To address this problem, Gossy Ukanwoke started the Beni American University (BAU) that offers 12-week online academic courses on a variety of subjects.
“We found that there are lots of students in West Africa, Nigeria specifically, who are university-level ready but they did not have the opportunity to go to a university because the universities that are available in the country did not have enough spaces for them… So we had to think about a way for us to provide a learning opportunity for them without having to spend so much money on infrastructure, on buildings and the rest,” 25-year-old Ukanwoke told How we made it in Africa.
For anything between US$100 and $300, students can enroll for online programmes such as Corporate Diplomacy and Human Resources Management. While the pricing is certainly very reasonable, US$200 is also not exactly an impulse buy for many Nigerians.
All tuition materials are online and comprise a mix of video, audio, slides and text. Teachers come in to BAU’s offices to record their classes. At the end of each programme, students are expected to complete an online examination.
The content of some of BAU’s programmes are modelled on those offered by US-based universities. “We have… agreements with other universities in the US, and they give us a base of their programmes and what we do is, our teachers work with our curriculum developers and we localise the content.”
Ukanwoke grew up in Nigeria, but went to university in Cyprus. It was during his time there that he first made a name for himself when in 2010 he founded the Students Circle Network, a platform that makes educational resources available for free to students from developing countries.
However, he realised the need for examinations and certificates so that students could prove to prospective employers that they have completed a course. This was the start of BAU.
When Ukanwoke wanted to register BAU’s online platform, he discovered that Nigerian regulations require all universities to have a physical campus. BAU is therefore now building a brick and mortar private university in Nigeria’s eastern Benue state. He expects the two offerings to complement one another.
To date the venture has been primarily bootstrapped with no major outside investment.
Convincing the sceptics
Ukanwoke says one of the biggest hurdles facing BAU is persuading people that its online courses are a credible way of learning. “We have to do a whole lot of work to convince people to actually take it serious and accept the quality of learning they’re going to get from the online learning can equate the quality of learning, or even better, than the one they’ll get in a physical location.”
He compensates for his young age by working with experienced people older than himself. “I’m the youngest of all the staff members that we have so it’s just to be able to surround yourself with people who have better experience, who understand what you want to do.”
Ukanwoke believes entrepreneurs need to persevere with their original product idea, while remaining able to adjust to market realities. “Don’t let the market shift you from your focus, but at the same time have the flexibility of working around to fit what the market demands. For example, now we are building a physical university that we never planned… but we had to do that so we can run the… online university.”
With only about 250 students that have signed up, BAU is clearly still in its early stages. However, with an estimated 50% of Nigeria’s 170m strong population currently under the age of 18, there is certainly potential to turn this into a substantial enterprise.