Online learning became a necessity during the lockdowns, and while many tools became readily available, the vast majority catered to those with good internet connectivity and access to laptops and tablets. For many students in Lebanon, the political vacuum, devastated economy and crumbling infrastructure resulted in a lack of access to education.
So Samer Bawab and Bassel Jalaleddine alongside another partner came together in March 2020 to launch eFlow, an Arabic online learning platform suited to mobile phones thanks to its interactive chatbot that is integrated with WhatsApp and Telegram. Through eFlow's platform, courses are converted into short videos, images, and voice notes, after which learners receive messages individually through the educational chatbot and are able to reply back with text, emojis, images, videos, or voice notes. The chatbot is able to analyse a learner’s response then reply accordingly by taking into account the lesson learning objectives, the learner’s learning style, and their emotions. Eflow has worked with several international NGOs, including UNICEF and UNHCR and now has 12,000 learners on its platform, with plans to branch into English, Spanish and French. It recently won the UN-backed World Summit Awards for inclusion and empowerment.
We spoke with Samer Bawab about eFlow’s journey.
How did the idea for your edtech come about?
eFlow started its journey working in Lebanon with schools and learners across the country who were facing tremendous challenges with significant power cuts, lack of electricity, low digital capacity, and essentially no access to computers or laptops. The Lebanese government had completely abandoned the educational system which left it up to the NGOs and private organisations to serve these communities of schools, teachers, and learners who were struggling. Covid-19 and lockdown aside, many teachers were relying heavily on WhatsApp and more specifically WhatsApp groups where they were sending lessons and materials.
An organisation called Near East Foundation came to us to provide learners in marginalised communities with an online learning platform. So, we helped them build a specific tool that was essentially a chatbot to assist these learners as they were going through [course] materials online. We developed a web app and integrated it with WhatsApp and Facebook messenger. We saw very positive results.
We definitely believe there is still a big gap in the way high-quality education content is being delivered to communities around the world. Especially for those learners who are not as privileged or do not have the opportunities as their more fortunate classmates. Also, the platform can significantly save tremendous amounts of time and money for organisations that are sending field officers to gather information, as well as for teachers who are monitoring a large number of students across a big area or [across] multiple schools.
What were some of the difficulties that you faced during the early stages of eFlow’s conception?
As far as challenges go, we had a significant number of them. We were working during lockdown and the whole team was remote at the time [and] that was not an ideal environment. Here in Lebanon, we face a lot of challenges with connectivity and power. Having a connection and being able to work remotely and successfully doing client calls was a huge challenge we had to deal with and still do to this day. As a startup too, none of these organisations were familiar with our brand, so we struggled to get a few contracts signed at the beginning. However, our biggest contract was with UNICEF Lebanon, and we won a competition with them over WhatsApp. That was our big break that helped us secure a handful of contracts and other financial sponsors. Paying my team was also a quite hard, we were getting paid like $200/$300 a month. We weren't getting much money at the time, and it was quite tough to make ends meet until we could get some secure clients to pay us.
[When] the pandemic was a bit under control with the roll out of vaccinations, we thought our progress would stall, however, what we saw was people’s interests to adopt the hybrid mode of learning. In the case of Lebanon, insurgents can block the roads and kids cannot go to school so having an online, hybrid mode of schooling becomes the solution. And I think eFlow has been very helpful in that regard.
What are some of the mistakes that you wished you had not made during the establishment of eFlow?
First off, the UNHCR project was huge. We knew we were getting into a big beast of a company when we were working with them, and I think the mistake we may have made was we didn't staff enough people and we didn't expect the project to be as big, especially as a startup with only 13 people or 12 people. So, for us it was really about being able to gauge the level of effort, when you have these big clients. I probably would've hired 10 more people before the start of that project instead of waiting for us to hit a brick wall.
How is life as an entrepreneur in Lebanon today?
There’s a lot happening in Lebanon. The economy has crashed, the currency is devalued. And if you are looking to get a partner in the GCC, or even in the UK or in, in Europe or America, the clients are usually willing to pay less. They'll say, “we're going to pay you in dollars, but we're going to pay you half the amount because we know what's going on in the country right now and we want to mitigate the risks of any losses after investing. You should be glad we are making this investment in the first place because you are already struggling”. This makes it tougher for the entrepreneur who's trying to get a deal in a big project outside of Lebanon. There's this stigma now of Lebanon and people think they can take advantage of Lebanese resources that are coming out of the country because they're desperate. However, there's a lot of smart, hardworking entrepreneurs that are trying to make it so it creates this imbalance where investors think they can take advantage of Lebanese labour.
Have you noticed any changes in investment trends in edtech?
Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, my team and I have seen a significant uptick in investment trends focused on education technology, specifically due to the fact that many schools, learning centres and universities around the world shut down completely. This created a high demand in the market for full remote learning management systems, chatbots, and other mobile learning platforms as these educational organisations needed to find effective ways to support their teachers and students. This fuelled a big wave of funding from VCs and investors from all around the world who were seeking to generate profits from this unusual time in the world.
Even now in 2022, as we return slowly back to normal around the world, there is still high interest for technology solutions that can be utilised in hybrid learning models and to further enhance the learning experience. Furthermore, the investments we are seeing now are going to solutions and services companies that have a large user base, and that are creating impact and value for those users even after the lockdowns.