By Gabriel Onyango
Esther Gacicio is the entrepreneur behind eLearning Solutions, an online learning platform that seeks to change the way we learn by providing affordable, tailor-made content. It has been shortlisted in the 2018 shortlist for the Africa Prize
What inspired you to start eLearning solutions?
I have been working with the youth and I realized that after school, they really don’t know what to do, especially for those who don’t get into universities who are the majority. They easily get into vices; early marriages, pregnancy, crime etc.
I was inspired to help them get a meaningful life and take charge of it after school, a time when they are not sure what they want to do for a career. They have a lot of free time on their hands; school has ended now what?
How did you move from identifying this need in the youth, to turning your idea in to a service?
I have been in the learning space for a while. I am a content developer by profession; writing and developing learning programs. So I thought about what is it that we could give this kids that could make a difference.
The immediate one was ICT literacy, after school, youth would enroll in a computer packages class or learn from the person at the local cyber café. We also realized that some of them are also entrepreneurial, so the question was how can I inspire them to start something. We came up with a program that could help develop that interest, help them start up their small business, and market their product.
What is your approach to getting content for the platform?
We make the content ourselves to meet the needs of our clientele, continuously interacting with them to get what they need. For instance, some of the ideas we are getting target those in the market for jobs.
They need to learn soft skills, how to present themselves, develop their CVs and we are developing content to address that. We respond to the need of the youth and, do content that is local and they can identify with.
That is what sets us aside from the big international companies like Udemy, Coursera and so on, they have the content but it doesn’t talk to our local clientele.
Finance is usually a challenge for many entrepreneurs, how have you approached finance and have you had any challenges?
Yes, finance is a big issue; developing content is very intensive. The need to develop and maintain a platform is intense as well. Fortunately, we have one investor who has put a bit of money into the project, as much as our sales are still growing, the investor trusts that it’s a viable project that could move forward.
What is your advice to any entrepreneur out there looking to attract investors for the idea or start up?
Know exactly what you want to do and have a value preposition. Ask yourself whether your idea has an impact on people, is it responding to a need? If it solves a need, how sustainable is it going to be and how are you going to make money? At the end of the day, an investor looks at what they can make out of it – unless you are talking to a very philanthropic person, who are not that many.
You are part of the Africa Prize under the movement of changing engineers into entrepreneurs, do you think it is possible?
Yes, I do because engineers have many ideas that could sort out many problems. They invent things that are supposed to come in and sort things out but they are not necessarily business people. An engineer would come up with an idea and leave it at that.
Therefore, what Africa Prize is doing is making these ideas business opportunities. If you look at the people shortlisted and the ideas they have come up with are great. Engineers are normally curious, wondering can I get a solution to this or that issue, but when you finally get there and prove your point that it is solvable, they leave it at that. However, if there is value addition towards making it a business opportunity that enables research more ideas and make a living out of it.
How do you approach partnerships and collaboration?
Well, for instance, I am a good content developer but I have not been a businessperson per se. It is a matter of knowing your strengths; this is what I can do and this is what I can’t. Then looking out for other people interested in taking your idea to the next level. The mistake we always do is that I get an idea and think I can do it all on my own.
That is also, where investors come in. They add value to the idea, make it stronger and move it to the next level. I always say, you are not an island you are not everything, many businesses that fail, do so because in your absence nothing can happen.
For eLearning solutions, I am great at content development but I had to get someone good in technology, programming to develop the platform and then I get someone else who is talented in the business side. At the end of the day, you will find that in my company, I may not even be the CEO but work with a team to drive it forward.
What are the biggest challenges in your entrepreneurship and content development journey?
The biggest challenge has been selling the idea whilst changing people’s mindset. ELearning is still new and people don’t really understand how it works. Many would easily equate virtual learning to using things like Facebook. Once they understand it, they find it cost effective, flexible-you can do it at your own pace.
How do you handle the challenge of changing peoples’ mindset to embrace eLearning?
Our target market are people who are already conversant with the internet-not necessarily through training but practice, people who can use their phone, explore Facebook etc. In that regard, we are going to where our clientele is, talking to them through social media, and encouraging them to explore some of our free programs; just to get a sense of how virtual learning works and thereafter decide for themselves.
We are also working on acquiring certification from the National Industrial Training Authority (NITA) as a virtual learning institution, because in Kenya, everyone wants to know; who recognizes what you are doing-what certifying body? Again, this poses another challenge because it hasn’t been done before, it takes a little bit of time to create that understanding of what virtual is and how it works to get certification.
Going forward what is next for eLearning Solutions
We are hoping to become an academy of virtual courses, even for people who didn’t get chance to join university. We are looking to run certain business courses online, just like how people register for Certified Public Accountant (CPA) exams and read on their own. One will be able to learn, study virtually on our platform in preparation for exams.
We want to reach a point where people will be able to learn at the comfort of their home and still attain the level of certification that everybody gets while in school.
As a woman in business in Africa, do you feel there is enough inclusion of women in business?
The atmosphere has been male dominated for a while so women might feel a bit cautious in getting into that environment especially in the area of technology. It is a collective responsibility to change it. The government is trying through initiatives like the Women Enterprise Fund but not that many women are going for it.
Mainly due to lack of information, thus, we need a lot more information sharing and to promote the idea that women can also get into business. For instance, there are quite a number of women in business but how many know that they can use Facebook to market their business? That is the kind of information we need to be sharing.
What has been your experience with Africa Prize?
It’s been amazing especially as a first timer in business. I started out with an idea and I thought maybe I should try it out, created the platform put out content but that is as far as it went until I got into the program. The program has helped me shape the business to know exactly what our purpose is. At first, I had so many ideas but when you run after so many ideas you achieve nothing.
It has helped us define our values, purpose, clientele, our value preposition that solves the issues our clientele are going through. For example, I had not done financial statements before. I don’t like statistics much (chuckles), but through the program we have come to learn that even though you can hire an accountant there are certain things like financial statements, you are going to need to understand.
The program has enabled us realize that we had a very strong product that we could build a business around refine our product further and our platform can even be used by organizations for in-house trainings; bringing down the cost of training by almost 30 percent. I was recently talking to an investor from India and I realized I was putting to practice the things I have been learning at the Africa Prize and it looks like it is going somewhere
Esther has been shortlisted as part of 16 innovators undergoing training by the Africa Prize in the annual competition, that will see the winner walk away with USD $25,000 and three runner-ups awarded USD $ 10,000 each.