Conversations with Abang Mercy – “Leading the online education revolution is our tack at Fora” Iyinoluwa Aboyejia
Iyinoluwa Aboyejia is the CEO of Fora. Fora is Africa’s first fully digitaleducation publishing and distribution platform focused on the tertiary and professional education markets. “Conversations with Abang Mercy” caught up with him when he visited the Federal Capital Territory Abuja recently and we got him to talk about his educational model that provides Nigerian universities content and curriculum they need to transfer 21stcentury skills and competencies to their students as well as his desire to make Africa the world’s largest work force by 2030 .
Enjoy the Conversation.
What motivated FORA?
I can’t think of any one single thing that “motivated” Fora but I can say Fora has been a culmination of several years of active interest and experience in education and e-learning. If there was any trigger for me, I think it was sometime last year when I was reading some interesting research done by McKinsey on youth and the job market and I saw the stunning statistic that Africa will have the world’s largest workforce by 2030, even larger than China and yet just 6% of the population has a tertiary education. That shocked me and I did a lot more research and realized that the situation was actually a lot worse than I thought especially in Nigeria. In Nigeria, barely 5% of the population is University educated and the Nigerian higher education system was turning away 75% of all it applicants so essentially, that 5% number is unlikely to increase. To make matters worse, we were experiencing a 40% shortfall in science and technology teachers in our Universities – which is in my opinion a travesty because all the jobs of the future are science and technology jobs. And to crown it all, the market especially was reacting very sharply to the decadence in the Nigerian higher education sector, sending their children abroad to study and draining $10 billion from the economy in the process. The way I thought about it, if I don’t design a solution to this problem, Africa won’t have the world’s largest work force, it will have the largest warforce because there will be hundreds of millions of young people without skills, without prospects and without opportunity and this will put my family and everything I love about my country at serious risk. It just made sense to start Fora at that point.
Fora makes it possible for African students to access an Ivy League education for ten times less without leaving their country. Tell us more, how is that even possible?
Without giving away our secret sauce, we are able to do this because we have built some incredible partnerships with some of the best schools in the world who share our vision and believe in the strategic importance of what we are doing. These partnerships allow us to license course content and curriculum developed by professors from some of the best schools in the world and distributes this content to Nigerian Universities and Corporate bodies. Each one of these courses come with several hours of video lecturers and lab demonstrations, templates, worksheets, required text readings or books, test bank and even final exams. We provide everything possible to enable anyone run a course in an area they only have general subject knowledge of. We are able to distribute our content for very cheap because all our content is digitally delivered via a small 4G USB key so the student can access the content offline. So unlike other educational publishing companies, we don’t need a large warehouse or print machines or paper and so this dramatically reduces costs associated with delivering content.
Finally, in the last couple months, we’ve been able to employ massive scale to bring our prices down very quickly even way lower than 10 times less we originally promised. For example, we just licensed an entire year’s worth of course content and curriculum in Investment Finance from a group of professors at a top 10 University in the US to one of our University clients on the continent for less than $100/student/year. If you had sent your child to any of those Universities, you would have to pay upwards of $40,000/year for the exact same thing we are offering our University clients for $100/year
Last year, as you had noted, 1.7 million students applied to get into Nigeria’s 104 universities but over 75% were turned away because there were no spaces for them. The lack of capacity in Nigerian Higher education has spawned off a $10 billion dollar study abroad industry.. But many will disagree that the quest for higher education abroad is for the rich and not the category of people that seek to study in Nigerian University.
I don’t think this is true. Just looking at the statistics and our own research, you will see that a lot of the spending on foreign education isn’t even in the usual suspects which cost an arm and a leg and one could say is maybe for the “rich”. The spending on foreign education is in places like Ghana, Malaysia, Hungary, not necessarily, the US, the UK or Canada. Ghana alone for example is responsible for collecting a fifth of our spending on foreign education. So it isn’t even the rich that is driving the demand, it is the lower middle class. And it is very easy to see where they are coming from. With growing inequality in our country, the outcomes especially with respect to access to employment are a lot more binary so if you deny your children the advantage of foreign education, you will suffer it because they will be disadvantaged in the job market and they won’t be able to take care of you when you grow old. Also, if you just think about the demand for admission to private Nigerian Universities, you can easily see that the lack of capacity in Nigerian Universities isn’t just a problem for the rich or middle class who can send their kids abroad, it is everyone.
What is it that is lacking in the Nigerian University system? Is it just about the number of institutions or the quality of education?
Both. The quality and relevance of our higher education is a bigger problem than the scale but both are big problems. The biggest problem is our higher education is not equipping young Nigerian talent for the jobs of the future. A lot of the curriculum is outdated and irrelevant in the present context. Scale is also a big problem, we don’t have enough good professors in specialist areas to go around and as a result we are short changing over 75% of the population that want access to a higher education but can’t get it.
You said African students can afford the Ivy League education system, ten times less. How affordable? We will be glad if you can pitch an average figure for one to complete a degree program with your school.
Well the first misconception I would like to correct is this idea that we are a school. We are not a school. We are am education publishing and Distribution Company. So we supply content, curriculum and resources in specialist courses to Nigerian Universities and corporate training academies that don’t have in-house expertise but we are not a University or corporate training academy ourselves. We just license them the content and curriculum and then someone with general subject knowledge in the area can then use it to train and accredit. Now, like I said earlier, we’ve even gone beyond ten times less. We are probably at 1000 times less right now and as we scale, it will get even cheaper. On average price, it will be tough to say right now because it really depends on a couple of factors including the scale at which we are expected to deploy the content so it is very possible for you to spend a lot less than $250 per student over four years with us. It really depends.
