In this edition on EdTech, MBR team had the privilege to talk to the EdTech industry expert, Mr. Sami Ahmed. Mr. Ahmed is the Managing Director of Startup Bangladesh Limited, which is the flagship venture capital fund of the ICT Division. It is our country’s first and only venture capital fund sponsored by the government of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh.
MBR: The country is experiencing an upsurge in the number of EdTech startups. From your experience of being at the pinnacle of Startup Bangladesh Limited and working closely with different Bangladeshi startup verticals, would you please share your thoughts and observations regarding the rise of EdTech in our startup ecosystem?
Sami Ahmed: By March 2020, the face of the education sector in Bangladesh and across the world had changed drastically. The coronavirus pandemic forced us to shift to e-learning, teaching via digital platforms. Research suggests that globally, there were 1.2 billion students affected by the closure of schools and universities due to the pandemic. With remote learning measures likely to be around for a while, the worldwide education market has also seen a significant shift in investment in educational technology. With increased demand, several online learning applications and platforms are coming up in Bangladesh as well, like 10 Minute School, Eduhive, etc., which is great news for the industry here. Because there are a lot of new global EdTech startups, there have not been enough startups tailormade for our local needs considering the local culture & language. The COVID-19 pandemic has played a key role in the adoption of online learning. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Startup Bangladesh Limited led the partnership between the EdTech Consortium and the Education Ministry to develop Digital Education content for the “amar ghore amar school” initiative by the Government of Bangladesh.
MBR: Multiple unicorns in the EdTech sector have emerged in India, and currently, a good number of EdTech firms are serving the online education platform in Bangladesh. Can we expect multiple unicorns to emerge in this industry over the next five to ten years?
Sami Ahmed: Yes. There are at least two startups in the EdTech Sector that have a High chance of becoming Unicorns in the next 5-10 years and more are on their way to expanding their operations to grow big in the coming years.
To have more Unicorns, we need more new fresh ideas and we are seeing that new startups are coming in who are using emerging technologies like AI to enhance the learning experience, etc. The wonderful thing about this sector is that a lot of them are bringing solutions that are not only for the Bangladesh market but can cater to global needs as well.
In fact, I have seen one startup that they are using teachers from Bangladesh, and they are imparting education in other countries. Using the teachers from Bangladesh is more cost-effective, and using the platform to reach out to other countries gives them wider market access. So, the market for Edtech is not only in Bangladesh, but there is scope to use the resources from Bangladesh for a bigger global opportunity.
MBR: According to you, what are the challenges Edtech startups are currently facing in scaling up their operations?
Sami Ahmed: The reach of EdTech companies is limited to a small percentage of students. Lack of highquality internet connectivity in hard-to-reach areas, a lack of affordable data plans and internet access devices, as well as other socio-economic barriers, make it difficult for companies to expand their reach. Even if certain online learning schemes exist, they have a little grassroots effect, and access to online learning remains a luxury for some and unattainable for most. So, while business is booming for the Ed-Tech industry, companies providing these services must also work with both policymakers as well as regulatory bodies in the country—to ensure that they provide quality content and to use this unique opportunity to bring education into everyone’s homes, making it the norm, and not simply a luxury. Furthermore, there are very few tried and tested models from a Bangladeshi perspective on what works for a successful EdTech and what does not. In terms of scaling, this is one area where EdTech startups in Bangladesh will struggle: many will have to figure out what to do on the job. One of the biggest challenges is finding the ideal product-market fit at the right time.
MBR: One in every four individuals in Bangladesh is deprived of education. With this backdrop, how can EdTech platforms support inclusive education where no one is left behind?
Sami Ahmed: This is a great question. There is a big scarcity of quality content and teachers throughout the country. In that perspective, Edtech platforms have a huge role to play in ensuring education for all. Through technology, they can very easily reach the hard-toreach areas where there is a scarcity of quality teachers.
We want these startup ideas to come from across the country. Someone who lives or has lived in the rural areas is the best person to come up with an innovative solution to their local problem. The government is trying to encourage entrepreneurs to come up with Startup ideas to be not only Dhaka-centric but should be applicable to the whole country.
Also, I do not believe that EdTech platforms need to be 100% virtual. It can be in a blended version. Not everything can be taught virtually; there has to be some physical presence. We have not seen it yet, but I think that some EdTech platforms that operate in a blended model that does the virtual learning session & has some physical presence to it may work better in many cases. One way to achieve this would be to partner with schools or educational institutions and have the startups provide the online version of the program, whereas the schools take care of the physical part.
Furthermore, EdTech startups need to collaborate with the government and other stakeholders to make online learning accessible and affordable for all.
MBR: Do you believe that interoperability with other technology verticals could enable EdTech startups to offer more affordable and accessible ICT and skill development programs alongside literacy programs to reach a broader audience?
Sami Ahmed: Definitely. Interoperable systems will help improve the overall educational experience. The use of disparate software products can be a way of life for many schools and districts. Teachers use anywhere from 5 to 10 software products—or more—from a guidebook and LMS to products for special education and assessment. Principals and administrators use one product to maintain their overall student data information and the other for cafeteria management, transportation, and automated calling.
With all these separate products made by different companies, educational technology interoperability— how well software products communicate, or speak, with each other—can be a lost cause. Users pay the price through wasted time entering or recovering passwords, duplication of data from a lack of communication between products; limited productivity; and weakened educational opportunities for students.
Interoperability with other technological verticals is essential for efficiency in powering operations and for maximizing the ROI of EdTech services. It will not only reduce operational costs, but it will also save time and enable “best-of-class” solutions. When technological systems integrate seamlessly, student outcomes can be enhanced.
MBR: Several startups in the Edtech industry have successfully allured both local and foreign investors. What are your suggestions for the infant startups in the online learning segment to attract more foreign and local investments?
Sami Ahmed: Come up with some new & innovative ideas. Do not be just another copycat. Yes, of course, you can build the business model better than others. But if you are going to do better than them, make sure you do it ten times better than they do.
If you go on and copy from a global idea & make it more fitting for a local need, that may be fine. But if you just copy from another local business without a definite USP or a significant competitive advantage, you are more likely to fail.
Then what is the value of that? So, Google did that. There were so many search engines but google shined because the work they did was 10times better than anyone present in the market at that time.
So come up with innovative ideas or some great innovations.