Africa’s education challenges and the lack of access to quality learning resources for children and young people in Tanzania specifically, led one woman entrepreneur to take an innovative approach to finding a solution. Faraja Nyalandu is creating world-class digital learning content and making it available to students on mobile phones and through online learning portals.
LoA chatted to Faraja Nyalandu as part of our Focus on Africa’s Women Edupreneurs month to find out how she is making a real difference to young people’s lives in her country.
Tell us a little more about what your company, Shule Direct, does and what makes it different
Shule Direct creates local and accessible digital educational content for youth and children in Tanzania, particularly Secondary School students. We are taking an innovative approach to secondary education in Tanzania by creating high quality digital learning content specifically designed around the Tanzanian National Curriculum and building an adaptable platform to make this content available on a range of devices from the most basic mobiles to full-featured desktop learning portals. We are leveraging networks and partnerships to make this content accessible to students around the country. Our course notes and quizzes are created by the top teachers and teacher trainers in Tanzania, and they are stored and structured in our digital repository. From there they can be pulled to various delivery systems, such as our web portal, mobile apps for feature phones, and SMS/ USSD services for basic mobiles. Students will be able to access the Shule Direct course notes, quizzes and interactive syllabus via whatever means are most accessible to them: whether that be a mobile phone, an internet cafe, or an educational device at their school.
"A mobile learning and revision platform is able to reach out to students in remote geographical locations faster than a textbook ever can or before a teacher can get there. We want quality education to be for all, regardless of financial, physical or geographical circumstances."
What inspired you to start your company?
There is a big gap in access to educational resources in Tanzania and in Africa in general. Lack of financial resources of both the Government and the parents is a factor that decides how children are going to learn and what they will be learning. Learning within public secondary schools (Government funded schools), which cover over 70% of all Secondary Schools in Tanzania, has its share of challenges. There is lack of teachers, in fact the recent statistics show that 67% of teachers are absent in rural secondary schools (Uwezo 2013). In some cases, even those present are not qualified to teach and develop teaching resources. Therefore, students who are aiming to perform well are being failed from the outset. As a result, Shule Direct is working with the best qualified teachers to create content and replicate what they usually teach to the few, in order to reach thousands of students who really need their help. These teachers are an inspiration.
There is also a lack of textbooks, a lack of infrastructure and clearly, a lack of funds. The situation requires a multifaceted approach, but Shule Direct chose to address one of these challenges specifically - to create access to educational resources through available technologies. In the Situation Analysis of ICT in Education in Tanzania, conducted by Global e-Schools and Communities, it observes that Tanzania has enormous annual growth of mobile subscriptions, but education has not yet tapped into this technology to deliver services to rural communities. Shule Direct was established to tap into such technology to bridge the divide. A mobile learning and revision platform is able to reach out to students in remote geographical locations faster than a textbook ever can or before a teacher can get there. We want quality education to be for all, regardless of financial, physical or geographical circumstances.
"We want to be a content powerhouse for Secondary School students, not just for Tanzania, but for Africa. Shule Direct seeks to introduce students to digital learning with materials that are accessible and relevant to them, and to help them gain access to the crucial information they need for success in school and life beyond."
Why should anyone use your service or products?
Our students use Shule Direct services because they need supplementary learning resources in cases where they did not find adequacy in what they have been taught at school, or the flexibility and independence of online and mobile learning. In some cases, the students use the service as an alternative when they did not have a teacher for a class subject, or the teacher was absent or they have no textbooks. Most of our users cannot afford good private schools but they still want the same quality of education. What Shule Direct has done for them, is to enable the best teachers to be available everywhere.
Tell us a little about your amazing Schule Direct team
Our team has been brought together by our passion to really bring quality education within reach in Tanzania. I met our Chief Technical Officer at an innovation space in Dar who at the time was working on a World Bank project, but was sold on what Shule Direct can do. A passionate technical developer with a Postgraduate Diploma in Knowledge Based Systems. A friend, a project management expert with IT background after working in a corporate world in Rwanda had just returned to Dar and agreed to join in. Most touching was Lyric, our Technical Engineer whom I was introduced to by a mutual friend while he was still studying at MIT - he agreed to set up our educational content repository and the API over a Skype call. He built it from scratch and continues to work with us even though he has to keep up with his daily duties at Google Inc., where he currently works. Our content manager, a qualified teacher, came to us as a volunteer early on and was passionate enough to work for so many crazy hours without pay. Together, we have built a strong wider team of teachers, developers, finance, operations and volunteers.
