Seven key lessons beavers can teach us about engineering EdTech ecosystems

Beavers are among the most prominent ecosystem engineers. There’s a method to their madness. Their dam-building activities divert and stagnate streamflows, flooding adjacent areas, and forming new wetlands that provide habitat for other aquatic organisms, from tiny zooplankton to amphibians. 

By removing small trees to construct their dams, these unsung super-engineers also open up denser shaded areas, allowing in sunlight. These changes create habitats for insects, birds, bats, amphibians, turtles, and even larger animals like deer.

Speaking of engineering ecosystems, the topic of August’s edition of EdTech Mondays was ‘Bolstering growth for Nairobi County’s EdTech ecosystem – Opportunities and Challenges. Shot at Innovate Nairobi, the conversation explored Nairobi County’s EdTech ecosystem and the diversity of learners, teachers, and schools, and inclusive learning experiences. 

EdTech Mondays Kenya is a monthly education tech convo, aired on NTV and sponsored by the Mastercard Foundation and EdTech East Africa. In the region, EdTech East Africa is the go-to hub for all things related to education technology; from workshops to innovators. 

The panelists were Clara Muthoni Njeru, Researcher and Product Designer, Education Design Unlimited (EDU); Ahmed Muhammed Abdi, Chief Officer, ECD and TVET at Nairobi County and Isaac Nyangolo, Co-Founder & CEO, Zeraki

I know you’re probably asking: “What do beavers have to do with EdTech?” I’m glad you asked. Tech often borrows from nature. Which means these semi-aquatic rodents can teach us a thing or seven. Let’s dive straight into the lessons, shall we?

Lesson 1: Ecosystems should create new habitat

As the EdTech ecosystem in the “Silicon Savannah” evolves, it creates new lush habitats for more players. In Nairobi, there are more organisations catering to learners from different socioeconomic backgrounds. This means that, as the world makes great digital strides, no Kenyan child will be left behind. 

The moderator, Moses Kemibaro started the session by talking about the evolution of the ecosystem and asked the panelists how the journey has been thus far. 

“The products being built are more diverse,” Clara noted. “Seven years ago, most products were focussed on learners, and teachers were being left behind. The latest iterations have a learner-teacher component.” 

“The teachers can have their scheme of work in a modern way,” Ahmed concurred with Clara. “They can prepare lessons easily,” he said.  

“We can monitor the number of teachers who attend lessons and what they are teaching. We can also monitor the enrollment of the learners and the challenges the institutions have.” Ahmed added. 

Zeraki’s started their company in Nairobi. However, the first schools that signed up on their platform were domiciled outside the capital city. This shows that ecosystems can sometimes create new habitat in territories outside a player’s scope. 

Lesson 2: Ecosystems should open up denser areas

EdTech can solve issues of inequality and disparity in schools in Nairobi and, doing so, open up underserved areas. 

EdTech can help close educational gaps and unlock human capital. This can be done through different methods. Zeraki first thought about the needs on the ground. Then they applied the design skills ecosystem approach. This means that, even in low-resource settings, solutions can be designed that are appropriate for those contexts. 

Opening up denser areas is not a matter of copy-and-paste, but one of careful consideration for each constituency taking into account all the individual variables. 

Nairobi is a unique case study. Three-quarters of school going children in the capital city come from informal settlements. 

“Issues of inequality can be addressed the way the school-feeding programme is done,” Ahmed said. “It doesn’t matter where learners come from; they will all eat the same food.”

That’s an interesting point. In a macro context, it talks about school – and EdTech – becoming a great equalizer

Lesson 3: Ecosystems need flooding techniques

Flooding means causing something to be widespread. In the case of EdTech, it means the technological implementations “flood” – not only classrooms – but also other spaces. 

In Nairobi, EDU used SMS and gave parents tips on how to engage with their children at home. They got positive feedback from teachers. “Because of the tips I got, I am able to involve my child more in the activities at home,” parents said.  What Claire meant was that the tips went beyond the four walls of a classroom, as they gave both parents and learners life skills. 

In settings with limited access to tech, EDU is using a time-share model of sorts. In this instance, there’s a shared mobile device and learners use it in a time-share model, where they pass it from one learner to the other.

Another flooding technique is the government’s Digital Literacy Programme (DLP) that was implemented by the MoE. 

“In spite of the weaknesses in usage – whether it’s from a content perspective or the support ecosystem – DLP did a lot because we now have proof that it’s possible to provide adequate infrastructure within a school setting, be it electricity or internet connectivity,” Isaac pointed out. 

