This last November, 15 African and 15 international entrepreneurs loaded onto a bus and traveled together between Zimbabwe and South Africa for the first time. The “buspreneurs” hoped to gain a better understanding of African markets, support African entrepreneurs, forge ties, and launch startups during their journey.
One project to emerge from inside the peculiar innovation lab was Sterio.me – a primary school learning aid based on pre-recorded, teacher-generated lessons (“Sterios”) sent via cell phone, meant to reinforce learning outside the classroom in rural areas. Co-founder of the inaugural StartupBus Africa trip and participant, Christopher Pruijsen, conceived of Sterio.me along with Danielle Reid and Dean Rotherham. Pruijsen tells us more about about the exciting results of a truly amazing road trip:
What inspired Sterio.me?
We started Sterio.me on the inaugural StartupBus Africa, a hackathon on wheels between Harare and Zimbabwe – five days, 30 entrepreneurs, and a focus on developing solutions to problems on the African continent in Mobile, Energy and Healthcare.
We were thinking initially about methods of learning and teaching skills without requiring internet – with SMS messaging and USSD being the staple solution. Then, Dean and Danielle, coming from a background in starting audio companies, advocated delivery of content via audio, as it’s much more engaging. From there we explored ways in which to deliver inspiring content that really evokes imagination in children – for example, games and quests in the real world that are educational at the same time.
Dean came [up] with the idea of applying this audio delivery of content, that does not require any internet or smartphone access, to homework in primary schools. We then interviewed both teachers and learners and validated interest in our product – upon which we started demo design.
What makes your startup so killer?
Audio delivery of primary school educational content via feature phones, at no cost to either learner or teacher, is a truly revolutionary concept. Audio is more engaging than text, and also tackles a larger market since local language becomes an option for delivering the content (thus tackling both illiteracy and language barriers). It also has the potential to reach a larger market than any tool requiring internet or smartphone access – because although phone penetration is over 80% throughout Africa, this is not the case with smartphone penetration.
What advice do you have for entrepreneurs who are struggling to get their businesses off the ground?
Don’t hide away! Go meet your customers in order to test, validate, and improve your product. Be in touch with the industry – meet investors, potential partners, employees and press.
My main advice is to be open. Help others and ask for help from those who you think could accelerate your business easily. You will be surprised at how much a little kindness can achieve in this world and how many people are genuinely willing to help others.
What has been the biggest startup surprise for you (good or bad)?
The most surprising thing that happened to Sterio.me was on Friday, November 22nd. Just an hour earlier we had had a conversation with a mentor of the StartupBus, who had warned us about the difficulty of getting access to schools for educational technology. Then, around mid-day, we had a call with one of the sponsors of the StartupBus, who also was in charge of a Foundation in Zimbabwe with access to over 3000 schools (which we were unaware of). Upon hearing of our product he immediately offered to organize a pilot program for us. Within 5 days of conceiving Sterio.me, we had confirmed our initial pilot partner in Zimbabwe!
How has being an entrepreneur changed you for the better? How has it enriched your life?
Being an entrepreneur for me personally has offered me an avenue to express myself with all my curiosity and my intent to make a genuine impact on others’ lives. I have tried, but don’t function as well within corporate structures where there is no freedom to innovate.
Dean is a natural born entrepreneur and has started a variety of businesses from the age of six – when he was selling African jewelry at school. Danielle comes from a background in advertising, and being an entrepreneur is really an outlet for all of her creative energies and ideas – there are plenty!
What is the tech scene like where you live?
Our startup at the moment has a rather global face. I live in London, and Danielle lives in Berlin – the two “startup capitals” of Europe. Dean lives in Cape Town, which offers both a fantastic lifestyle (mountains, sea, vineyards, etc.) and a well-developed design and software scene. Our startup, however, operates in Zimbabwe and is conducting market research in Ghana, Nigeria, and Swaziland, which are rather different markets.
Ghana has a well-developed startup scene and Nigeria has unbound potential. Swaziland is a country often overlooked by technology companies, but for us it provides a great market where the demographic conditions (illiteracy, existing education system conditions, mobile phone penetration, etc.) make Sterio’s impact potential quite significant.
Where can our readers find you?
On social media:
And in the news:
Sterio.me sounds like a social enterprise with the potential to make a massive impact. However, providing this service for free to teachers and learners seems unsustainable. How will you guys make money?
We have two initial revenue streams. First, we will open 10 to 25 seconds per 10-minute lesson to “Value-Add-Messaging” from organizations that are looking to spread beneficial and educational messages. Examples of these could be the World Health Organization, United Nations, Gates Foundation and the Clinton Global Health Initiative – looking to spread messages about aids prevention, use of antimalarial medicine or mosquito nets, sanitation, etc.
As learners are listening very intently to Sterios, and they are already in a “learning mindset,” we believe that these messages will be much more effective than traditional methods of disseminating such information.
Second, we will offer a premium service to teachers and organizations alike that want to have professional Sterio created on specific topics. We use professional voice actors, education and topic experts, and even local celebrities to make these more engaging.
Finally, how can the KillerStartups community help YOU?
We are looking to speak with anyone in the education industry, telecommunications industry, and people passionate about making a difference in mobile educational technology in Africa!!