And I also saw the initial launch in Rwanda was in partnership with the MasterCard Foundation. And initially the service is going to be free in Rwanda. So I'd love to talk about, from a business perspective in particular, given that education is obviously something provided by the government and is a public good, and given the type of students that you're trying to serve, those who are low income and in rural areas for example, is launching a free service to start an important part of your expansion plan, because you can build parents' trust at the beginning before you charge? Or what is the sort of thought process behind again, from a business model perspective, how you go into a new market and if a partnership like with the MasterCard Foundation is important, why is it important to be able to roll out with them?

Wambura Kimunyu [15:19]: So the partnership with MasterCard Foundation was very timely and useful, because we were going into Rwanda during COVID. So it was a special time and a special response to a special circumstance. All governments in Africa were asking themselves, how do we respond in this particular time when children are at home, because of COVID and they cannot learn? The Rwanda Education Board and the government in Rwanda had deployed radio lessons as had many governments I think, across Africa and around the world. Because that's your most rudimentary and most accessible technology to low-income parents.

Wambura Kimunyu [15:58]: And what happened was, we made the suggestion that whereas radio is one way, we could use our Ask-A-Teacher feature, which I mentioned earlier, to allow students, learners to ask questions based on the radio content that they were listening to. So we got into a partnership with the Rwanda Education Board and MasterCard Foundation were gracious enough to sponsor that.

Wambura Kimunyu [16:22]: In other circumstances, we actually want to typically, despite the fact that we are targeting low-income parents, our view is that treating them as customers, gives them agency and means that they are the primary person we are always facing. We are looking to understand whether they're satisfied with our product, with our learners, and learning, and whether they are seeing value in our product and if not, what we can do to improve our product. And so when we situated them as customers and we present the product to them at a price we think that they can afford, we believe that we are centering them in our delivery of this resource. So in new markets, our conventional, our usual way is to go in with a paid product.

Justin Norman [17:16]: And can you talk a little bit about, how do you land on the price? So balancing I suppose multiple considerations as it relates to, A, something that your customers can afford, but then B, also, something that perhaps at a requisite volume makes the business a viable business at scale. How do you balance those perhaps competing objectives?

Wambura Kimunyu [17:38]: My current price is actually based on research we did of our database in 2019. We had previously been charging 1.5 US cents, and then we moved two US cents and we wanted to test whether we could increase that price, that was mid-2019. And so we did a survey to determine the capacity and willingness to pay. And we went through a few iterations and we determined... We had actually wanted to increase our price up to five US cents, but we wanted to understand what our customers could afford and what we would be able to charge in a way that is sustainable. And our survey methodology landed us on three US cents, which made sense for both ourselves and our customers.

Justin Norman [18:20]: And then from a billing perspective, obviously Kenya with M-Pesa and at a glance, I think the other markets that you're in are also pretty predominant mobile money market. So is that a prerequisite in terms of being able to charge your customers through mobile money, to sell digital curriculum like this to rural users?

Wambura Kimunyu [18:48]: Actually, I think that charging at our price point, the three US cents a day, this is three Kenya shillings a day, it would be quite inefficient to charge via mobile money. Because this is a micropayment. So the wallet we use is people's airtime. That's how they pay us. We collect from their airtime, which makes it possible for us to work almost in every country, actually in every country.

Wambura Kimunyu [19:14]: And it does mean that one of the ways in which we work is in partnership with telcos because we situate ourselves as a content product available via telco. We have other ways in which we deliver our product, but that's a primary one because this is again, it requires a micropayment and you want to lower the barriers for payment as much as possible.

Justin Norman [19:36]: But when you go into these new markets... So obviously the telco partnerships are important, the education board or whatever the equivalent terminology is in each of these markets are important. And are they important also from a customer acquisition perspective? Or, how is it then when you're going into a new market, that you get the word out about the platform? Is it through the telco partnership, or is it also through the schools that the parents are learning about this new service that they can use?

Wambura Kimunyu [20:06]: We're a B2C product, right? So we haven't typically used schools as a major way in which we reach our customers. We do sometimes go into schools and have conversations, but it is as part of something else that we're doing in the schools. Say working with a team to run a quiz competition. But mostly, we acquire our customers through the channels that they use for communication, or to receive communication, which is radio and SMS. Because remember that we have a very particular audience in mind and they have particular ways in which they engage with the world.

