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When I was in Nigeria a few months ago, I got the distinct feeling that education startups were the new hot ticket for young tech entrepreneurs. One of them wanted to build an online university, another wanted to provide a test platform for standardised tests and Fora wanted to give Africans access to the best possible education online.
Today, Fora is dead.
When I met the bright-eyed founder of this company, Iyinoluwa Aboyeji, his energetic smiles and excited air suggested that he really believed he could make this work.
The idea for Fora was pretty simple: an online education platform that wanted to disrupt the way Africans access education and related content.
“The idea was that our education system wasn’t working because the teachers weren’t good and the physical model wasn’t serving enough students and if we took everything online, it would be better,” Aboyeji tells me.
Back in February when I was introduced to the concept, Aboyeji had US$135 000 in funding and was readying his team for a launch. By all accounts it should have worked. Fora did in a sense launch, but only lasted a month before deciding to shut down.
For the entrepreneur, the death of Fora and the eventual pivot of his company is symptomatic of the startup landscape in Nigeria and perhaps Africa as a whole.
“It simple, you move slightly to the right and apply pressure until you feel like you have it the right spot. Or scrap everything you had before and start again.”
Figuring out the market and refocusing
Aboyeji and his team thought that what the market needed was a marketplace for online courses. So the team busied itself curating that content from some of the best providers in the education space.
The challenge came when Fora had to find people to buy these courses from them.
“We also had to find anchor deals, which are big companies that would buy enough seats in a course to unlock it for everyone else,” Aboyeji says. “Finding these deals was a lot of hard work.”
Though the team could get these deals, it actually wasn’t what the market wanted.
“As we progressed we figured out all the market really cared about was accreditation because it was a proxy for better outcomes,” he says. “So people would ask for a certificate for a leadership course that was meant for personal development in the hopes that it would help them get a better job or something.”
In the end though, the entrepreneur thought that while this could work for a while, it was creating little value. They way he saw it, the platform wasn’t teaching people in ways that could add value to their lives and the lives of people around them — so he called it quits.
“If we just decided to become a certificate sharing organisation (as many Academic institutions on the continent are) history will judge us harshly for it,” he tells me.
That was not an option, so next stop was to pivot.
Pivoting one idea for another
“It isn’t a pivot. It is a restart. We just took our whole business and asked ourselves if this was going to take us to the promised land, and it wasn’t. So kaput.”
Call it what you will, a few weeks after launch, Fora as it was could no longer be, so it changed to what was needed.
Aboyeji recalls visiting some top US universities in the weeks following Fora’s launch. As much as education was a problem, there seemed to be a bigger issue among the youth: unemployment. He says that listening to lectures on youth unemployment had him think about young developers in Nigeria that were talented but didn’t have access to freelance jobs.
“It was amazing and it got me thinking a lot,” he says. “I sat down with one of my mentors and we talked about the business and youth unemployment. By the time I came back to Lagos, I was sure I wanted to tackle youth unemployment and not education.”
The key thing for Aboyeji was in building Fora, his way of thinking around the challenges young people on the continent face had changed.
“Education is great and we can provide loads of it but if even after the best education young people are still unemployed, we are still back to square one.”
So Fora is morphing into something new to tackle that problem instead. Granted, it’s not exactly a novel idea — unemployment in Africa is growing at a staggering rate, especially among the youth. There are many startups that want to solve this problem on the continent and the world in general.
To help him do this, Aboyeji brought in some new blood.
[The] good thing a couple members of our team have been talking and thinking about youth unemployment around the world for a while now. So I got a crash course in the main issues around youth employment and together we designed a micro test that could validate our assumptions.
According to Aboyeji the “test worked amazingly well”. So it was full steam ahead with a new business and the old one was no more.
“I felt a lot better about the early numbers we were seeing this new project and the kind of team I could pull together around the problem of youth unemployment and so I decided to just do it.”
Creating a million jobs
The new company is a for-profit and for-impact organisation with one mission, says the 23-year-old: to create one million jobs across the developing world in the next 10 years.
A noble mission, and easier said than done.
To do this, the project has set some very basic basic principles it believes will help it get there.
Firstly, tackle youth unemployment in Nigeria and Africa. Secondly, the high unemployment rate isn’t due to the economy or the lack of jobs.
“It is because a lot of young people are wrongly skilled for the jobs that exist,” says Aboyeji. “Elance alone is a 2.7 billion dollar marketplace for programming jobs that is growing 30% a year. So there are still more jobs out there.”
He argues that these jobs can be done from anywhere in the world.
Thirdly, the startup argues that you can train people for these jobs in a relatively short period of time because of technology.
“So basically you put these three beliefs together and what you have is a system for moving unemployed youth into well paying digital jobs.”
The overall model sounds a lot simpler than it really is: the new project will use the above principles to open up the job market, then provide rapid technology and data powered skills training with excellent combination of blended learning experiences. From there, it will move the brightest and most driven young people into these career paths quickly.
“So the way that works in practice for software development where we are starting is we recruit and say — you don’t need to have any experience in software development to get this job. None. Last time we got over 600 applicants,” says the entrepreneur.
The upstart’s job is essentially to train young software engineers to be employable.
Candidates are shortlisted based on personality tests, their learning agility as well as growth mindset.
“We don’t have a website yet, but we have made more money than Fora did and it has no funding,” he adds.
Still piggybacking off of Fora’s site, this new company could be a success story for the entrepreneur.
Lessons learnt and the Nigerian startup challenges
Starting a business in Nigeria is not easy, starting a business anywhere is hard. Lessons Fora learnt quickly enough.
“Nigeria is expensive for serious startups. It is the big apple and the big elephant. If you business works in Nigeria, you can be sure conquering the rest of Africa (perhaps except South Africa) will be cake. Everything that can go wrong will go wrong on Nigeria and you will learn from it,” explains Aboyeji.
For the entrepreneur, four key things came out of the experience:
Firstly, always look for opportunities to test your assumptions. Secondly, question your results and be willing to have frank conversations about them. Thirdly, never settle for a business you don’t like and finally, look for big problems that talented people would be motivated to solve.
As a startup, if you’re going to fail do it fast and don’t hang on to misplaced pride and assumptions about the market.
“Failure is a reality. And the reality was this was a business where we didn’t control all the variables,” says Aboyeji.