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With uLesson, Sim Shagaya is now top of the class

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uLesson, Sim Shagaya’s latest startup, is less about the cash, and more about the marks. The marks it’s making.

Trust me, there’s a lot of money involved alright, as the start-up has so far raised $10.6 million in seed and series A funding. But, outside this eye-popping avalanche of cash, uLesson, by its structure and arrangement, is the best-positioned edtech product that might just finally democratise education in Nigeria.

Before uLesson, you might contend, others had been here. This is where you insert such names as PrepClass and Tuteria, which, of course, are intelligently conceived and executed ideas in their own right. However, where the forerunners showed a glimpse of the revolution possible in African education, uLesson has now thrown the gates wide open.

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The uLesson platform currently combines the possibility to stream its classes in-app with the choice to receive those lessons on SD cards. This dual option is a common-sense solution to the problem of frequently-unstable and comparatively costly data packages. What it then means is that anyone, notwithstanding their social standing and location within Nigeria, could take classes on uLesson—at an average of $50 per year.

It’s like in the old days with Netflix, says Shagaya about the SD card route, when you could borrow CDs in envelopes. Eventually, he reckons, as data becomes more accessible, maybe one day no one would need the SD cards anymore.

But we’re not there yet. “Big things are built through a series of small steps. Each small item seems trivial and inconsequential yet must be addressed with the utmost sense of importance and urgency,” he tweeted recently. For uLesson, even with the international attention it has been receiving since its launch in 2019, these are still the days of small steps.

And such is the native insight from the man who keeps building internet companies to bring Nigeria—and Africa—closer to the opportunities common in the developed world. Shagaya’s road to uLesson, you could say, is marked with several monumental signposts.

In 2005, he started a digital out-of-home billboards business called eMotion. Then he followed that in 2011 with DealDey, the country’s first group buying site. His best-known start-up, the ecommerce site Konga, was launched in 2012 and it wrestled for market share against the current African leader Jumia. Eventually, Konga was bloodied by the terrain in which it chose to do business, and sold in 2018 to homegrown computer maker Zinox.

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None of Shagaya’s companies, however, postured as if they were reinventing the wheel. Rather, they leapfrogged present-day technologies to present 21st century versions, adapted to Africa. As true as this method was for DealDey, eMotion, and Konga, so it is, right now, for uLesson.

Shagaya, 45, observes that Africa being an enormous region with heterogenous “needs, cultures, and curricula, uLesson has to carefully and deliberately think about how to design products and distribution channels to serve such a vast market.” This, for instance, is why uLesson started with an Android app, Android being the most common mobile operating system in the target market.

While the global edtech marketplace is awash with stars like Udemy, Domestika, Coursera, Skillshare, and others of their kind, not one of these practically helps lower class African parents access world-class curriculum-based schooling that could either supplement the day school or totally become the tutor for preparing their children for milestone exams. That was until Shagaya’s uLesson arrived.

“Almost daily we receive emails from families across the continent asking us to make services available to them. And in 2021, we will,” Shagaya says.

Originally designed for K-12 pupils in Nigeria, Ghana, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and the Gambia, uLesson now offers courses to match the IGCSE curriculum for that same audience. Aside from that, it also intends to include a pan-African primary school library, 1-on-1 tutorials, and the Challenge, which is a feature for friends to face-off with one another with quizzes.

There are also WAEC (West African Examination Council) practice tests and over 3000 animated videos for core subjects, such as maths, physics, chemistry, and biolody. If all goes according to plan, an iOS app will soon be available.

“We’re targeting Anglophone West Africa,” Shagaya has said, estimating the population of the region at about 300 million people.

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Although a large percentage of Africans consider education such an important part of raising their youth, it is flagrantly ironic that such a people would create a system with such systemic deficiencies in educational institutions. Student-teacher ratios, as Shagaya observes, can be as high as 70:1 in public schools—and that’s not to speak of the dead libraries, non-existent classroom furniture, and poorly trained teachers who have mostly taken the job because there was nothing else.

Yet, the people continue to grow in number. “We’re adding more babies in this country nominally than all of Western Europe…Even if the [Nigerian] government was super efficient, it couldn’t catch up with the educational needs of the young people that are coming up,” Shagaya said to the Web’s leader in tech journalism TechCrunch.

Once West Africa is fully in their grasp, Shagaya and his team will head East, probably landing in Nairobi, and spread southwards. As they did in Nigeria, they will face competition in Kenya but the same advantages they had in West African will likely come handy again.

So, if uLesson isn’t such a never-before-seen idea, why has it taken off this quickly? Well, remember the features we earlier talked about? Those are only one reason. The other factor is Shagaya himself. Some analysts, including those at TechCrunch, believe that uLesson’s founder is the joker in its deck. And they’re right.

A Harvard MBA who once worked for Google in Nigeria and had run three important tech enterprises, Shagaya’s understanding of the developmental and behavioural statistics on Africa, coupled with his high quality connections should always serve uLesson’s best interests.

Take the company’s funding, for example. While Shagaya himself poured some of his personal wealth into it, the lead investors on the seed round, TLcom Capital, are managed by Maurizio Caio, Ido Sum, and an erstwhile information and communication minister in Nigeria, Omobola Johnson.

When Ms Johnson was in government between 2011 and 2015, she operated as a vocal champion of the Nigerian start-up ecosystem and, being one of the sector’s shiniest stars, Shagaya, a winner of many leadership awaerds, must have caught the minister’s eye.

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Besides, Shagaya’s visibility as a frontline African tech entrepreneur is top of the line. Plus, he appears to consider uLesson a legacy assignment to which he must give everything he’s got.

Frequently described as the ‘king of exits’ (a tag he appears to share with Iyin Aboyeji, cofounder of Flutterwave) for the successful sale of his previous businesses, Shagaya now focuses his attention on uLesson. He thinks it’s perhaps his life’s biggest assignment.

“If we do this right, our impact will be huge,” he says. “For me this is probably the most important work I’ll do.”If he succeeds, he might be recorded in the history books as the second person, in Nigeria, who brought education much closer to the common man. He will be following in the footsteps of Chief Obafemi Awolowo, first premier of Nigeria’s Western Region and the man whose face you now see on the 100 naira note.

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