In this episode I will be welcoming back a previous guest of Narratives of Purpose to hear more about this Ed Tech entrepreneur's journey since our initial NOP conversation back in 2022.
Ismail Eleburuike is the founder of SchoolTry, the leading provider of efficient education application technology in various African countries. We spoke in April 2022, and before you tune into today’s episode, I highly encourage you to listen back to the conversation from Episode 31 and be reminded of Ismail's fascinating background - especially how he started SchoolTry in 2019.
Listen to today's episode to hear how SchoolTry has evolved since our last conversation. Ismail also shares his strategies for overcoming challenges as well as his vision to shape the Ed Tech ecosystem on the African continent.
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Hello and welcome to a new episode of Narratives of Purpose. This is our first episode of a new season - Season Number Five. Can you believe it? It is our fifth season! Time has gone by so fast since launching this podcast in December 2020. I have had the great pleasure to hold so many inspiring and so many impactful change makers from around the world. And I also have all of you listening to thank you for supporting Narratives of Purpose along the way. If you are tuning in for the first time, my name is Claire Murigande, I am your host on this podcast, which is all about amplifying social impact. I bring you unique stories of changemakers, stories of people who are contributing to make a difference in society. By showcasing these individual journeys, I would like to inspire you to take action. So this new season is going to be a very interesting one, because I will be welcoming back previous guests to find out how their companies and how their organisations have grown since they were first featured on Narratives of Purpose. On today's episode, I am catching up with Ismail Eleburuike, Ismail is based in Sweden. He is the founder of SchoolTry, the leading provider of efficient education application technology in various African countries. SchoolTry is helping educators and students to realise their potential. Please take a moment to rate and review our show wherever you listen to your podcasts, this will help other listeners find Narratives of Purpose and further amplify the stories of change we bring on our show. Now, let's listen to how Ismail's journey and mission to bring innovation to education has evolved.
And I started to wonder - and I always want to combine technology, leadership and also impact the society. Then I started thinking...I've been learning a lot of things for a long period of time, from technology, to business, to marketing, to sales. Then I started to think, "what else can I do?" I think it's time for me to start looking back from my roots. And that's why I started thinking about ideas, 'what can we do to solve the African problems?' So for me, it's all about impact. We've seen that educational transformation in types of digital platforms is very vital for the development of Africa, the society at large. So I believe that SchoolTry plays a very key role in this digital transformation and we've gotten a lot of feedback from society, and they are so pleased with the platform based on the impact. It's hard to the students, the teachers and to the school administrators at large. Our vision is very clear - We want to transform education in Africa. And we want to be the leading edtech company to provide a solution and deploy to the entire continent of Africa in the next three to five years. That's our vision.
You just heard a short clip of my first interview with Ismail almost two years ago. He was featured on Episode 31, which was released back in April 2022. I encourage you to listen again to that conversation, to hear about Ismail's fascinating background, and especially how he started SchoolTry in 2019. Like every guest I talk to on the podcast, I have been following Ismail's work since we first spoke. I caught up with him a few weeks ago to learn more about SchoolTry's growth, but also his personal journey as an entrepreneur. Take a listen.
So welcome back on Narratives of Purpose Ismail, it's really a pleasure to have you. And when I recall our last discussion, it was almost two years ago, we spoke about your platform SchoolTry. So just a quick reminder for our listeners, can you tell us exactly where it is? So we are speaking about education tech, you're really helping connect schools, students and parents using technology.
Exactly. And that's just one out of many benefits that we provide to the schools and other institutions of education. One of the benefits you mentioned is to connect the stakeholders of the school from the teachers or lecturers, depending on the case, and then the parent, which is another very key stakeholder, and also the student, who are the receiving hand of the benefit itself. And the connection of this makes them communicate in the most efficient and effective manner, and to share knowledge and information. And as we know, information is key to any personal and societal development in any way you want. So we also see that there's a lot of paper being used in many institutions. Instead of many institutions being focused on teaching and providing information to the student's effective knowledge, they spend most of their time on manual work, doing a lot of administration on paper, sending different materials on paper, printing. But now, what SchoolTry does is to look at the entire process of the school, and then come up with a digital platform that can allow the smooth operation of the schools, from the administrative layer to cut across the entire value chain of the educational sector, we have been able to get a lot of feedback from our clients, that we have been able to improve their efficiency by more than 90% when they start to use SchoolTry for grading their performance, for attendance, and a lot of other things that they do in the schools manually today.
You spoke about grading and attendance. How has your platform evolved since we last spoke? Did you add new functionalities? But first just tell us about the evolution of the platform for the schools and all the other stakeholders?
