How to Fail as an Edtech Startup in Sub-Saharan Africa

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Before I quit my job and moved to Europe to pursue a brand new career path, I worked as a marketing team lead at a small edtech startup in Nigeria, West Africa.

This ‘small’ startup was making millions of dollars in annual revenue, and growing steadily in one of the most brutal business climates globally, and arguably one of the toughest places to be an edtech startup.

When I joined the company, I knew barely anything about edtech. I hardly even knew the industry existed. My previous marketing experience was at an e-commerce store and I was both surprised and impressed to see that companies like FlexiSAF existed, serving the education sector.

To really be effective at my role, I began to dig deep into the interesting world of edtech. I was fascinated to find that this was a multi billion dollar global market with the big giants like Google and Microsoft involved, as well as others like Khan Academy, Udacity or Schoology, some even run by educators and teachers themselves.

I also learned that in the loosely coined ‘edtech’ market, there were sub-sectors like organisational and academic edtech as well as lifelong learning (which is the most relatable for most people). Globally, organisational and lifelong learning are more successful sub-sectors, but at FlexiSAF where I worked, we were mostly focused on academics (we made enterprise and learning management software products for K12 and college level institutions), and that’s what this post is really about. In Africa, this is a very unique area to be in. You’d think it would receive a lot of attention due to the sort of problems the educational system faces, but African edtech companies receive the bare minimum support from the government and only just started becoming attractive to private investors and the media. Several edtech companies targeting this unique market have come up with brilliant ideas, but not too many of them have scaled. In fact, many of them eventually shut down.

From my time at FlexiSAF, I could choose to reflect on how I think the company has stayed successful for so long in these conditions. Instead, I’ve come up with a list of things one should definitely avoid if you’re looking to succeed as an edtech company in Africa aka ‘How to fail as an edtech startup’:

1. Overestimating your customer’s willingness to pay

You’ve provided this great tool that literally cuts down all of a teacher’s rigorous workload and paperwork. Your solution helps school admin organize their data and make sense of all the records they would’ve had piling up in file cabinets. After speaking to several teachers, parents and addressing their every last pain point to the letter, you crunch the numbers and start marketing your tech product for a very fair price. Teachers are flooding in through

your lead generation channels and even confirming how helpful the product is but they simply aren’t buying. The reason is quite obvious but difficult to accept after putting

in that much effort - educational institutions are quite risk averse. In Africa specifically, only a few have the budget for any tech-related costs, or even see the need for it at all. Price is perhaps the most important factor and finding the right model and value proposition to go with it is probably where you have to get the most creative. This ties in with the second point.

2. Ignoring actual teachers and educators

Almost anybody can see the many gaps in the educational sector in Africa. The quickest way to fail as an edtech startup is by assuming that this qualifies you to know what solution to build or what problem to

even ‘solve’. Yes, it may be a critical problem but is anyone actually willing to pay you to solve it? The only way to determine what Educators and teachers really need is by asking them, and even after your edtech product is alive and growing - keep checking again and again if it’s still what they need.

3. Over-rating the tech skills of your potential users

This was perhaps one of my biggest surprises when I fully leaned into my role. From customer surveys, case studies and user analytics, I realized there was simply a huge skill gap among many of the teachers who were the end users of the product. This was leading to a lot of unnecessary support tickets and unsatisfied users, plus a good number of the product features were unused in many schools. Left unchecked, this is a perfect recipe for failure and high churn rates. For your startup to fail even faster, don’t invest in an extensive product knowledge base and user tutorials, don’t optimize support or even think about offering some basic user training. Please by all means don’t bother to revise all aspects of your user interface. Assume the users understand all features and benefits of your edtech software - after all, this is pretty basic stuff.

Under-rate the impact of internet challenges on your product design

Even though a third of mobile users in Africa own a smartphone giving them a medium to access the internet, data costs are still relatively much higher than the global average. As a result, many teachers, schools and teachers simply can’t afford to have perfect or

24/7 internet to use your edtech product. This is something you have to think about - from the design stage to every process of building. Which features do you trade off or make more data efficient? Or perhaps make a Lite version of your product? The more you can save data, the better, especially when scaling to non-major cities.

Globally, edtech businesses are regarded in startup circles as hard to turn into a profitable business venture. Compounded with doing business in Africa which is generally tough, it’s easy to see why only the resilient survive. Besides these 8 major things, some other reasons why edtech startups may fail include: Selling product features, rather than clear benefits,

Overlooking the competition (including local alternatives), Ignoring offline marketing channels like word of mouth, industry events and hiring staff with a flawed understanding of the market.

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About the Author
Author: Ada Okoli
Writer, marketing analyst. Passionate about education and food security in Africa.

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