No Child Must Be Left Behind, as ScholarX provides needy Students with Access to Education Financing
While it is a great idea to digitize learning tools, there is also the need for founders of edtech startups to critically consider how their target market may be effectively served, in order to bring about expected outcomes. This is the focus of Bola Wahab Lawal, founder of ScholarX, a startup which enables young Africans to access funds for education, by providing them with various alternative sources of funding.
Launched in July 2016, Scholarx started out as a scholarship app which enables Nigerian students to search and apply for scholarship opportunities, globally. However, Scholarx has recently extended its services with Village, a crowdfunding interface which enables students to create funding requests in order to advance their educational career. Here, individuals across the globe can look at the profiles of needy students and sponsor their education. So far, with Village, Scholarx has helped raise funds for many indigent students and, according to Lawal, will “continue to work to ensure no child is left without a sound education”.
Since its inception, the platform has been home to approximately 200,000 registered users who actively use the platform. Village, which only started in September 2018, is already gaining popularity, having raised over two million naira in crowd-sourced funds (and still counting) for poor students.
Scholarx’ niche is remarkably differentiated. It does not provide e-learning, but e-funding opportunities for students.
“What we are fostering is access to that Education. If people cannot gain access to that educational platform you are providing, what use is it? Though we do not provide educational materials at the moment, there are different ways of learning and teaching [which are presently] focused on high cost private schools.
“Our focus is to get these students out of the streets and get them the required money to go to school. If people cannot access what you are providing, then what use is your product? Just over 1% of the population can access private schools and universities in the country, same goes for apps and other e-materials for learning. They are targeted to the high cost private schools, while the rest of the student population find it difficult to access these materials and pay fees as low as 20,000 naira [54 USD, as at the moment of interview]. So, I am of the opinion that these people at the bottom of the pyramid cannot access any of these, anyway. Let us help them get funding to get an equitable level of education.
“We do have plans to dabble into e-learning; to provide learning materials for people to help them learn how to source for opportunities, scholarships, teach them transformative and employability skills, leadership experience and communication skills. A lot of these things help to position students to secure scholarships. These are things we are interested in creating, to further help students and further realize our goals of access to education”, he said.
Often when floating a startup, everything the founder and his/her team think might go right, will rather go wrong. Therefore, adaptability and flexibility are important for any startup that wants to succeed. These were evident as key factors in the Scholarx success story, as Lawal narrated the experiences he has encountered, running a business in Africa.
“Africa is totally different. You launch a product in the U.S [and] there is [a] people base that easily picks it up and you do not have to spend time teaching them how to use your product. User education is continuous in Africa. So, it takes a lot more time, work and persuasion. An instance is when we were launching our scholarship app. We really thought that it was a solution that would help a lot of young people, but we didn’t take one thing into consideration and that was part of the learning curve. For example in Africa, there are a lot of phones. A lot of companies are trying to get into Africa, because they look at the mobile phone penetration stats and, so, if you launch an app, a lot of people will use it. But then, these companies don’t realize that though there are a lot of phones, most of them are feature phones and the amount of smartphones is a totally different conversation. And so, when you want to launch a mobile app for example, the stats that one needs to look at, are those for the smartphones.
“So, we looked at the general mobile phone penetration stats and we thought this was a no-brainer, because there were over 10,000 scholarships and there were places you could go and study, all-expense paid. We really believed the scholarship app was the way to go and we were expecting about two million downloads, but currently we have 20,000 users now”, he recounts.
For Lawal, most times, new startups do not even know what questions to ask. For him, therefore, it is not about asking the right or wrong questions.
“That was a learning curve for us, but the key thing is how you respond to adverse situations. So, immediately, we got together and built the same version of the app on the web so that people could register and use the platform. Another question to ask is the readiness of the platform to support a million users. Do you have the right infrastructure to manage a larger user base? That is why you see companies like Google, Facebook, Apple and Walmart. These companies are massive because of their being able to manage and support a huge user base. These are all growing pains, but we have been able to adjust very well and understand the realities of the market we are playing in.”
ScholarX has a working relationship with N-Power, a social investment programme of the Federal Government of Nigeria. The partnership enables both parties to leverage off each other’s brand and goodwill. The relationship enables Scholarx to reach more youths across the country. N-Power already has over 250,000 volunteers and is on-boarding another 300,000. Therefore, Scholarx can effectively leverage this network of young people, especially to increase penetration of its Village program. For instance, N-Power teacher volunteers in schools across the country can help identify students who need financial assistance and get them on the platform. Such teachers can also identify schools which have dire needs for renovation, technology tools and materials. This partnership model is important as a success factor in the story of Scholarx.
Possibly another innovative addition in this startup’s array of services is the student loan product to be launched in 2018. It is aimed at helping young people and their parents, specifically. How, you might ask. The better a student’s performance gets in school, the lower the interest rates.
According to Lawal, “partnerships are our lifeblood. Individuals and philanthropists also give out loans to students. Scholarx truly believes the way for startups to thrive is through partnerships; Startup to startup, startup to government, startup to individuals. This is how we believe they will be able to make that impact we are looking for.”
Surprisingly, Scholarx has not raised much funding from external sources. The startup has largely bootstrapped, a strategy which has worked perfectly fine. However, the Scholarx team is currently working on attracting some investments, grants and selling equity as Scholarx is positioned as a for-profit social impact startup (with a non-profit arm, though).
Bola Wahab Lawal believes it takes a lot of time to build a formidable startup. A lot goes on behind the scenes.
“You need to stay focused building brand equity and goodwill to make money. If after a year you do not break even, do not pack your bags and leave. Ask yourself if you have done everything to make sure you succeed. If your answer is no, then keep working because it is a process, it is a journey and whatever impact you have set out to make is attainable.”
Chiamaka Akuba50 Posts
Chiamaka Akuba is a graduate of Mass Communication of the University of Lagos, Nigeria. She is passionate about emerging markets and entrepreneurship and is actively working with the industry. She loves her conversations challenging and can’t help laughing when you call her ‘Honourable Writer of the Federal Republic'. Chiamaka is a Staff Writer at Outrepreneurs.