With a bit of “luck, good timing and hard work,” Kenyan entrepreneur Tonee Ndungu has been attracting attention both locally and abroad for his innovative solution that makes educational content affordable and accessible to middle and low income families.
By Annika Burgess
The idea was hatched back in 2012 when Ndungu’s father, a local school head teacher, came to him with a problem: “I can afford to build a school for them, I can afford the teachers, but I can’t afford to get them textbooks.”
It was right then and there that they came up with the idea for Kytabu, a subscription application for a low cost solar powered tablet that allows users to rent books – in full or by pages and chapters – using mobile money, while also incorporating an encryption system to protect publishers’ content. It’s a model, Ndungu says, that lowers the cost of acquiring textbooks by up to 72%.
“Right there I said ‘let’s come up with a solution that solves that problem that works to the economy of scale. Let’s make this bulk buying of textbooks a micropayment system. Let’s figure out how to do it.’”
At the time Ndungu believed the idea was ‘distant but logical,’ but fast-forward only a couple of years and Kytabu has been successfully tried and tested, attracted global investment, multiple partners, and was even praised by US Secretary of State John Kerry who said: “The genius in the application is the ability to micro-pay for bite-sized content only when it is needed.”
Kytabu, which is also accessible on a desktop, allows primary and high school students in Kenya to access all the textbooks in the national education curriculum as digital learning material without having to download them on a broadband network. As the books all come pre-installed on the subsidised tablet, students can lease them directly from the device without a mobile network gateway.
Growing up dyslexic, using audio books as his main tool for absorbing information, Ndungu has ensured that Kytabu also comes with an audio book library, which he says “brings storytelling into the classroom in about 18 local languages, creating a more personalised experience.” It also comes with learning games. Extra downloadable features include a virtual classroom, which is “like WhatsApp for class,” past tests and exams, and also external content such as material from Khan Academy and National Geographic.
Stating that 74% of students in an average Kenyan class do not have the required textbooks, the aim is to reach 200,000 users when the product launches in May 2015, then at least half of the country’s students – that’s around 7.5 million in formal schools and another 7.2 million in informal learning environments – in five years’ time.
Despite the success of Kytabu so far, Ndungu admits that launching a startup in Kenya hasn’t been easy. “There were many challenges. For instance technology, we couldn’t get what we needed in Kenya, but we got around that eventually. It was also harder than we expected to find the right kind of investor. For many startups it’s not the money that’s the problem it’s the right kind of money,” he says.
Ndungu is a big advocate for local entrepreneurs, providing advice and support through his organisation Nailab – a startup accelerator that offers an entrepreneurship programme with a focus on growing innovative technology driven ideas. But currently, he says, there is a struggle to compete with the “very big influx of expatriates, especially the Ivy League type,” who are coming to Kenya to take advantage of the investment opportunities. “They are Harvard trained so they know what they’re doing and they get all the investments. They become the big fish in the small pond and it becomes very difficult for many Kenyans to get up there and say: ‘I can do the same thing.’ It’s almost a Silicon Valley that’s being driven by a global movement rather by Kenyans’ desires to solve problems, which is pissing a lot of Kenyans off.”
He hopes the Kytabu story will inspire his fellow entrepreneurs because, as stated on his website: “The beauty of Africa and the innovation here is that everyone is always hungry to do it better.”
Hear more from Tonee Ndungu at the eLearning Africa Conference: May 20 – 22, 2015, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia