June 12, 2014

Article at Josh on Authory

CRDF Global 2013 Annual Report: Kytabu - Access To Textbooks Through Technology

What if the same technology we use to purchase and access books on our mobile devices here in the U.S. could be utilized in Kenya to reduce the cost of and broaden access to textbooks for students? Tech entrepreneur Tonee Ndungu asked that question and worked with CRDF Global to make his start-up venture, Kytabu, a reality.

Affordability and access to educational materials is a universal issue. In Kenya, a country the World Bank ranks 154th out of 183 countries in the world on per capita income, the average family spends about half of its income on education with the majority of that figure paying for textbooks. For perspective, the median income of an average family in Kenya is $730 according to the country’s most recent census.

So what if that same technology we use to purchase and access books on our mobile devices here in the U.S. could be utilized in Kenya to reduce the cost of and broaden access to textbooks for students? Tech entrepreneur Tonee Ndungu asked that question and worked with CRDF Global and the Global Innovation through Science and Technology (GIST) Initiative, a project funded by the U.S. Department of State, to make his start-up venture, Kytabu, a reality.

Using A Challenge to Create A Solution Growing up in Kenya, Tonee’s resourcefulness helped him navigate through school despite living with dyslexia. He used audio books to absorb the information he needed to keep up with studies.

He accredits the inception of Kytabu, an affordable mobile textbook leasing service, to this particular challenge in his life. Kytabu, meaning “book” in Swahili, allows students and their families to securely access and rent portions of required reading materials for a specific amount of time on a mobile platform. Considering UNICEF’s report showing a mobile penetration rate of 72% in Kenya while only 32% utilize traditional access to the internet, the service seems to be on the right platform. Via Kytabu, every textbook in the Kenyan primary and secondary school education curriculum becomes available pre-installed on Android-based tablets (and encrypted to protect publisher copyrights). These tablets are regularly updated over cellular data and made available to students through their schools. Reading material can be purchased for a set period of time by page, by chapter, or in its entirety for a fraction of what it would cost to buy a complete printed textbook.

Kytabu is also equipped with an app store where users can download audio books, learning games, virtual classrooms, and past tests and exams. “It simultaneously resolves the traditional problems of availability, affordability, and access,” Ndungu explained. “With mobile money changing the fabric of society in Kenya in the most tangible manner because of its convenience, it only made sense to incorporate and integrate it into the buying process.”

He estimates that by using this mobile platform, textbook costs are lowered by about 60% over buying traditional hardcopies. In addition, the material remains technologically relevant and up to date.

“The genius in the application is the ability to micro-pay for bite-sized content only when it is needed,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said at the 2013 Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where Tonee was honored for this venture as part of the GIST Tech-I competition.

Giving Students a Chance to Learn 

Tonee started developing Kytabu in 2012. As a self-described Social Technopreneur, he constantly strives to build innovations to help people while also creating a sustainable business model. Though his first startup failed, he pressed on. With Kytabu, he reached out to CRDF Global and the GIST Initiative to seek world-class mentorship and networking opportunities. He heard about the GIST Tech-I competition through a friend who participated in the GIST Entrepreneurship Journey program, which takes the top alumni to the U.S. to accelerate their startups.

The GIST Tech-I competition puts aspiring entrepreneurs through a rigorous process of pitching ventures to an expert panel of entrepreneurs and investors, and creating videos to gain support through public voting to narrow the field to 30 rising entrepreneurs. In 2013, those top 30 earned a trip to the Global Entrepreneurship Summit where they completed a four-day mentorship program with the top two ventures honored at the conclusion of the proceedings.

After working with mentors like Jeff Hoffman, Co-Founder and Former CEO of Priceline.com, and Scott Hartley, Partner at Mohr Davidow Ventures, participants learned the tools and strategies necessary to help their ideas and start-ups survive and thrive.

“The Global Entrepreneurship Summit is where many of the world’s most successful entrepreneurs, investors, and policymakers go to identify the future’s most promising innovations,” explained Ovidiu Bujorean, Senior Program Manager of Entrepreneurship and Innovation at CRDF Global.

“The most valuable components of this program are the mentorship, the international exposure and networking opportunities; in addition to the validation they receive from high caliber investors and entrepreneurs.”

“Tonee is a very self-sufficient entrepreneur who utilized our time to really trouble shoot areas of his business that he was having trouble understanding,” Hartley explained.

When Tonee accepted his honor as the 2013 GIST Tech-I Winner for the Start-Up track, he extended one hand to accept congratulations from Jeff Hoffman while fighting back tears with the other. “It was probably the best time I have had in a long time,” Tonee said. “I have to thank everyone involved for the help and support. Kytabu will make it because you are all watching.”

“I am inspired by entrepreneurs like Tonee Ndungu of Kenya,” Secretary of State Kerry commented during his presentation at the Summit. “By making textbooks more affordable he gives lower income students a chance to learn; one that they might not have otherwise had.”

Since the Summit, Kytabu has attracted global attention, including coveted support from two U.S. angel investors. In February 2014, Microsoft announced its investment in the venture through the 4Afrika Initiative, and Google identified it as “the education application most likely to change the world in this decade.”