Founder Story

Democratizing Access to Education in Africa: An Interview with Sim Shagaya, CEO of uLesson

By John Azubuike, Senior Associate at Owl Ventures

John Azubuike Sim Shagaya

I still remember my kindergarten classroom in a small school just outside of Port Harcourt, Nigeria. Pupils wore green uniforms, and I sat in the second seat of the second row of a classroom where the desks were arranged four by two, always within the gaze of the disciplinarian at the head of the class. In those early days, education was synonymous with rote memorization. I remember being disengaged, ineffectual (and a bit mischievous) when it came to remembering the alphabet, the ordinal numbers and the days of the week.

So, when Owl Ventures had the privilege of leading uLesson’ Series A, I was thrilled to be a part of uLesson and its mission of creating millions of engaged and effective learners on the African continent. The uLesson platform puts engaging educators, entertaining lessons, illuminating illustrations, and adaptive assessments into African children’s pockets.

Today, I had the opportunity to sit down with Sim Shagaya, founder and CEO of uLesson to hear his story; and share with all of you how he’s building a platform that both excites and educates young learners sitting right where I sat years ago.

Q: John: So Sim, how did you conceive of the product; how did you go about bringing the vision to life?

Sim: When I first looked at building an education business, I did have a hunch that some type of asynchronous delivery would be a good place to start. In fact, a few years ago, I recorded some science lessons. Looking back at them now, they were scrappy and a bit monotonous; yet, it surprises me that I was able to monetize that product as it was. That experience led me to believe that I could build something better and more engaging by leveraging current technologies. So I spent a lot of time looking at what other edtech players in emerging and developed markets (like India, Indonesia, Brazil, China, United States, and UK) were doing and I kept asking myself the question: why are they doing things the way they did and not the other way around?

This process was so iterative. I also bounced ideas off of a few people in Nigeria and Africa, allowing me to fine-tune the idea and begin creating the product. I then started looking for people who were as enthusiastic as me about building this business. That’s how our journey started.

Q: John: Let’s talk about the students for whom you build. What is the profile of the typical Nigerian student? How does she think about her future, her environment? What stresses her out or gives her joy?

Sim: An average Nigerian student is subjected to rote learning. The entire learning process is at best, a chore - something you need to survive before you move on to the next thing - or at worst, a fearful one. With uLesson, we wanted to change the idea of what a learning experience should be. We wanted learners to realize that learning need not be a painful experience but quite enjoyable (that drives the motivation for study) and something that can be carried through a person’s life whether in or out of the classroom.

In this part of the world, access to a great education is seen as a lifeline of sorts. It’s possibly the key to getting not only the student but the student’s family out of a poverty trap. And so, what we are doing is truly quite transformational - we are seeing kids falling in love with Math and Science for the first time because we’ve presented these subjects to them in a non-intimidating way, and in a way that is very practically applicable to their daily lives. Equally important is the fact that we are delivering these services through technology tools that are very familiar to our users.

Q: John: You’ve worked both in the US and in Nigeria. What are some unique opportunities that Nigeria presents that may not be present in the US?

Sim: Nigeria is a bit of a greenfield, with many opportunities across different sectors to be a pioneer. You can truly move the needle in a significant way by entering into spaces that others have not. Of course, being a pioneer comes with incredible challenges. You are setting the foundations on which much will be built, and in doing that, you are opening up room for people to disrupt you. To avoid the latter, you have to be faster at disrupting yourself.

Q: John: Many people reading this are likely not aware of Nigeria’s educational system and broader systems on the continent. Could you draw some differences and similarities between these and systems in the US and Europe?

Sim: Here’s an interesting and perhaps little-known fact about education in Nigeria and Africa more broadly: African governments spend more on education as a percentage of both government revenues and GDP compared to their OECD counterparts. Yet, the outcomes fall short of expectations for a whole host of reasons but key amongst them is that the pace of growth of the population continues to outpace the speed at which that spending can have a material impact on student learning outcomes. This is why we continue to see stats like high student-to-teacher ratios of sometimes 70:1 in Africa compared to ratios of 15:1 or 16:1 in places like the US or UK.