“When the government starts thinking about the second iteration, it’s building on that foundation. Techpreneurs have benefitted from that. And these become the lessons that the next generation of EdTech, policy or government is able to build on.” 

“Technology is embraced from the early level of education,” Ahmed said. “The lessons taught in ECDs are integrated. All our children from PPE are introduced to digital literacy.”

Edtech can have a profound impact on early childhood education. When used correctly, it can help children learn at their own pace, develop deeper understanding of concepts, and even improve social skills.

Lesson 4: Ecosystems are exercises in dam-building

Dams are among the most expensive and difficult projects. But, after a dam is built, it serves tens of millions of people. Ditto EdTech ecosystems. 

In a Working Paper titled, Financing for the EdTech Ecosystem, the researchers explored a range of innovative financing approaches. These include ways of increasing domestic public finance, approaches to multilateral development bank (MDB) financing, the use of blended finance, and private sector investment (for profit and philanthropic). 

The researchers gave four strategies for financing EdTech investments. They were professional development, which needed $3.1 billion globally; content development, which needed $2.1 billion globally; administrative systems, which had no estimates yet; and data usage, which required $498 billion to reach the affordability threshold globally. 

In 2015 when Zeraki set sail, the ecosystem was harder than it is today. Breaking even took time. In the process, Zeraki learnt that, because EdTech is more impact-based, many investors are still struggling with how to understand it. It requires a long-term investment. 

“EdTech feels easy and accessible, but everything about it is difficult,” Isaac answered an audience member who asked about Zeraki’s dam-building exercise. “What you’re trying to do is educate the entire ecosystem about why they need the technology.” 

Lesson 5: Ecosystems should remove small trees

Removing small trees is all about addressing challenges and impediments to EdTech. One challenge is apathy. 

“There is acceptability of EdTech,” Isaac noted. “Seven years ago, you walked into a school and you felt a stranger. You needed to prove to them why you were coming there. The schools have become more comfortable in accepting EdTech.” 

The Ministry of Education has also helped in addressing challenges. For instance, the Teachers Service Commission (TSC) requires teachers to have ICT integration skills as part of their professional development. 

What the EdTech Monday panelists concurred with was that, overall, stakeholders have created an ecosystem that’s a lot more friendly to EdTech than it was before. Thanks to the DLP and other projects, teachers in Nairobi are 20% more likely to use more tech devices than their counterparts in rural areas. 

“Teachers have requested more training,” Clara said. “We’re now thinking how teachers can be better supported and coached by the system leaders. The more a teacher feels comfortable with the technology, the more likely they are to use it effectively in the classroom.” 

As eLearning Africa noted: “A robust and sustainable EdTech ecosystem in Africa also requires increased access to ICT infrastructure and connectivity. While much of Africa’s EdTech innovation focuses on the use of technology to support learning and teaching, it is crucial to recognise that this innovation relies heavily on ICT infrastructure.”

Lesson 6: Ecosystems should bolster others to thrive

According to Disrupt Africa’s 2022  African Tech Startups Funding Report, startups in the EdTech sector received $24.6 million in investor funding in 2022, compared to almost $1.5 billion for fintechs, $556.7 million for e-commerce companies, and $220 million for transport-focused startups.

What does this mean? There is room for more players. There is room for more collaborations and creations. 

“There is a system in the USA for single sign-on for schools, so that learners and teachers do not need to remember the passwords of tens of apps,” Isaac said. “That’s an opportunity for someone to invent an API for all users to plug in, and as such it will be easier for users.” 

Lesson 7: Ecosystems should increase sunlight

After creating new habitat, opening up denser areas, flooding habitats, building dams, removing small trees, and bolstering other stakeholders to thrive, EdTech ecosystems should increase sunlight in the spaces they are servicing. 

Sunlight is knowledge. Knowledge is power. It’s also a currency that can withstand debilitating tides of inflation, which rock many African nations. 

As Kenza Bouhaj  stated: “Knowledge is a currency in a continent where only 17 million people have access to higher education, proving your skills is more important to employers than university degrees. It is people who are able to prove that they can code, sell and solve problems who will thrive in Africa’s future job markets.”

Those seven lessons may sound like an impossible mission. However, nothing can beat human ingenuity and will. Plus, we can adopt the beaver’s mindset about taking the initiative. Constantly doing the right things. Constantly doing the little things. It is consistency that turns complex missions into roaring possibilities.

This Article was Sponsered by Mastercard Foundation in Partnership with EdTech East Africa

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