The 2nd Education Innovation Africa Conference was held on the 6th and 7th of June 2016 in Nairobi, Kenya. The conference was an excellent opportunity for tech entrepreneurs, school owners, school operators, investors and public sector officials to discuss the most pressing themes in the education sector on the African continent.
Discussions around new and innovative solutions to educate Africa's booming young population were especially pertinent against a backdrop of increased pressure on government education budgets resulting from falling commodity prices and weakened local currencies.
A central discussion point was around the private sector's role in the education sector. Some voiced concerns that private sector involvement would exacerbate inequality by providing quality education to only those who could afford it. It was however, widely acknowledged that roles for the private sector in African education could include provision of information and data to improve learning outcomes, driving research and development; increasing much needed capacity at all levels; and ensuring sustainable solutions at scale.
The role of Public Private Partnerships, whereby private sector operators manage public sector schools is a nascent and controversial idea that is being explored by the Government of Liberia in partnership with Bridge International Academy. Proponents of the model argued that better learning outcomes are being delivered at no higher cost to the tax payer. Critics decried an abdication of government responsibility for a key public good. The conference also addressed the challenge in finding quality teachers in Africa and it was acknowledged that the education sector was losing the talent battle. The capacity gap was said to be exacerbated by challenges with unions and a lack of private-public cohesion, however it was recognised that the private sector had a role to play in luring talent into the education space.
From the perspective of investors, it was noted that many schools in Africa are relatively small with fewer than 500 pupils. These are, by and large, unprepared for external investment due to accounting and governance deficiencies. Investment opportunities did however become interesting where existing schools were pooled and benefits of scale realised, though such models were challenging to execute. Investors also sought solutions for the different investment profiles of the land and operational aspects of African education. High land values result in unstable structures where the land ownership is split from the operational aspects of the school. Alternative funding models such as Social Impact Bonds and crowdfunding models using the power of the diaspora were discussed.
The role of technology in meeting quality, scale and capacity challenges within the education sector was widely debated. It was noted that credentials fraud is a major issue for the regulators and that digital solutions are required. The general consensus was that the use of technology would increase in African schools, but that technology needed to be integrated in such a way that was meaningful, contextually relevant to fit with teaching methodologies. While the use of mobile phone based education was discussed, it was recognised that the market was still small for any solution that requires smart phones, only around 70 million subscribers continent-wide. Eneza Education is an example of a technology company that uses basic mobile phones to deliver curriculum content to close to 1,000,000 students around the continent.