The most promising resource of the African region is also its greatest concern. In 2013, Africa Renewal, a news magazine published by the United Nations, characterized the more than 200 million young people between the ages 15 and 24 as either an opportunity or a “ticking time bomb.” At a time when developed nations in Europe and the Americas are concerned about their rapidly aging populations, Africa is brimming with young people; this can certainly be seen as promising from a workforce point of view, but there is no question that the Continent is filled with adverse conditions that get in the way of development for young people.
Mwabu, an e-learning tech startup from Zambia, recognizes the aforementioned ticking time bomb situation and is trying to do something about it. Youth unemployment is a serious problem in Africa, and it is difficult to promote entrepreneurship, which could erase a few ticks off the time bomb, as long as young Africans do not have adequate access to education. The UN is well aware of the educational challenges faced by many African nations where the student-to-teacher rate in rural areas runs as high as 80:1; furthermore, many schools simply lack the materials they need to deliver the curriculum. Over 30 million African children do not have access to education; this is clearly a pedagogic crisis that must be addressed.
The Mwabu approach is similar to educational efforts promoted by Facebook and the Gates Foundation in Africa with course materials delivered via Android tablets. At this time, Mwabu provides the tablets; however, the near-future goal is to make course materials freely available to anyone with a compatible mobile device. It is estimated that smartphone penetration in Africa will reach 50 percent by the year 2020, and thus Mwabu is working on developing course materials that can be accessed from just about any mobile device through networks that not require internet access.
Working with UNICEF in Zambia, Mwabu has been able to improve the literacy skills of schoolchildren by 300 percent when compared to traditional programs. More than 5,000 lesson plans have been developed for use in Zambia and South Africa. This e-learning project has already benefited 250,000 students; the interactive lessons are guided by teachers trained by the startup, and the materials are written in local languages as well as English. Aside from lessons and educational materials, teachers are also provided with class management tools.
Mwabu has very ambitious goals to reach students and classrooms across the continent, but it also has major support from agencies such as USAID and UNICEF. To Mwabu, learners always come first, and their guiding light is to always develop materials that will equally inspire students and teachers.