"The beauty of being an entrepreneur is the simple matrix of the harder you work the closer you are to your success. It is a great opportunity to have a dream and then put in the efforts to see that dream come true. The results are almost instant, and even when they are not, ticking off the little milestones goes a long way to getting me up the next day."
Share a little about your entrepreneurial journey. And, do you come from an entrepreneurial background?
I started my Law degree studies soon after my daughter was born. Born and raised in Tanzania and having my entire Primary to Secondary School education here, I did not really know that I could actually go online and find all these educational resources for my studies. Typically, I would go to the library and borrow 2- 4 books before rushing home to attend to my baby. I could not be a typical student and have the luxury of studying in the library or discussing my studies with my classmates. Towards the end of my 1st year, the librarian who had noted my movements, introduced me to the online world of learning. I was beyond amazed with the opportunity of being a mother, a wife and being able to learn all I wanted. A thought struck me - why are we not having this type of access to learning in Tanzania? Fast forward a few years, I finished with an Upper Second, came back home and got a job offer to work in a Law firm. The thought of creating online learning spaces still played in mind and I started researching. I was interested in Secondary School education, due to the shocking failure rates of over 90% in the past few years. I told myself I would find a company or organization working in the online learning environment and I would volunteer for a while. However, there was none. And that is when I took it upon myself to start Shule Direct, without a technical or teaching background - but I was my own example of the potential that can be unlocked given the opportunity.
My parents were civil servants, my mother was a passionate teacher and secretly I always feel like this is a tribute to her. My father was an army general. That combination of parents I think attributes to my resilience, hard work and discipline, which are so important in the field of entrepreneurship I have come to realize.
What are your future plans and aspirations for your company?
We want to keep building applications and services for whatever technology is accessible that can make use of Shule Direct's content. We are opening up our API so that other developers and educational organizations will also be able to build applications and services that pull our content, ensuring that they get the highest quality and most locally relevant materials, thereby saving the time and cost associated with redeveloping content. With our syllabus-structured backend system for content management, these interfaces and applications will be able to easily adjust as the curriculum changes, and to add new content (and new types of content such as audio and video) as they grow. We want to be a content powerhouse for Secondary School students, not just for Tanzania, but for Africa. Shule Direct seeks to introduce students to digital learning with materials that are accessible and relevant to them, and to help them gain access to the crucial information they need for success in school and life beyond.
"Believe in yourself and believe in your ideas. So long as they are solving a problem, you are on the right track." @FarajaNyalandu #Edupreneur
What gives you the most satisfaction being an entrepreneur?
The beauty of being an entrepreneur is the simple matrix of the harder you work the closer you are to your success. It is a great opportunity to have a dream and then put in the efforts to see that dream come true. The results are almost instant and even when they are not, ticking off the little milestones go a long way to getting me up the next day.
What's the biggest piece of advice you can give to other women looking to start-up?
Women need to believe in themselves. We have all heard what we are capable of. Now, we just need to own the accolades. I have met women who have all the details figured out, but they are still too scared to take the next step. They just need to take that leap of faith. Believe in yourself and believe in your ideas. So long as they are solving a problem, you are on the right track.
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Why LoA loves it….
What is truly inspirational about Africa’s women edupreneurs is that when faced with some of the biggest and seemingly insurmountable challenges in the field of education, they step up to the plate, tap into their innovation resources, and find solutions that have the potential to change young lives positively for ever. Faraja Nyalandu is one such edupreneur that is harnessing the power of technology and making mobile learning and access to education a reality for children who had little or no hope of getting a quality education previously. She and others like her are a real beacon of change for Africa’s education landscape. --- Melanie Hawken, founder and editor-in-chief of Lionesses of Africa