The inescapable need for online learning last year provided a boom for the education technology (edtech) sector that many expect to be long-lasting. Globally, $16.1 billion was invested in edtech startups last year, up from $7 billion in 2019 according to Holon IQ. There are now 26 edtech unicorns worldwide, among them US-based Kajabi, a business-focused coaching platform which raised $550 million last year and China-based Zuoybang, a Softbank-backed startup that offers schoolchildren online courses and live lessons, which raised $1.6 billion in a Series E round.
In the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) region, enthusiasm for edtech was correspondingly crystallising. Investors began to take notice, with $30 million invested in Mena’s edtech startups in 2020 according to a report from Global Ventures, up from $21 million in 2019. So far this year, edtech startups in Mena have attracted $14.7 million in venture capital across 12 startups, as well as one exit - that of Lebanon-born Ostaz, formerly known as Synkers.
While this level of investment seems promising, ticket sizes are still small in this sector, with just three startups attracting cheques above $1 million.
Now that schools and universities have reopened, and amid surrounding fears of a market shrinkage, edtech startups are aiming to personalise a pandemic-led market to sustain its growth post-lockdown. Localising software solutions, developing integrable B2B models, and branching out of school-age academics and into adult-oriented upskilling are leading the region’s rising ecosystem.
Back to school
Mohammed Alashmawi, co-founder of the US-headquartered learning management solution (LMS), Classera believes Mena’s edtech wave is just starting.
“When you digitise, you are not expecting things to go back to normal, or back 10 years backwards just because schools reopen,” he says. “We will see a change in the industry, schools and ministries will use digitised learning as mandatory and essential, and not as a luxury feature.”
Launched in 2012 in both the US and Saudi Arabia, Classera quickly became a market leader in 2015 after its “One Nation Initiative'' to virtually onboard Saudi schools in the south impacted by the war in Yemen. The initiative created the “largest fully virtual school in the Middle East with around 100,000 students”, as Alashmawi explains. During the pandemic, Classera became the software of choice for both ministries and schools in 30 countries with its “two-hour” onboarding tool.
With an emerging edtech market supported by both ministries and fund managers, regional startup founders are betting on the population’s accelerated tech adoption to pave the way for a growing movement. But edtech startups are still confronting cultural perceptions around the credibility of online learning.
"One of the challenges for edtech startups is changing the mindset of parents,” says Hamdi Tabbaa, the co-founder and CEO of Jordan-based edtech Abwaab that raised a $5.1 million Seed round last March.
“Parents want their children to learn the same way they were taught, in person and with a one size fits all approach. Students of this age change behaviour fast, yet for parents to understand the value of tech, adaptive learning, and AI; it is a challenge and will take time to become mainstream,” he explains.
Where parents do tend to feel comfortable is online tutoring, a market worth billions worldwide that startups like the Lebanon-based peer-to-peer (P2P) platform AlGooru hope to capitalise on.
“The tutoring industry in Saudi is highly overpriced, the average expenditure for a single household in Saudi for tutoring is SAR6,500, and annually it’s around SAR40,000,” says Khalid Abu Kassim, founder and CEO of AlGooru, which describes its platform as a “one-stop tutoring shop”.
Launched in 2017, AlGooru offers 230 subjects for Lebanese and Saudi users who can access more than 150 tutors. It won last year’s TAQADAM4 accelerator programme, and is currently planning to expand into eight additional countries in the region, backed by Saudi angel investors in a pre-Seed round it plans to close soon.
The new S curve
For Mounira Jamjoom, co-founder and CEO of Saudi Arabia-based online professional development (PD) platform Aanaab, the edtech market is still taking shape as founders try to determine which business model could sustain a post-pandemic world. There are several approaches, from freemium models to subscription or paying only for certificates, the “right” monetisation model for the region is yet to be determined.
“There’s an era that just ended, the S curve is done and we need to start a new one,” she says. “It’s hard to monetise edtech and I think a lot of companies are looking at different models. Those who really understand what schooling and education will look like in the future will make the cut. If you are able to nail that and get the right product-market fit, I think it’s upwards from there.”
