In late 2015, a few friends teamed up to start a business that was entirely based on future needs in the education sector. Mohamoud Ally, the Managing Director and chief founder of Mwalimu Plus Limited, was one of them.
The company is a fast-rising education technology entity out to make learning using technology more effective and available to everyone. The firm’s fortunes increased in the post Covid-19 pandemic after it attracted thousands of subscribers when lockdown measures were implemented. Ally, a software engineer who worked for a corporate in Malaysia back then, left employment to take up majority shareholding and development of the business.
Why would you leave stable employment to risk it in business?
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I have always been in awe of technology and what it can do. In 2015, when we met with my friends we detected a gap in the education sector and we were convinced that we could fill it up using technology. In so doing, we would not only be starting a company but also providing solutions for the whole society.
How was Mwalimu Plus fundamentally different from normal learning, as we have known it?
Students in Kenya, regardless of where they are from, sit the same national examinations. But, the resources and tools available to them are not the same. A student in a remote place in Turkana in a poorly funded school does not have the same tools as a student in Nairobi in a well-funded institution.
Mwalimu Plus equalises these students by providing them a singular server from which they draw lessons. The application also uses artificial intelligence to gauge students’ progress, level of knowledge and learning pace. The app is connected to the parent’s (or a teacher’s) email through which it informs them of the learners’ progress, thereby helping them guide accordingly.
Does Mwalimu Plus eliminate teachers?
No, it does not. It supplements the teacher’s work. With Mwalimu Plus, the teacher is best equipped to teach and the student best equipped to learn. All the study material – as provided by the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development – is available on the platform and it is equipped with artificial intelligence in such a way that the teacher (and parent) is able to see the student’s performance with every test in every lesson.
How does the business model work?
Our clients are students – but indirectly. A parent downloads the application and registers the student on the platform. The student is therefore able to access learning material specific to the grade they are in at school. The parent subscribes the student for as low as Sh5 per day and the learner is able to access the curriculum in text, video and illustrations from anywhere.
How certain were you that this would work when you were starting out?
No one is ever certain of anything. We could have failed and I would have probably gone back to seek employment. Right now, from the nine months we have been in the market, we know that this is the future. We are now focused on building the system to provide even more personalised services to give learners a good experience.
How did the business partnership playout from day one?
Coming together with my friends was key to our business because we are drawn from different professional backgrounds. I am a software engineer. We have someone in education, another in finance and another in IT. I am currently the majority shareholder. But we have worked together since we began developing the product.
The business idea was conceptualised in 2015 but you launched in 2019. What was happening in between?
Once we had the concept, we commissioned a research to find out the needs of learners in various parts of the country. We then put a team together to develop the application. The team comprised of software engineers, professors, educationists, IT specialists and finance specialist. Once the product was ready we set forth to test it. In that first test we worked with about 6 schools in Nairobi to ascertain if learners could appropriately use the technology and if it made learning experience better.
With lessons learnt from that initial trial, we returned to the drawing board and tightened the loose nuts and bolts on it. We then commissioned a second trial. This time around we were joined by the Ministry of Education, and partners like Centre for Mathematics, Science and Technology Education in Africa (Cemastea), with the aim of finding out if the app made any difference in a learner’s education.
What did you find out from the second trial?
The numbers were good. In fact, in 2019, we were invited to present the findings at the international education expo in Dakar, Senegal. The application made learning more enjoyable and increased the odds of better performance. In total 23 schools from all over the country participated in the second trial. Half of the students used the app and half were in the control group. And yes, the application was usable from anywhere because it was web based.
What was the greatest challenge you faced during those formative stages?
Being a technology company, we had to keep developing and improving the product. This cost both time and money. We used our savings and loans to take us through these stages until we had the full product.