Maybe I can start with our process because that is very key. We still focus on Africa, because that's where we see the problems to be solved, compared to other parts of the world. So currently, we are fully operating in Nigeria, I think last time we spoke, we mentioned that. The other thing we also did in the last two years is that now we are fully operational in Kenya; we are at our office in Kenya as we speak. And then we are also using partnerships, we have partnerships in South Africa, and we also have partnerships in Ghana. So I will say that SchoolTry is operating in four different countries today, with our tier countries focusing mainly on Nigeria and Kenya.
Okay, so those are the two countries where you have a location/offices, right?
Yes. And let's also talk about the functionality and the features, which is driven by the end users. What we also do mainly in SchoolTry is that we focus on the feedback from the end users to be able to define our roadmap going forward. And what we have seen is that there's a lot of requests on the security for computer based examinations. And some of the schools, which are also boarding schools, like hostel management features, and many other kinds of processes. And now we are going into artificial intelligence, and machine learning. A lot of users also want to see how data can help them to improve the teaching of the student. How can they see the track performance of all the students compared to the class group? So there's a lot of analytics that we're also looking at in our functionality. And that is a continuous development and deployment that we're also looking into. And that has also evolved from the last time we met. So a lot of functionality, a lot of features has been added in these particular areas. I mean, it's a continuous development and deployment - it's still a work in progress.
I can imagine obviously, especially with artificial intelligence, because you need to have more data to so-to-speak feed the system so that you have enough analytics and draw some relevant conclusions. So coming back to your footprint. You mentioned four countries, but how many schools are we talking about? And especially how large are these schools? Just an idea to see how large you're spread...
So we have over 500 schools signed up on our platform with more than 50% of them fully active. We have around 250,000 users, which has students, populations, teachers, information and profiling and also parents and administrators. So in total, we have those kinds of user-bases on the platform. And that is on the K12 aspect of it, we also have the Higher Ed aspect of the product.
And that is new, right, because I think last time we spoke, you only had K12?
That is new. And is also based on the demand that we got in the market. Most of the time you go to these K12 schools, and then maybe one of the directors of the K12 schools is also a director in Higher Ed and says, "Don't we have, don’t we have one for Higher Ed?”. They love our products in K12, they would like to use the same tools in Higher Ed. And then we went ahead to develop the tertiary track. So we are a complete two different product now or for K12 and one for, for Higher Ed, and in the Higher Ed aspect we have a lot of pipelines in Kenya, we have around three to four universities in Nigeria, two merely functioning at the moment, and two of them are about to come onboard at the moment from now. A lot of things are also happening there, because Higher Education is more complicated, in terms of admission -you need to be connected to some of the government bodies from the admission aspect. And then you bring those students into the platform and then they start to do course registrations and then we're now moving into virtual learning as well, which is also a key aspect of development. COVID has also shifted the mindset of the society completely, in terms of providing a learning management system that has also been one of our features in K12, that has evolved. And this is also an aspect in the Higher Ed area of the solution. That is really key to many institutions that they should be able to provide a distance lecture to the student, especially now that after COVID, then we have the Ukrainian war and the Russian war, there are a lot of things that have skyrocketed in terms of pricing, the fuel. So how can we reduce the costs for the student? By giving them the opportunity to attend classes remotely. And this is also giving you those insights of where we need to put our focus as an entrepreneur, both in the K12 and the tertiary institutions.
So this actually brings me to an important question, which you kind of already alluded to, you say it was complicated moving from K12. (And just a reminder, for those listening who don't know, K12 is from kindergarten to grade 12, and Higher Education is from university onwards.) So you have obviously expanded, but that doesn't happen very smoothly. So tell us about the challenges. Is there something you want to highlight that was particularly complicated for you, that you were able to overcome? Or is there something you're still struggling with? I know that before we started recording this conversation, you were also telling me about how much you were able to raise last year, so there's also fundraising - and give us a bit of an overview of the challenges you had to face during this growth period.
Last year, we were looking at growth and scalability of the business and that led us to a fundraising exercise, which we concluded at around mid last year. So we were looking for a million dollars, but we ended up raising around half a million dollars. And that has actually helped us now to expand our business, for example we are now fully operating in Kenya now, while we are also going in Nigeria. And also looking at what continues to sustain our partnerships in South Africa and in Ghana. And of course, part of that fund is also being used in the product's stability. Because last year we signed a cluster of schools to the Nigerian army, which increased our user base by more than 50%. That was a huge transformation to our business. And that cost a lot... architectural design, and also some amendments in the way users want the product to operate. But having the accessibility to fund, have actually assisted us to overcome those challenges. And to be able to manage that key strategic customer that we have. We've also been able to overcome the challenges of customer retention, because supporting our existing customers is also a key to our success. And we're getting to the point that our support staff, over occupied with the ability and the opportunity of the fund, were able to also increase our support base, so that we are able to serve our customers in the most efficient manner. And of course, that centres within our strategic vision, which is centred around our customer, our products that we offer to them and also to see that we are growing the business for the future. So the challenges are there, but overcoming them is in alignment with our strategic mission to place us as one of the leading ad tech in Africa, come in five to 10 years. So I believe challenges will always be there. But the ability to sit down and turn those challenges into the opportunity that will allow us to meet our future goals, I think is the key. And that is what our focus is. So we have also had a lot of great advisory boards, investors that are not only putting money in the business, they're also giving us their time and their experience and their expertise, to be able to redefine, and also make necessary changes where it is applicable.
