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Understanding Nigeria’s advanced expertise improvement space, a talk with Eyitayo Ogunmola

Major technology breakthroughs in the coming years will greatly impact, the forms of work and labour market structure, as well as other aspects of life such as education, health, and agriculture. In this context, developing capacities for anticipating the changing needs for digital skills for work and life is crucial for all countries.

In Nigeria, where digital skills are in high demand, there are major inequalities in the skills gap. This has spurred the rise of digital edtech platforms.

Some are deeply involved in the advanced spectrum of digital skills for the 21st century digital economy like Artificial Intelligence (AI), machine learning, big data analytics, etc.

With local companies now more willing to pay a premium to acquire talent with skills in demand, how much of such the talent is available in supply?

And considering that in the connected economy and society, where digital skills must also function alongside together with other abilities such as strong literacy and numeracy skills, critical and innovative thinking, complex problem solving, an ability to collaborate, and socio-emotional skills, the questions arising are whether or not emerging digital edtech platforms are moving fast enough.

In this discussion with Eyitayo Ogunmola, founder of skills development platform, Utiva.org, we explore the digital skill development space in Nigeria, the challenges, and how to grow the industry.

Your company (Utiva) is playing in the edtech digital skills training space, would you mind giving us an honest overview of the Nigerian industry?

The digital skills training space is a subset or a component of the education or workforce development area. What makes this sector a bit different is that it focuses on two major components; deploying learning programs to close the gap of today and also creating learning programs to prepare the workforce for the future of work (what some folks will call Industry 4.0).

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Eyitayo Ogunmola, founder utiva.org

This space is predominantly dependent on the dynamics of the technology environment. As we build more technology companies in Nigeria and across Africa, there is a need to develop digital talents across the entire product lifecycle. While some people think we need to develop just programmers, I have argued that we need to invest more in the business side of tech. Think of guys in the product management space, AI engineers, designers, etc.

There are key players in this sector, and we (Utiva) are one of them. 2018 was an amazing year for the technology startup community. Major players in the skills dev space made some major strides, with $1.163 billion raised in equity funding, a 108% YOY growth. For 2019, what is quite exciting is how the language and narrative for skills development is beginning to change.

Today, there are data analytics campuses or learning programs in Nigeria. We currently have the biggest data accelerator.

My friends at Coven Labs do a lot of work with AI training. There is a major product school in Nigeria today and you know people are already thinking of developing startup COOs.

While all these have always been around in small pockets, we are experiencing a better scale. On the flip side though, Nigeria is playing smaller than other climes like Kenya, Rwanda, etc. For instance, there is no major edtech investment in Nigeria. While there are some players that are emerging, we are still at the pet stage.

Also, despite the large chunk of investment coming the way of tech startups, the digital skill training space has not experienced a major plug of funds. So, my biggest worry is that we are not developing people at the same pace at which we are building startup companies.

Given that education in some quarters is still considered expensive, what are the possible implications for brands running premium edtech digital skills training?

I love to say that learning is not expensive. What has happened over time is that we have built too robust a system around how learning is delivered and that is why it is quite costly. For instance, the traditional educational system absorbs lots of systemic evaluation and assessments, hence, it is quite expensive to run. If you look at it that way you’d then realise that just a change of model will impact the financing and funding requirements.

What has changed is that the edtechs and voctechs are changing the models and using technology to scale the learning delivery. For instance, with Utiva we have adopted a blended approach and this means that about 60% of our training programs are delivered virtually.

So coming down to the voctech space or the digital skill training space, one of the few things we are seeing is that changing business models has altered that reality of costliness.

So to be clear, the skills are still premium but people acquire them without breaking the bank. I am not saying that we are there yet as a country or an industry, but we are getting close. You can accelerate your training to data analytics with less than $150 right now in Nigeria.

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Interestingly, there are also funding options available to young people who are currently looking to transition into early jobs (the unemployed).

One of the areas that we are experimenting with (at Utiva) is the peer-to-peer coaching experience and that is also an option for some people with limited financial capability.

Another part of this cyclical disruption is also that we as a company we capture a larger share of our profits from the hiring side of things. We currently run an invite-only exclusive community of hiring partners that offer the best of our talents roles in the technology space.

In your opinion, do you think digital skills in edtech can replace traditional education?

From where I stand, I can tell you for free that it will happen soon. But there are lots of barriers and perspectives to consider. I’d say that there must be an “ed” before the “tech” and that is where most technology entrepreneurs get it wrong.

When you talk to an average edtech entrepreneur, you hear about the product and the engineering and less of the pedagogy or method that drives the learning.

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This is one of the many reasons our edtechs don’t stand the test of time. I need to affirm again that eEdtTechs should not be about the tricks or design or engineering of the technology but about the learning process, approach, and pedagogy. Unfortunately, investors usually do not ask about the pedagogy and approach to learning. People usually get fascinated by designs and technology.

