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Harvard-trained math genius re-shaping local e-learning

Ed Magema. [File, Standard]

Ed Magema has always been an outlier. From a non-descript high school in the belly of West Pokot, he emerged sixth countrywide in the 2009 Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) examination.

This earned him a place at the prestigious Harvard University where he studied mathematics as his undergraduate course – the only African student in his year.

It was at Harvard that Magema encountered his first computer. Now, he runs Univus – an education-technology start-up. He is also a top fintech consultant in Africa.

“I came to technology late, I wasn’t exposed to technology in these environments where I grew up and schooled,” says Ed who was born in Kitale and went to the little-known Weiwei Secondary School.

With his math degree from an Ivy League institution, he could have worked anywhere in the world but chose to return his skillset to Kenya.

“I used to have this idea of an African renaissance whereby there are a lot of problems in the continent and if you have an entrepreneurial mind, you can help solve them.” “I told myself, let me use all the knowledge, network and experiences I’ve built over the four years to do something for Africa.”

For the first two years, after his return, this meant working for someone else. He felt dissatisfied after realising that he wasting his potential. Surprisingly, Magema has never used his math degree directly but underscores he uses it daily through critical thinking skills.

He was behind the setting up of a $2 billion (Sh232 billion) fintech company that facilitates peer-to-peer cross-border payments in Africa, among other payment solutions for businesses.

“I decided to leave my job and that was the beginning of me getting into the tech industry,” he says.

Before that, Magema had been running a college consulting company that assisted Kenyan students to identify and apply to Ivy League universities in the US and other elite universities such as Oxford and Cambridge in the UK. He is also an author, having written a book, How To Get into Harvard. 

He worked for the fintech firm for two years until early 2020. Mr Magema, driven by his passion for helping learners, then directed his focus to education technology.

He first wanted to digitise the college consultation programme he had first started when he landed back in Kenya.

“Together with friends, we started to build an application but ended up abandoning it. I wasn’t satisfied with the idea because it was too small and constricted,” he recalls.

However, in January 2021, Magema had an epiphany. He observed that audio as a tool for socialisation was taking off. This new wave of audio had accelerated over the pandemic when social gatherings had been restricted.

Apps such as Clubhouse – a social network based on voice – had emerged. Others such as Twitter Spaces have since gained popularity.

“Was this the medium we’d been waiting for? I figured that we could bring students together to be talking to each other, building relationships, networking and supporting each other?” he recalls.

Magema had faced this challenge as a student in one of the most intense and consuming courses at an equally demanding university.

“I’d had that experience working on an assignment at 2am and I can’t access a professor because they are asleep or inaccessible and there is no way to conveniently reach out to other students.”

His innovation could be an easy way for students to set up topics and other students could find them or formulate questions. They could then congregate and discuss assignments, and ideas or even learn languages from anywhere in the world.

This would remove the need for experts to help students figure out college applications abroad. Perhaps even students studying abroad could guide potential African students on the applications at a small fee compared to the huge amounts experts charge.  The application, available on android, combines audio with visual elements such as screen casting. It enables file sharing and students across the world can share assignments.

From its name, it’s the “students’ universe” where students are free to chat live, learn and network in a fun, easy environment. It’s a social learning platform connecting millions of students globally targeting especially Generation Z.

“Univus helps Gen Z students to learn with each other. Outdated learning models and poor user experience continue to limit this group from easily connecting and learning with their peers despite studies showing that up to 60 per cent of Gen Z prefer studying with friends using social media apps,” explains Magema.

“Univus provides a mobile app for Gen Z learners to create, publish and share learning content with friends on audio. Audio is perfect as it allows our users to connect and learn in privacy as well as reduce “Zoom fatigue” associated with extended screen time.”

Last month, Univus partnered with the University of Nairobi (UoN) for a public launch of the app. “The partnership has given us access to thousands of users whom we plan to onboard once we complete app stabilisation this month,” says Magema.

Univus is currently accepting students from seven universities including UoN, Kenyatta University, the Technical University of Kenya (TUK), Strathmore, USIU-Africa, Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture of Technology, and Daystar.

Since the launch of the mobile app in February this year, its user base has grown by 268 per cent. Univus now has over 1,000 users.

To join Univus, one needs to have an active university email address, which you will use to log into the app once downloaded, at no cost. Univus has raised over $100,000 (Sh11.6 million) in venture capital to build the product, says Magema.

The dream began with a capital injection from him and co-founder James Kimani, a Computer Science graduate from the UoN.

He says making money isn’t a major concern and the focus is on the vision. “We are still in the early stages. Our worry is market fit, serving users to satisfaction and from there, getting to critical mass. For us, critical mass is 30 million users and don’t intend to be in Kenya only but worldwide. We’re building a global product after that we can always figure out monetisation,” he says.

The statistics on the survival of start-ups are gloomy with nine out of ten failing in the early years.

De-risk the process

Magema notes that one has to figure out ways to de-risk the process. For him, it has been through his co-founder, Kimani, the person he’s executing the vision with.

“The challenge for startups is that sometimes, cofounders don’t match up, so they end up breaking apart - leading to the collapse of the start-up.

“I found someone who balances my temperament. I tend to be too aggressive and push for things. He’s more technical while I’m more on the business side.”

Another issue for startup failure he notes is funding. “You have to make sure you survive the first year which we call the drunken walk.” He notes that the Kenyan start-up scene has changed significantly over the last decade. There are more incubators, accelerators and funding.

This year, about 20 startups have raised Sh25.8 billion ($223 million) so far, according to Disrupt Africa’s annual African Tech Startups Funding Report which captured investment data up to March 1.

This exceeds what was raised in 2021 alone. “Investors have confidence that this is the frontier market.”

He says that the next big innovations will be in Ed-tech. “Learning is going to be decentralised, no longer institution or instructor-led and borders are also going to melt.”