So basically, having these people around you has kind of helped you re-shift your goals in terms of what you wanted to achieve and make sure that if you shift that you can still develop and grow, right?
Absolutely, hey have been very helpful. We have a lawyer in our Investment Board, we have strategist people who have sold companies more than twice, people who are also founders like me, who have years of experience in finance, in corporate governance. They are part of our advisory board team and investors. And all of them have been really great in giving us industry support at any point in time. I think that's one of the key critical success factors that has helped up to this point, we still rely on that to be successful in the future.
You mentioned something about wanting to be a leading Ed Tech on the continent. Which brings me to the question about the landscape and the competitors. How many other initiatives companies are also working in that space? And where do you find your place in that ecosystem?
We came into the market fully launched three years ago, and we have been able to go this far. That speaks volumes. It is just all centred on how we have been able to create our team, and also how we have been able to put our focus on the customer, especially supporting our customers throughout the journey from signing up into the product, using the product and ensuring the sustainability of it. We got a lot of feedback around that and that makes us stand out compared to many competitors. We have a strong leading competitor in Nigeria. We also have in Kenya, like Zeraki. We have in Nigeria Edbase, it’s the major competitor. And we are all friends as well. We share ideas, I was even speaking with the CEO of Edbase, like two days ago, where we're just lobbying minds on how we can transform education digitally in Africa. The market is so big that we need even all areas of Ed Tech to come into the picture to be able to transform education in Africa. In the continent where you have under 50% of the continents, which is around a billion is under the age of 35, that gives us the opportunity as an entrepreneur to position ourselves and get ourselves prepared for the future. So there's a lot of problems to be solved. But we stand out as a product as a team by focusing on customers, solving the problems for the customers and paying attention to their feedback, and also providing them the solution that they actually need to drive their business, to increase their efficiency, and not just creating products for them, it comes from them. We also need to be observant and do a lot of research on who's looking at the data? Where do they have the problems? Where can we provide solutions that will actually tackle their problems? So direct feedback, or our own personal observations, and then we look at the data of how they're using it, and then were able to position ourselves and give them the right solution. I think that's where we stand out as a company and it has really helped us, that's why within three years, we're not competing with all these competitors that have been in the market for over a decade. So when you speak about our strategy, and speaking about you as "us", tell me about your team, since we spoke last time, and the people working at SchoolTry, you have obviously grown having offices now in Kenya. What impact have you had at that level in terms of bringing people onboard with SchoolTry? Because of the limitation to finance and also the legacy we what to leave behind as a company. I focus a lot as the CEO and founder on young generations in the team. The average age of our team is around 23 to 25 years of age. And these guys are having leadership positions - Like the Country Director in Kenya is around 25 or 26 years old, the Product Manager is 25 or 26 as well. And we have a lot of young individuals in the marketing team, in the customer support and people also dealing with the products: Those ones are between the age of 18 to 22. Some of them are even in the university. So the teams that have actually been pushed from the ground to the top, which has given us the ability to be able to train them to adapt to changes, and also protect leadership roles in terms of providing the right solution and support for our customer, which is the key to achieving our strategic goals in the future. And also achieving our vision of being the leading in this industry in the next five to ten years. Our team are very energetic people, very aggressive to win, they are result oriented, taking accountability, responsibility and initiative in themselves. So with my own limited supervision, they know exactly what we need to do, to be able to reach our future, goals and visions. So I'm really proud of them, because without the team one can achieve nothing. I'm always proud of them wherever I go, when I see them representing SchoolTry I just smile. And that has been the culture, even when they are interviewing people without me being there, they know exactly what they're looking for - It's about energy, it's about result orientation, and also putting our focus on our customer.
I like it, I love this approach to say, "I want to focus on the next generation, even though I am leading this," obviously, you have your advisors supporting you along the way within the company. But then when it comes to operations and running it, you are betting on the younger generation. I mean being a director at 26, it's really amazing. And as you say, it does serve your vision to be the leader in five to ten years, because then they see themselves as the leading company in five to ten years, when they're probably in their 30s. And it's also quite smart in terms of tapping into the potential of the younger generation on the continent, because half of the population is under 30. And you're actually looking into those people to change the education system. So well done to you.
