Startup snapshot: Using artificial intelligence to improve education

M-Shule founder Claire Mongeau (left) and Ruth Mbithe, owner of Heri Junior Education Centre (one of M-Shule’s partner schools) in Dagoretti, Nairobi

M-Shule (meaning “mobile school” in Swahili) is a Kenyan edtech platform, designed specifically for primary school students across sub-Saharan Africa. The company uses artificial intelligence to create and deliver personalised learning programmes to students via SMS.

Claire Mongeau, founder of M-Shule, told How we made it in Africa about how she financed the company and the biggest risks facing the business.

1. How did you finance your start-up?

We carried out a small friend and family funding round, which gave us enough runway to research, design, and finally build our pilot product. We then secured a pre-seed investment from EWB Ventures (Engineers Without Borders Canada) to fund our pilot. We’re currently raising a seed round for scale across Kenya.

2. If you were given US$1m to invest in your company now, where would it go?

3. What risks does your business face?

Learners engage with our product through SMS typically using their parent’s phone, so our success is highly dependent on mobile penetration and connectivity. Kenya’s mobile phone penetration is upwards of 90% and connectivity almost everywhere is good. However, we will face implementation risks when we begin to scale to other countries without the same mobile coverage.

4. So far, what has proven to be the most successful form of marketing?

Education is a very human-centered sector. We’ve been most successful when we embrace a ‘design-thinking’ mindset and put our users at the heart of every decision. Our marketing has been very hands-on – we visit each school, work with the headteacher and staff to help them take ownership of the programme, and support each individual parent and student in coming on board. As we scale, our goal is to continue to build strong relationships with our customers that will encourage them to spread the word and keep coming back.

5. Describe your most exciting entrepreneurial moment.

I’m most excited when I hear from our users, when the students tell us that M-Shule has not only helped them perform better on exams, but has also increased their confidence and happiness in learning. It means that we’re on the right track.

I also love hearing what improvements they want to see from the platform. For example, right now we focus just on English and maths, and during a feedback session at a school one student raised her hand and asked, “When are you going to have science?” It turns out that she wants to become a gynaecologist to help the women in her community, and wanted more science practice to build her skills. The opportunity to help students like her achieve her dreams is really amazing.

6. Tell us about your biggest mistake, and what you’ve learnt from it.

We had initially made some assumptions about an average users’ baseline comfort level with certain different phone functions – but in going through the pilot, we realised our assumptions were incorrect. It really drove home the need to do both user experience surveys and observations, to make sure that our customers have the easiest experience possible.