We noticed your course prices start at $150 per student. Don’t you think the Fora education model seeks to serve the bourgeoisie’s that will anyway afford foreign education?
Again, like I said earlier, it could be a lot cheaper than $150. It really is a matter of scale. The more people who demand our course content, the lower the price can go. I think even at $150 per student, there are still a lot of Nigerians who can afford it. Average tuition for private Universities in Nigeria is between $4,000 and $6,000 per year and a lot of textbooks with outdated information cost a lot more than $150. I don’t think asking for barely 3.75% of a student’s tuition for something that is way more useful than a textbook is too much.
As for the question of whether the model serves the bourgeoisie’s who can afford foreign education anyway, I really can’t say to be honest. There will always be the option of foreign education for those that can afford it but I think for the kind of quality we bring to the table, you’ll probably be paying a lot more than 1$50/student if you go abroad.
For the 112million poor Nigerians, according to the National Bureau of Statistics, how can theIvy League Education to Africa incorporate this category of people into its program?
I think overtime as we scale, it will incorporate everyone. That’s our dream; everyone in this country should learn at least one useful skill that will help them make money from our site. It will require a lot of partnership with the corporate and the government however. Right now, we are actually currently looking at a number of models where corporates or the government can subsidize the licensing cost of some of our popular course content so we can give it away for free or next to nothing.
According to Fora, only 6% of young Africans can access higher education because of limited infrastructure and teaching capacity. What’s the model you seek to apply?
That is an interesting question. A lot of people in our space simply set up their own new Universities but our play is to strengthen the capacity of existing Universities to deliver on quality at scale when they adopt our program. The depth and breadth of our content makes it easy for any teacher with any level of qualification and skill level to still deliver quality instruction. Also, since we deliver all our content digitally, we don’t need expensive infrastructure to deliver the content to student, which makes it very affordable.
Nigeria will have to build a new University each week and employ 20,000 new teachers this year to cope with enrollment growth. What are you doing differently to bridge the gap?
Yes, the gap is enormous. For us I think distributing content digitally and being prepared to lead the online education revolution in this country is our own tack at bridging the gap. We could go the way of many schools and try to do a brick and mortar model but we know it won’t scale quickly enough. This is why we made the decision to go digital.
According to your research, over 74% of mobile users in Nigeria would like to access educational content via mobile and over the next 3 years Nigerians will more than double their current spending on e-learning to almost $100m a year. Electricity is still a big issue for Nigerians; don’t you see that as a challenging factor for your students?
I really don’t think so. Lots of Nigerians use mobile phones and electricity is already an issue so I don’t think it will significantly impact on the demand for great educational content in Nigeria. Also, the currently privatization of power means that the current situation will only get better which is good for us. The one thing I think will be a challenge for our students is the cost of bandwidth. Our cost of bandwidth is 5 times the global average. This is why we have developed and continue to develop innovative offline delivery options.
Are you working with the Nigerian Universities Commission (NUC) the umbrella body that accredits universities in Nigeria to see that your schoolor educational model is a success?
Well first we don’t have a school so the way we are working with NUC is different from how say a proposed University does. We are more like a publishing but we cannot succeed without the NUC so we have worked very closely with them. We have paid lots of courtesy visits to the NUC and we made a presentation in front of their Management Committee in July. They have been very supportive and they issued us a letter of comfort to let Nigerian Universities know that we have been consulting with them on our program.
You have acquired over 40 courses taught by big name professors from leading institutions like NYU, Harvard and Yale as well as top executives from successful companies like General Electric and BlackBerry. Can you tell us, specifically about some of the courses?
Well actually, I think we are way past 40 courses now. We have over 1000 titles in our course catalog and we add a couple hundred every month. In fact, right now I am currently negotiating with some Australian Universities who want to sell us a couple hundred courses.
About the courses, one important thing to note is we also sell educational content to Corporate academies and corporate training outfits as well so our content is both targeted at University students as well as professional development.
We have content in every imaginable field of endeavor but we generally tend to focus on three areas; finance education (or management sciences as you call it in Nigeria), Science and Engineering and finally technology (or ICT as you call it in Nigeria). Our best selling segment is our finance education content catalogue, where we have accounting courses, corporate finance courses and management education courses amongst several others.
I understand Obiageli Ezekwesili, Nigeria’s former Education Minister is on the board. What’s her role and why the choice of Mrs Ezekwesili?
Mrs Ezekwesili is on our advisory board. She has been a huge help in terms of helping us understand and appropriately consider the policy issues involved in our business and in connecting us to people who are key to our success. I believe Dr Ezekwesili is Nigeria’s most transformative education minister in the last couple of decades. A lot of the reforms she tried to bring in while she was minister have unfortunately fallen by the way side but they form the fulcrum of our own general plan for improving education in Nigeria. Our thought process was who better to direct us in fixing Nigerian education than the woman who designed most of the blueprints. However, more importantly, as a business person I think integrity is the most important quality of any business and anyone who has worked closely with Mummy will tell you that she is one of the few women of great integrity in this country. Working with her on our advisory board means that I have to hold myself to her standards of integrity which is a challenge I am very happy to accept
Are you only interested in the Ghanaian and Nigerian market for this educational system?
At all. I think we are definitely going to cover Africa and we might even go to the Arab countries as well since they face similar challenges. That said we want to start with Nigeria and then Ghana since charity begins at home. (we are not a charity though) .