For instance, there is a report that shows that 58% of teachers feel edtech solutions do not help and 70% of edtech licenses have not been activated in schools.

I would say that like other industries, there is a lot that the edtech industry must learn from traditional education. My truth is that education can be augmented by technology but we must not lose sight of the people’s side of learning, the approach that drives training and quality of content.

What is competition like in this space and how has it impacted the industry you play in?

If you examine the five stages of the industry life cycle, I would say that the voctech space is still at the startup stage. Most of the market leaders are quite young in this space. Interestingly, there seems to be none that is five years old. So, the dynamics of the industry are budding and emerging.

To avoid the temptation to create a bubble, I’d say we have not even scratched the surface yet. Let’s think about it this way, the demand for digital skills locally and internationally is high and there is no clear and clean model yet. We (the players) do not also have a defined talent distribution approach yet.

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While figures are not out there, my personal analysis informs me that revenue is still on the low. So, it is safe to say competition is immature yet. But the problem with this space is that the barrier to entry is quite low, so I project that competition will be very high in the near future. But for now, everyone is trying to figure out the right model and approach to delivery.

I also need to say that I am quite close to the major players in the space of digital skill development and I can tell you that not so many folks are worried about competition right now. Well, to speak for my team, we are more worried about creating values and helping our students get value for learning. I also think that we will all capture the market value if we deliver value.

What are the major impediments to premium digital skill training edtech brands in Nigeria?

One of the major impediments that I have discovered is the lack of infrastructure to scale the value that edtech or voctech can actually offer. So take Utiva for instance, we’ve built an AI-powered, instructor-led platform that helps scale remote learning. However, there are a lot of iterations going on. Many of the engineering depends on some infrastructure that is quite difficult to access here in Nigeria. This problem limits the capacity to scale the value.

I usually love to use the higher institutions as a case study because that was our initial market. But I can tell you that most of the students still sleep in total darkness. Another challenge is the understanding of the Nigerian context. I think most people do not want to talk about this. How do we build digital talents for the local demands and global market? Learning has to be structured contextually.

While I agree that it is good to have a foreign education and technical training, foreign education has to be contextualised within the framework of the Nigerian challenges and reality. So having a faculty that understands the context of Nigeria is another major challenge. Experimenting with technology products is also quite expensive so accessing financing and funding is also another big one.

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This can be categorised under some sort of political challenge, in terms of advocating for the right type of policies that could help us to deliver learning more effectively. Ultimately, the challenge in the edtech space today is funding to experiment. We have guys building AI solutions and learning platforms. As an ecosystem, we need to attract more investors to this space so that startups can test their technology and scale without necessarily thinking too much about how much they will need to grow and get more people to use their platforms.

Hence, it’s important that we build an ecosystem that can create an ambience for investors to come into edtech. There is a need today for the major players to come together and form that ecosystem so we can break the barrier to entry for investors.

Looking at the industry as a whole, how can it be grown?

One of the few things I have been doing lately is studying how other climes grew their voctech and digital skill training industry. Between 2011 and 2013 the US, UK, and Canada experienced what we are currently seeing in our space. So, we can examine what they did and glean some insights for our use. Major players in the industry need to form an ecosystem so that problems at the industry level that individuals cannot solve can be solved as an ecosystem.

Some of the problems also exist at the policy level. So the way I think about this is to build programmatic interventions that can touch policy leaders. Let me give an example. I know a friend that is building a post-secondary school solution that helps those who are writing the JAMB exams to keep learning before they get admission into the university. But the biggest chip is that interventions like these need the government to play out well.

One of the biggest projects I have been working on in the US and the UK is breaking the barrier to entry for major investors. Unfortunately, this is not something that I speak about a lot but we have hosted more than 20 different online sessions for edtech, voctech, and FoWTech (Future of Work Tech) investors.

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In fact, I pioneered the narrative of FoWTech globally, crafting the word FoWTech. One of the most recent conversations we championed virtually was with five major UK and Canada-based edtech investors. The mission is to educate investors about the market gaps and opportunities in the edtech in Nigeria and Africa. I’d advocate that we do more of things like this. In recent times, I have also seen three different FoWTechs create learning content and approach collaboratively.

So if you are looking for a framework for developing an industry like edtech, FoWTech, etc., I’d say we should think SALE. Let the key players be ready to Share (collaborate), Attract investors, Leverage, and Explore technology.

Is there a way to measure the impact of this growth?

Yes, we need to be measuring the growth of the industry and also identify areas of improvement. One very quick way to measure the growth of the FoWTech, edtech, and voctech industry is to measure how the industry is changing some critical elements that drive it.

For instance, how fast are people moving into new roles? The ultimate job of the FoWTech is to be the backbone for the technology industry. In other words, we should be measuring against how fast tech companies are hiring. On the other side, how many tech companies in the digital skills training space are raising more capital to scale?

Personally, one of the key things I am looking for is the change in the policy framework. We also need to keep measuring impact at the organisational level because it is the cumulative impact that will drive the industry growth.