Justin Norman [20:46]: And from an impact perspective, how do you measure the impact of the platform and in terms of both volume, the number of users, or active users that you have? And then also, is there ways that you are measuring, for example, the increase in performance of those who are using the platform, compared to a control group? Are there any metrics or data points there?

Wambura Kimunyu [21:11]: Okay, so this is a work in progress. We have measured in the past. We've had a study we quote from 2016, which we did in Eastern Kenya were we took two schools side-by-side and gave one access to our platform and the other one uses a control group. And we found that there was a 22.7% increase in the learning outcomes and performance on our platform, for those who used our platform. We measure on an ongoing basis, we measure engagement rate, and an internal metric, which we call weekly reliance, which is to say, we measure those who keep coming back and using our platform because we use as a proxy for the relevance of our platform and for them.

Wambura Kimunyu [21:53]: And then to measure actual learning outcomes, as I said, this is a work in progress. We've just now begun to give a baseline tests to everybody who comes onboard onto our platform. And what that gives us, is a sense of where they are as they're coming into the platform. And then what we plan to do over the next six months, nine months going forward, is to measure, or set benchmarks, to understand whether they are growing, so that we can move away from nice vanity metrics, to actually ask ourselves, what are the learning outcomes of using our platform?

Justin Norman [22:26]: This is going to be a very... Well, I hope it doesn't appear like a naive question, but I'll ask it anyway. I talked to in my work and on this podcast, a lot of people who are certainly at the forefront of the tech industry. And so often we hear about apps and the newest developments. And I sometimes question and wonder if a lot of products are, I suppose, too far ahead of the market.

Justin Norman [22:50]: So I'd love to get your perspective on, how do you sort of withstand the temptation to, for example, develop a mobile app? Because the product is pretty, it's light in terms of tech, but so often I think people get excited about using sexy technology, but that's not what's going to solve the problem. So can you talk a little bit about that from a product perspective? What is that process or thought process like internally?

Wambura Kimunyu [23:12]: So this is so interesting. First of all, in 2019, having conversations because we were trying to figure out whether we're going into a new round of fundraising. And I would tell people we are SMS and you could just tell their eyes are glazing over, because SMS is very unsexy. It just sounds like seriously, you couldn't do anything more exciting, more visual, more tactile, more auditory, whatever it is?

Wambura Kimunyu [23:38]: But 2020, really demonstrated where we are and not necessarily where we will be next year, or five years from now, but there are still some challenges when it comes to accessing the web. Because you have to have a device, you have to have data, you have to have a path to the internet, and you have to have electricity. And all these things existing in one place, I think people take for granted, especially just beyond the middle-class that availability.

Wambura Kimunyu [24:08]: And the way we've tried to resist that pressure, is to keep our eyes on who our customer is. There is a challenge for us, because I do not want to be left behind when my customer crosses over to owning a web-enabled device and what that will mean for their journey and what products will be available to them. So we're always watching that.

Wambura Kimunyu [24:34]: But we have said to ourselves internally, and we keep repeating this to ourselves. This person is our customer because they need and value our product and if we provide them with the right solution, they will stay with us. And so we have committed to where they are and right now on their journey, but we are also for what it's worth Justin, we're looking ahead and thinking about whether it would be two, three years from now and beginning to plan to be there when they get there.

Justin Norman [25:04]: So what might that look like? I mean, are there certain things that you intend to test, or is that question too provocative and we're getting ahead of ourselves a little bit?

Wambura Kimunyu [25:13]: I mean, to me, and this is my opinion, right, now this is how I see it. There's a path to the internet and your gateway right now, once people get a web-enabled phone, or a data phone is through social apps like WhatsApp, maybe Telegram, and whatever there will be two or three years from now. So we need to begin to see whether we can insert ourselves along that path.

Wambura Kimunyu [25:37]: And then of course we do have by the way, a web platform. Shupavu Web exists. It just hasn't been a priority, but we're beginning to think, okay so how do we enrich this and who would be the first person to get here? Who we are serving now, who would be the first person to get here and how do we welcome them? What kind of content will they want to see? Yes. So we're already thinking that. We're thinking about the path, and then we're thinking about the channel, but we're also of course, asking ourselves questions about the business. Because when you move, then you also need to be thinking about not just your product, but how you engage with your customers and how you exchange value with your customers.