Also, another interesting aspect about the education ecosystem on the continent is that people are less ideologically opposed to outsourcing the delivery of education to private institutions than is perhaps the case in Europe. In some ways, this is just a tacit acceptance of the fact that the public sector will continue to struggle to deliver education outcomes at acceptable levels given what I earlier alluded to - the pace of population growth. And so, the consequence is that you see the outsized allocation of household incomes on private education (in some cases up to 50% of household income). This has been one key factor driving the rapid proliferation of private schools all across the continent, and a trend that benefits uLesson.

John: Could you draw some differences and similarities between these and systems in the US and Europe?
Sim: This is why we continue to see stats like high student-to-teacher ratios of sometimes 70:1 in Africa compared to ratios like 15:1 or 16:1 in places like the US or UK.
Q: John: What are the nuances around working in Nigeria that may make it hard for EdTech products built outside of the country to enter the Nigeria market?

Sim: Something interesting we noted very early post-launch was that people gravitated towards our content because of its local relevance. We would often receive customer comments telling us that even though they were aware of so much content out there - including on platforms like YouTube - they found that none of the content was locally relevant and curated in the way ours was. So, it was clear to us that content relevance (localization and teaching philosophy) was important for our users.

On the distribution side, we also realized very early on that we couldn’t just build content and hope people would find it. We had to get on the phone and talk to our customers about the product to understand how they discovered the product, why they downloaded the app, and then show them how exactly the app would help them achieve their educational aspirations. This is perhaps something that one would not do - at least not to the extent that we are - if you were building this business in a developed market.

Furthermore, we have also realized that once we convince customers about the value of uLesson, we have to present them with their preferred method of payment. Sitting in the US, one may take it for granted that people pull out their debit and credit card without much thought to pay for a product, but on the continent, this is still not the case. Alternative payment means such as mobile money, bank payments, and cash transfer still dominate the payments landscape and so we’ve had to invest a lot of resources into integrating these payments systems into our app.

Q: John: You were a seasoned and successful entrepreneur long before uLesson. How did your experience influence your search for edtech investment partners?

Sim: One big mistake I’ve seen first-time entrepreneurs make (myself included) is that you can often get excited when you find someone willing to put capital in your business. But with the benefit of experience, I now realize that not all money is good money for your business. Sure, it’s flattering to get offers from funders but you have to ask yourself the following questions:

  • What else is this individual or firm bringing to the table?
  • Have they invested in businesses similar to mine?
  • Are they funding education projects in Nigeria or Africa other than mine?
  • Do they understand my ecosystem? Can they help me navigate some of the big questions I am grappling with?
  • Do they believe in both my short-term and long-term prospects?
  • Can I think of them as friends?

I have to say, when I think through these questions in the context of uLesson, I feel incredibly lucky to have investors we do, on this journey with us.

Q: John: Finally, what is your grand vision for the company?

Sim: My vision for uLesson is that we become the largest platform in Africa that has brought together the best media, education, and technology tools to transform education outcomes in Africa. Years from now, I want to hear uLesson users talk about how we fundamentally shifted their attitudes to learning and inspired them to follow pursuits that they would have otherwise not done because we opened their eyes to new possibilities.

About Sim Shagaya: A technology industry veteran, Sim Shagaya has always been tied to digital innovation. Sim began his career consulting for digital media and online retail companies, brokering investments in Nigerian telecoms, and leading Google into sub-Saharan Africa. Sim became a household name in Nigeria and abroad after founding two of the country’s most notable digital out-of-home advertising and e-commerce brands. Now Sim is at the helm of uLesson, a company on a mission to expand access to quality education for students throughout the continent.

About John Azubuike: John is an experienced investment professional with a demonstrated history of working on both early-stage venture capital and leveraged buyout deals. He joins the Owl team from Technology Crossover Ventures (TCV).

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