Thank you. It's very challenging to build people, however, success revolves around the kind of people who are driving the business. And that is why as a leader, one was to put 100% attention to coaching and mentoring the young generation. I always tell people that, especially in Africa, the kind of solution we're providing, which has been in existence in the Western world, is completely new. And we still face a lot of challenges in terms of adaptability. In terms of literacy level, IT, these are big challenges to many institutions in Africa. So you're not only selling the product, you're also changing the mindset of the users, of the customer, on how this can transform the way they think, the way they want their daily operations. So there's a lot of things we are battling with to be able to ensure the products are delivered. And if you look at even the users who we are targeting, these are users of the next generations, because like me, around the age of 40, I have kids who are 10 - they will be the next parent in the next 10 to 20 years. And for sure, they will be completely computer inclined. We need to build a solution that will still be sustainable before that time actually happens. And that is why people that are building the products must also be aligned with the people that won't be the users of the products in the future.
Yes, yes, it makes sense. And also, I understand the strategy to involve young people in the company, because this is also the mindset you want to bring. And given that the environment is changing and things are evolving, especially with a pandemic, things are evolving very much with digital tools, we almost can't do without it. And it's a matter of constantly being aware of what is happening, what is new, and reinventing yourself as you evolve, right? And the earlier you start, the better you're off I suppose, right?
It's just the ability to place everything under great alignment and strategic vision, and then drive the process and the results will come. Everything should be focused on the users or the customers and the people who are going to use this, they must have some knowledge of computers, they must be literate on how IT evolves. But it's very obvious now, if you go to any university today, most of them have their mobile phones, Tweeting or Facebook... we need to bring that education to the phone and to the web.
And perhaps another question to that point, as well. I remember we had spoken about that last time and I just want to see like, what is your thinking? And is this something you're going towards? If I put it this way, you were building the infrastructure to make sure everything is running in the digital setting. But now that you've moved as well into Higher Education, and also online courses, are you thinking of partnering, or to some extent, working on creating the material, like educational content is some part of being a leader in this space, also to support the content that's been taught. Because I remember having a conversation early on as well on the podcast, with someone who is based in Uganda, who is also active in the educational space. And she was also arguing the fact that the way education works, especially what is being taught in many countries, especially those who have colonial history, is probably not always relevant to today's reality, right? And now that you're speaking about the future, and having all these tools, is this something that you think of that we also want to shape their reality and make this content relevant for the next generation?
You really hit the nail on the head. We cannot do everything as a company, so we leverage a lot of partnerships. So like I said, I have a lot of CEOs of Ed Tech around me and some of them provide content. We speak everyday, I was speaking with one even last week, I don’t know if you know Gradely. Gradely is one of the great content providers for education in Nigeria, we also have ULesson, like that. So we will be looking in the future on how all of us can collaborate and provide the right platform for the student. We also are not only looking at equal content around students, but also looking at the content and teachers in terms of the development and training. And that is what that's what has led us to partnership with a non-governmental organisation called Teach The Nation in South Africa. So what we are doing with Teach The Nation now is creating a platform for them, where teachers can be developed in terms of leadership, and also giving them the knowledge of how to be the best teacher. So on that platform, we connected to SchoolTry. And then we also go to parents, we need to go to "How can we provide a good parental service to your children so that they can have the right mindset to get the knowledge they want And also have the right behaviours to the teachers and the administrators?" And if you look at the administrators side, you need to focus mainly on the monitoring and evaluation and how they get those insights to be able to make the right decisions. The administrator can probably be institutional like the government, they can also be the private institutions without the principal's, school owners and so on. At the end of the day, all the stakeholders have their roles or responsibility, what they need to play in the game to be able to make the whole society succeed.
I like it. I like it. It's really great, because somehow creating or building the ecosystem around education, right?
Yes, you just get it completely.
Thank you. It was great to have you again. If you have any parting words for our listeners, please go ahead.
Yeah, just never give up. It is persistence, consistency, and continuous learning and getting the right feedback, mentoring, mentorship, and coaching. I think those are the ingredients that will lead to the entire success of whatever we are doing. And it doesn't matter whether it's Ed Tech or FinTech or everything we do, we should take those things along and success will come with patience and perseverance.
Contributing to change the education system one school at a time, while transforming the lives of students, teachers and parents is truly visionary. If you are curious to know more about SchoolTry, then check out their website at schooltry.com. As always, the link is available in the show notes. Thank you so much for tuning in today. I appreciate you taking the time. That was episode 58 a NEW Conversation with Ismail Eleburuike. Join me again in two weeks as we continue to talk education and technology with another returning guest Alma Moya Losada. Make sure you leave us a review everywhere you listen to podcasts, and if you like what you're hearing, remember to share our podcast with a friend or colleague or even a family member. You can also connect with us through our website at narratives-of-purpose.podcastpage.io or through our social handles @narrativesofpurposepodcast.
Until the next episode, take care of yourself, stay well and stay inspired.
This podcast was produced by Tom at rustic studios