NET SAVVY: Kennedy Kitheka, left, and Kumbirai Gundani of Funda say technology can help solve SA’s education problems. Picture: TREVOR SAMSON
NET SAVVY: Kennedy Kitheka, left, and Kumbirai Gundani of Funda say technology can help solve SA’s education problems. Picture: TREVOR SAMSON

AS THE Limpopo textbook crisis began unfolding this year, three entrepreneurs began thinking. What if textbooks no longer had to be delivered by road, but could be uploaded onto a website in the form of e-books, or as a series of videos, and downloaded by pupils onto their cellphones?

Kennedy Kitheka, Kumbirai Gundani and Kolawale Olajide believe their social-media platform, Funda, which allows teachers to share content with pupils, can help avoid such textbook crises.

Last month, Funda was placed second in the South African Breweries Foundation’s Social Innovation awards, winning R500,000, which will help the three develop educational content such as e-books and learning videos for their site.

Earlier this year, they were placed second in Superstage, a university business-idea competition. They were also runners up in the United Nations’ World Youth Summit Awards and voted the Best Business Venture in Africa in the Idea Works Indiafrica Awards. Through their site, Funda.ac, teachers and lecturers can post material, which pupils can access from their individual profile pages on the site.

Gundani, who is from Zimbabwe, says many of the focus groups they’ve run with pupils have revealed that underprivileged learners are internet savvy and spend a significant amount of time on Facebook and Mxit. "The one thing I always mention is that, in the Limpopo textbook crisis, the biggest thing cited is that communication and travel are difficult, so they couldn’t distribute the books," he says.

The three have spent much of this year developing the site and running focus groups with universities and schools and with "champion" teachers who provide feedback on the development of material. They are also working with Together We Pass, an organisation that runs study groups for Unisa. Next year, they plan to move to a payment-based system, where institutions will be asked to choose whether to adopt the system or not after a trial period. Along the way, they’ve picked up R200,000 from an angel investor, which has helped pay for much of the development of the site.

"Someone had heard about what we were doing and was really passionate about education and he had a school himself. He showed a very big interest in getting us into his school as well as coming on board as some kind of equity partner," says Kitheka. The investor retains a share in their company. But Kitheka says not everyone is convinced.

"You’ve got people who don’t believe that technology is the way to solve education. They think teachers will struggle to shift their mind-set to be able to use technology within classrooms or to better enhance their teaching methods."

But he says many are slowly being won over after seeing the benefits of their web platform. He says their site won’t replace teachers, but can instead help improve teaching, as teachers can use pupils’ scores from assignments and tests completed through the platform to determine which pupils are behind in a class and what their particular weak points are.

The one big hurdle that stands in their way, however, is the lack of bandwidth, but Kitheka says it’s not totally beyond their control. He points to how Uganda has allowed users there to access Facebook free and says there’s a chance networks could allow something similar here with their site.

The three are working with an IT provider that has a strong relationship with the networks, to try an idea such as this, while also partnering with Bartering for Bandwidth, which creates free hot spots in and around underprivileged areas.

"The thing is, when you’re building a solution you can’t build looking backwards, you can only build looking forward," says Gundani, who points out that distributing educational material onto cellphones via the web is becoming more attractive as the cost of smartphones and bandwidth comes down.

While the Zimbabwean grew up in a household of academics, Kitheka, who graduated last year with a business science degree, has first-hand experience of SA’s poor schooling system. The 23-year-old was born in Kenya, but moved with his diplomat father and his mother to SA at an early age. His parents enrolled him in a government school in Pretoria.

"I remember even from eight years old when I came here, I was ahead of the class — way ahead," he says, pointing out that he had already covered elements of SA’s grade 5 in grades 2 and 3 in Kenya.

He and Gundani, also 23, met during their first year at the University of Cape Town (UCT), when they were running for the university’s commerce student council. They began talking about how they could use Bluetooth hot spots to see how they could get more students to share marketing-related material. However, when their idea failed to gain traction — mainly because of the lack of interest in using Bluetooth — they began looking elsewhere.

At the time, social networking sites were taking off and they realised the way to go was to share good content on social media platforms. On weekends, when other students were at parties, the two tinkered with their network idea. Their friends thought they were crazy: "Even now they don’t understand why I’m not working at a bank," says Kitheka.

Next year, they plan to begin creating content for grades 10 to 12 and Kitheka admits one of their most difficult challenges is to develop educational content that is both engaging and fun. Just having a video with a camera focusing on a blackboard, even for a minute, won’t cut it, he says. They now want to create their own content, using local artists.

They have introduced elements of gaming into their application and pupils who do tests on the site are ranked in a "Hall of Fame" and awarded badges according to how well they do. They are also looking at offering pupils rewards, such as free data bundles.

In June, the three joined business incubator the Bandwidth Barn and Kitheka says the advice has involved "some of the most heartbreaking conversations" but has been very valuable: "People say the journey of an entrepreneur is a lonely one, but at the Barn it’s less lonely."

Kitheka admits being an entrepreneur is a risky decision and one has to be comfortable with uncertainty. But even working in a big company has its risks, he says, pointing to some companies that recruit students from UCT scaling back on the number of places they now offer.

Two years ago, Gundani had his sights set on politics. He had joined the Youth Parliament and addressed the World Economic Forum that year.

But he ditched politics in favour of becoming an entrepreneur after meeting Olajide, a Nigerian who had taught himself computer programming and who was convinced that technology could help transform education: "I thought I couldn’t change the world with politics, at 21, and that there was something more worthwhile — and tailored to changing the world."