For many startups, an integration into the B2B sector, a market projected to reach $20.9 trillion globally by 2027, presents a strong opportunity to situate their growth.
“A lot [of founders] are going B2C but a lot of the successful edtech companies are B2B. If you look at Coursera, it’s B2B,” says Jamjoom, referring to the US-based professional development platform Coursera which raised $130 million in a series F round last year, bringing its total funding to $443.1 million. The startup filed for an IPO in the New York stock exchange last March with a market capitalisation of $5.9 billion.
Aanaab launched its new B2B model in January amid a plan for a pre-series A round, joining Classera’s mission to join the movement with its eight new B2B and B2C products. These include an enterprise resource planning (ERP) product to cover corporate HR and inventory services, a fintech product called C-pay to facilitate school tuition payments and student in-school spending, and a new “B2B2C” product called C-spaces to allow “schools [to] start selling courses to students not officially enrolled with them”, says Alashmawi, who likens the product to the US-based edtech Udemy.
These regional startups operate within a global movement where worldwide, emerging edtech unicorns are setting three defining features: they provide life-long upskilling platforms for adults, they feature “famous” teachers, and they are highly integrable as a B2B model. The success behind the US-based MasterClass offering video courses by Gordon Ramsay, Alicia Keys, Serena Williams and other celebrities and athletes is an example of a potential rise of high quality, celebrity-taught, exclusive content platforms. MasterClass raised $225 million in its series F last May from 18 US and global investors, bringing its total funding to $461.4 million during the course of its nine years in operation.
With flexible and remote working gradually rising on a global scale, adult-focused upskilling and professional development services like those from MasterClass present a reassuring market opportunity. As the alternative credentials market grows, life-long learning and corporate training programmes are expected to make up 15% of the total education expenditure of $10 trillion in 2030.
This is a segment that UAE-based almentor is targeting with its Arabic video e-learning platform. The startup, which raised $6.5 million from Partech in May this year, offers both a B2C and B2B solution. For the one million registered users on its platform, almentor offers courses for $20-30, with plans to introduce a subscription model to offer users access to all of its 12,000 video content. For businesses, almentor tailors its training videos for employees and has since 2016 worked with 78 different companies to offer these training courses.
While there is definitely a demand and need for more educational content in Arabic, for Saudi-Arabia based test preparation app Baleegh, specificity to language is a challenge for edtechs in the region.
“When we started exploring the market with Baleegh, we looked into the adult training and certification programmes, but we knew the language would be an issue because we would be localising things like coding and computer programming to offer Arabic content and it wouldn’t make sense, the users will eventually use English in their actual daily practice,” says Rawan Al-Matham, co-founder and CEO of Saudi-based test prep app and platform Baleegh.
Particular to the edtech space is strong governmental participation that, even at a global level and in thriving Chinese and Indian edtech markets, heightens the competition for private-led e-learning startups.
Government universities are also entering the space in Saudi Arabia as King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) signs a new partnership with US-based open-source edtech Edx to provide its first Massive Open Online Course (MOOC).
This leaves local edtechs, prompted by the country’s push for nationalisation in the education sector, with a need to work alongside government entities for the time being.
“As the first platform in Saudi with accredited PD professional development hours, the regulation for Aanaab was a hurdle, but if you are to innovate, you need to work closely with regulatory bodies to make sure they understand your business model,” says Jamjoom, “It’s working in collaboration with governments that is behind our success.”
There is however, much to be done when it comes to edtech regulations, as Jamjoom points out “everybody is learning”, but the sentiments among edtech founders tends to be positive.
“The biggest challenge is already over, which is to convince schools that digital education is something mandatory,” says Alashmawi, “The pandemic happened to speed up digital education and now [after schools reopened], ministries, educators, and school owners will not risk it again and won't be cancelling their agreements with online learning platforms. They know now that it is a mandatory thing to have digital learning.”