Justin Norman [26:17]: Absolutely. I think I've, especially in this context of this sort of digitization of informal industries, series of conversations that I've been having, it's almost, I mean, we talked about SMS being an unsexy product. But in general, a lot of the answers to these questions are pretty unsexy answers as well. It's just talk to your customers and know your customers. And when we're talking about mass-market consumers in Africa, a lot of times it may not be sexy companies that people are building, but yeah, if you talk to them and you just apply, the sort of customer-centric, product-centric ethos that all good companies should have, then that's what you ought to be doing.

Wambura Kimunyu [26:56]: Talk to them and respect them. Sort of say, okay, so these people, they are not unable to give me feedback because they are poor. They actually know what their problems are and they have some pretty interesting ideas about how to solve them. So yes, talk to them and respect them as well.

Wambura Kimunyu [27:13]: You know what? One of the things that I really would like us to do more of, is to center the parent and the student. And to understand that they know what they want, and they are the best people to ask about what kind of education, and what kind of educational resources, what kind of problems they have, and how we can solve their problems.

Wambura Kimunyu [27:36]: And I think that in many ways, we are all of us sometimes so deep in solving the problem, that it is easy to lose the vision, to see the thing, the possibility of the thing that we're doing for the individual. One of the things that I keep telling people, is that for me, impact is not so much on a grand scale, but on an individual scale. That I'm able to provide this practice tool, this supplementary tool that helps a D student move and become a C student. And because they got a C, they're then able to move into secondary school or a decent secondary school, and because of that, it improves their economic opportunities in the future. Opens up possibilities for them personally, for their family and for their communities. And I think every time that we think about this big problems, and there are problems in the education sector in Africa, nobody's saying there aren't, that I wish we would sort of take time to engage with the people who are at the center of this problem, and who are experiencing these challenges, because they have so much to teach us. And then there's so much value in listening to them and watching them journey along. This really for me, is at the heart of everything.

Justin Norman [29:01]: Just out of interest, does anything come to mind in that realm of something that surprised you, or maybe it was a hypothesis that you had, that you realized was wrong once you guys talked to your users and they taught you something different than what you were expecting?

Wambura Kimunyu [29:15]: I mean, think about what I said about our pricing, right? We could have decided because one of the options was, should we reduce our price because our people can't afford it? Remember we're charging two US cents? We then went out into the market and discovered actually, no, we can charge three US cents, if they give us back this feedback. And at that point, we were hearing some feedback, people telling us, "Okay, you have a low-income audience, or target market, are you sure you should even be charging them?" Or "Are you sure you shouldn't be charging them less?" I am completely gratified that we went and asked them, because their answer was different.

Justin Norman [29:55]: Thanks again, to MFS Africa for their sponsorship of this episode. Earlier in the show we heard from Anne-Marie Chidzero, the Chief Investment Officer with FSD Africa investments about the role of different kinds of financing, to support ventures that are trying to solve for market failures. And just as Eneza Education is playing an increasingly vital role in the lives of students during COVID, so too are companies in digital payments. While FSD Africa's investment in MFS Africa predates the pandemic, Anne-Marie and I also talked about the reinforced logic behind their investment.

Anne-Marie Chidzero [30:23]: We are supporting financial market development in order to alleviate poverty. And we all know that people are sending money across borders to their family and friends, but the cost of doing that is still very high. And so part of the market failure that has led to that high cost, is that these remittance agents are not interoperable. And so MFS Africa provided a solution to that. And we felt that interoperability was going to help increase the ability of people to send and receive money, which was important as a way to provide finance, or provide cash to your loved ones that need it. And to reduce the cost of that, which was important because the cost of doing that is as high, but also to make it instantaneous. So it's not a payment that is made and then you're kind of waiting a number of days before you receive it. So MFS Africa offered a solution to that.

Anne-Marie Chidzero [31:27]: During COVID, we were very concerned that remittances will fall. And it's interesting to see that that wasn't the case at all. In fact, it just proved the case that we do need to move away from cash into digital, and we do need to find innovative solutions to make sure that there is more use cases for digital, so that we move towards a more digital world, where businesses and consumers can operate smoothly over a digital platform. And I think MFS Africa is going to be part of that story.

Justin Norman [32:07]: That's it for this episode of The Flip. And in fact, this interview with Wambura, is our final interview of this conversational series of episodes. However, during our first episode of this series, we mentioned that we will still bring you the regular retrospective conversation that I have with my b-mic Sayo Folawiyo at the end of each of our narrative episodes. And that is what we will be releasing for the next episode of The Flip. So please do hit subscribe on your favorite podcast app and follow us on social media @theflipafrica. Thanks as always for listening. And we'll see you next week.