When it comes to primary education, Bangladesh has made remarkable strides. Progress on universal access, enrolment rates, gender equity, and high competition levels have made it a success story among its peers in the developing world.
Yet that success has not quite translated into secondary and higher education. In urban cities, most students traditionally rely on pricey after-school coaching centres or private tutors to help them with test preparation and further study assistance.
That’s where Bangladeshi startup Shikho steps in, harnessing the power of technology to democratise education and make it more affordable and fun.
“We want to be a Spotify for learning,” declares Shahir Chowdhury, Shikho’s co-founder and CEO.
Now approaching 100,000 downloads on Google Play Store, users can sign up to the Shikho app to receive video lessons that use high-quality animation that enhances their learning experience through exciting gamification techniques.
Thanks to extensive smartphone penetration in Bangladesh, its coverage has spread across the country, with users from the remote Sundarbans delta on the app.
This kind of accessibility coupled with a revolutionary digital learning formula is what Shikho hopes will eventually lead to mass adoption.
For Chowdhury, it forms the basis of Shikho’s value proposition. “We wanted to produce videos that are high quality and structured on-demand so you can access them anytime through the convenience of a mobile phone,” he tells TRT World.
And the company’s vision has been compelling enough to catch the attention of global and regional investors.
At the end of July, Shikho closed a $1.3 million seed funding round, backed by prominent Silicon Valley-based edtech investor Learn Capital, and Anchorless Bangladesh, a New York-based fund focused on startups in the country. Early-stage venture capital firm Wavemaker Partners and CEO Ankur Nagpal of online course platform Teachable rounded out the sponsoring quartet.
Before Shikho’s launch in April 2019, Chowdhury and co-founder/COO Zeeshan Zakaria – who both grew up in Dhaka – had been bootstrapping the project over the years while working in the financial services industry in London.
But the UK was only meant to be a stopgap and before long, Bangladesh beckoned. “I wanted to go back and launch a socially impactful business using technology,” Chowdhury says.
With a career in finance, he naturally gravitated towards fintech. But there were already a handful of players specialising in financial inclusion back home led by bKash, a popular mobile services solution backed by Chinese tech giant Ali Baba.
Instilled with a life-long interest in learning, education appeared the logical next option; Chowdhury’s father was a retired professor and his mother a teacher. Coming across a research report in 2018 that detailed the rise of Chinese and Indian edtech startups like Toppr and Byju motivated him to dig deeper and finally enter the space.
Initially, he observed comparable market dynamics between Bangladesh and India – the cultural importance imbued upon education, not to mention its impact on social mobility.
However, there was one big difference. “Risk capital has been sparse in Bangladesh, and never enough to support long-term edtech projects,” he says.
Venture capital funding in India is more mature compared to its eastern neighbour, evidenced in a per capita spending disparity of $49 to $0.70. By 2020, India had pulled in a total of $2.9 billion in edtech funding, while Bangladeshi firms historically had raised a meagre $1.2 million combined (excluding Shikho’s latest round).
While investment was a missing ingredient that prevented long-term projects from taking root, Chowdhury turned to what market opportunities could be tapped into.
Last year, Bangladesh surpassed India in terms of GDP per capita and its economy has experienced at least six percent growth since 2009. With it has come a growing middle class with disposable income willing to spend more on their children’s education.
There was also a population dividend. “Out of 165 million people, half of that is under 25 and effectively learning in some shape or form,” Chowdhury says. He was confident demand for an education product existed, only there was no infrastructural capability to upskill enough teachers to meet it.
How Shikho works
The goal at first was to come up with an engaging way to teach students the syllabus from the Bangladesh National Curriculum. The idea was to incorporate lessons into an on-demand video experience that would deliver a new way of learning.
“We realised our pedagogical style needed to be more visual, which the traditional learning experience lacked,” Chowdhury explains. “You can visualise examples in a real-life context that helps kids retain information long-term. That’s the conceptual underpinning for what we’re building.”
Since rolling out the pilot app in November 2020, the company offers a mathematics course for grades 9-10, containing more than 120 video lectures, 4,000 mock questions with solutions, and over 1,000 diagrams.
Following the pilot, Shikho plans to launch more courses and subjects like biology, chemistry and physics and expand to grades 9-12.
Each video course is seventeen chapters, which are broken into five-minute-long lessons. Digital resources called “smart notes” are supplemented with each video lesson.
Retaining attention spans was a crucial component to the app’s creative design, and Shikho settled on gamification features to enhance user experience: every time a student logs in, does a test or watches a video, points are accrued. Additionally, they’re awarded special badges for accomplishments like completing a test quickly and correctly.
Chowdhury explains how the foundation of the app is a data-driven architecture. A historical blueprint of each student’s progress is tracked, allowing for a personalised recommendation engine that pushes videos from lessons they might be underperforming in.
“As we collect more data, that’s where the real power of technology comes in. Users get predicted grades based on how you’re doing and tell you ‘we think you’re going to hit a B in this, so to up your game you need to do x, y and z’”.
When users sign up to the app, they get a free three-day trial before it hits a paywall. Each subject is priced at $15 for annual access, and Chowdhury expects more freemium content to be added soon along with bundle deals. One issue has been figuring out how to make digital payments more intuitive.
He says that users currently spend around 40-50 minutes daily on the app. “Right now, there is only one subject but once we release more, engagement will increase.”
While all video content is pre-recorded, Shikho aims to launch a live-class function and web portal before the end of 2021. It also plans to scale up content production, including an app which links parents with students to give them a greater insight into their children’s learning experience.
“It’s a fine balance. We don’t want it to be a monitoring tool!”
To achieve mass adoption, he understands a requisite cultural-behavioural shift won’t happen overnight. “Digital learning is still in its infancy. It will take time.”
For now, the pandemic has been a mixed bag for the business. Being an online learning platform, Covid-19 has been a boon for edtech in general. “It’s given us some time to refocus on product build-up and content creation rather than adoption,” Chowdhury adds.
However, the health crisis has meant that schools are still closed, board exam dates moved around, and students don’t have a target to study for.
It’s also stifled the company’s marketing ability in a country like Bangladesh, where getting the word out and demonstrating the value of a product still hinges on face-to-face interaction.
While the pandemic lingers, he wants to direct resources from the latest funding round on building up a “superstar team” to complement Shikho’s current headcount of 180 full-time and contractual employees.
Moving forward, the company sees new opportunities to foster strategic partnerships and build upon its vision of using technology to implement social change.
Chowdhury is optimistic about the government’s “Digital Bangladesh” initiative, which looks to nurture a domestic startup ecosystem, and the company has been open to discussions with NGOs and the public sector to see where future collaboration might exist.
From a strategic standpoint, the latest funding round has given Shikho concrete support that can allow it to execute plans that are more long-term oriented.
“If you don’t have investors who buy into your vision, you end up becoming more short-term minded, which isn’t the way to build a company based on principled social values,” says Chowdhury.
“We are really focused on building something that’s great for Bangladesh.