Boye Oshinaga, Founder and CEO of Gradely, believes that now is a perfect time to start your own business in Africa. “There’s so much in just starting. You don’t know your journey, it may be two months like mine to build the minimum viable product – or it could be two years – but it doesn’t matter.”
“We are playing the global landscape now so there are no local champions. Africa’s products can compete globally,” he adds.
The genesis of his business idea came when he was visiting a school. He overheard a parent complaining about her child failing twice and wanted to know why this happened and how to fix it.
He asked the teacher whether there had been any attempt to find the gap in the pupil’s learning since individual attention in the classroom was not attainable. The answer was a resounding “no”, which is how Gradely came about.
How it was conceptualised
Oshinaga’s solution is a personalised product where assessments are digitised to remedy gaps in pupils’ learning. Gradely digitises assessments that are mapped to the Nigerian and British curriculum.
Each assessment item is a question to gauge understanding of a topic. There are three difficulty levels – easy, medium and hard – and as students get the easier questions right, they are faced with more difficult ones.
When students show difficulty mastering a topic, the app recommends relevant animated video lessons in the specific area of difficulty. If the student’s struggles persist, the app recommends a tutor who can teach the topic that has been identified as problematic.
It all began as an idea in July 2019. The pilot was launched by September 2019, and that’s when Gradely was accepted into the Facebook Accelerator Program.
It took Oshinaga the two intervening months to gather a team and raise the capital to launch Gradely. The company intentionally launched a free trial but aims to change that to drive more active users and scale to create value before it can be monetised.
The team initially sent emails to a database of 800 schools and received a response from 70 of them willing to embrace the programme. Gradely then established pilot programmes in 10 (of the 70) schools. When the Gradely app was launched in February 2021, 100 schools signed up to use it in the first week.
Oshinaga says getting schools to sign up was not difficult, but getting schools to commit to actively using the app has been a far more challenging proposition. With any new product, credibility is hard-won. But positive coverage on CNN and BBC, along with an EdTech Summit Award, made a massive difference to Gradely – and all that while still in the beta development phase.
This convinced association heads, proprietors of some of the most prominent schools and education commissioners to endorse Gradely. And since then, further credibility has come from customer testimonials and the children who have used the platform for homeschooling and after-school tutoring.
How the app works
A minimum viable product was built and focused on the subject of mathematics. This offered enough content for teachers and allowed the manual process of setting up questions and mapping their difficulty to be digitised.
Teachers, parents and students could access these questions that students had completed and see which areas have been mastered, which require more attention, and how long it took the student to complete the questions. This data allowed the final product to be created.
Gradely is very content-rich with about 60,000 assessment items, including over 4,000 video lessons. The teachers select appropriate assessments for their students, download those lessons and questions, and avail them to the students.
Once the students have completed their work, the results are available to the teachers, the pupils and parents immediately and allow for individualised learning to be created for students. “Our job is to match the resources that teachers create,” says Oshinaga.
The significant challenges encountered involve scaling, monetising and driving the product for a market fit. With a heavily segmented market consisting of different schools having various priorities depending on their size and parents, there was a lot to consider when creating the app.
But other challenges became apparent at the lower end of the market, where issues such as Internet connectivity and accessibility for teachers and students were revealed.
To combat this, Gradely announced its partnership with the educational institution, Ehizua Hub, to create “Top Graders Remedial School” in Ajah, Lagos. The remedial school is a room filled with 20 Internet-enabled computers where learners can access Gradely. This school is specifically for students with learning difficulties and who need quality education.
Additionally, some teachers were concerned that using the app would increase their already heavy workloads, causing some hesitancy.
Oshinaga insists that the organisation is constantly trying to expand Gradely’s reach – particularly for the lower-income segment of the market and in rural areas. He says the vision is to help 20 million students significantly improve their learning outcomes by 2030.
Advice to other entrepreneurs
“Gradely taught me that the market can change really fast and can easily fast-track the demand for technology and digitisation. It’s really about having the ability to adapt. You need to build into your DNA as a company, a very strong ability to adapt to change.”
“What you need to understand is that the customer [is constantly becoming]... more advanced. [They] have expectations and your job is to exceed those expectations. If you only meet their needs, they can still forget you but once you exceed their expectations, it is difficult for them to forget you,” says Oshinaga.
“You need to be at the forefront of evolution. There’s nothing more important to a startup than product innovation,” he adds.