Q&A with Jamie Martin
Q&A with Jamie Martin
Jamie Martin / Co-Founder of the CiTi EdTech cluster in Cape Town (opened in 2016 and 1st of its kind in Africa) and former special adviser to the UK department of education.
1. Tell us about your motivation to found the 1st EdTech accelerator in South Africa.
Africa is the only continent without an accelerator dedicated to ed-tech, yet it is the continent where I believe that technology can do the most to improve education and where the supportive Eco system is weakest. Having spent time looking at start-ups and funding in Ghana and South Africa, I realized there was a big gap in the eco system. There were large challenges and great entrepreneurs trying to address them, but no-one linking those entrepreneurs with customers and founders. After I went to a tech pitch evening in Cape Town where all the education ideas failed to get funding, I decided to start an accelerator so that in future they’d be better prepared.
2. Is there a main educational area targeted by the entrepreneurs?
In most of sub Saharan Africa education challenges are broad and deep. The biggest difference to a more developed market is that vocational and adult learning is a really important area – generations have been let down by failed schools, still don’t have access to formal education, so technology can enhance their employment prospects. K12 schools and school aged children, though important, are probably less the be all and end all of our work than in some other markets.
Furthermore for our context technology is sometimes a replacement not an enhancement for learning conventionally. So things that technology might enhance in richer settings – for example curriculum content is delivered via textbooks but you shift it online or to i-pads making it more accessible or flexible –in sub Saharan Africa (where many schools teach without books) you might use technology to create a substitute.
3. What are your biggest challenges?
I think one that is common to all accelerators – the business model and the first round of funding. Fundamentally income comes over time but costs come immediately, and it can be hard to raise operational funding without a track record of success.
Once we are up and running, getting our businesses to scale across the continent will be hard. The diversity of Africa is wonderful when it comes to its variety of languages and cultures but less so when it means fragmented small markets with bureaucratic barriers at every border.
4. Do you see a future impact on the world in general?
Definitely. I spoke at a great conference last year in Helsinki called InnoFrugal – it focuses on how low cost ideas can come from the developing world to the developed. I spoke about the innovations in low cost private schools – like using technology to flip the classroom and keep staff costs down – while others spoke about how brilliant innovations in healthcare which saved rich world health systems millions originated in the developing world where necessity was the mother of invention.
In ed-tech, I think the necessity of Africa – where quality teachers are such a scarce resource and schools and families often lack the absolute basics – might allow us to really re-think how we do things. Some of the ideas we come up with to tackle problems in low resource settings might help developed world schools save money; the work done to provide fail proof materials to under qualified teachers might allow more qualified ones more freedom to concentrate on pedagogy not preparing materials; the lack of traditional resources like textbooks might lead to faster and more effective innovations on tablets or mobile phones.
5. What are the main opportunities for entrepreneurs in South Africa?
I really believe that following Fin-tech ed-tech will be the next innovation focus in Sub Saharan Africa, and that SA will lead the continent in this.
I think there is a real recognition in SA that education is in crisis, that improving it must be a national priority, and that this improvement will not come from business as usual methods. I recently wrote about this for the SA Mail and Guardian and got a good response. The Western Cape government has made e-learning one of its priorities for its current term in office, planning to put wifi in every school by March 2017, corporate social investment (legally mandated as a given percentage of profits in SA) is very focused on education and increasingly parents make it a priority for any spare income in middle class budgets. Ed-tech is seen as an attractive area by VC and high net worth investors.
Like in many Sub-Saharan countries the opportunities in SA often lie in mobile. By some estimates there are more mobile phones than people in South Africa and there is heavy use of feature phones (phones with less capability than smart phones but that can run some simple apps). It’s often easier to reach pupils or adult learners via mobile than more orthodox resources like textbooks.
I therefore think there is the funding, will, and capability in SA to make ed-tech a real growth area for the future.
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