Virtual Essence leverages on ICT to digitise class work
By Amos Wachira
In the 21st century, innovation is the lifeblood of great enterprises. As Michael Wachira, the Chief Executive Officer of Virtual Essence puts it; enterprise without innovation would be a hard sell.
When he started his business a decade ago, he sought to introduce a new way of doing things.
His firm, Virtual Essence, was in the business of selling personal computers and installing networks.
Through innovation, the firm saw an opportunity to venture into the education space, with an aim of accelerating the use of information communication technology in schools.
“4 years later, we realised that there was need to transform the education sector and developed a division called virtual Learning Center,” he says.
Virtual Essence introduced a refreshing new concept in the education sector in Kenya and developed an offering that has opened up the previously untapped market.
“It was all about looking at how innovation has transformed all the other sectors of the economy except the education sector which has remained traditional.”
His firm developed Msingipack, a computer application that contained lessons and revision papers. The product aimed to avail digitised past papers on computers to pupils in classes seven and eight.
“The idea was to make education an exciting experience for children. We had to put the past papers in devices that they could access,” he explains.
Msingipack sought to change the way Kenyan pupils revised for exams. Remembering his days in primary school, Wachira says that he used to carry large bulky files that contained past papers. Revising using such files was not only time consuming but also demotivating to pupils.
“We saw an opportunity to digitise this for the market, which was longing for a change.”
While adoption of technology has gone up in the last decade, things were completely different two decades ago, when accessing a computer was a big challenge.
Today, children as young as five are able to use gadgets and devices. This has been accelerated by the government’s move to introduce digitised learning in primary schools.
“I used a computer for the very first time when I was 24 years old. Things have changed. Children can now access a wide range of devices. We are giving them a chance to learn using the devices they can access.”
As Michael and his partner discovered, there was latent demand for their product. They started with class seven and eight, and developed the class six product two years later. Two years ago, the firm started developing the class one product.
Michael says that technology is not magic. They have demonstrated that it can be used to transform the education sector. How do they do it? “Teachers do the magic. We ensure we have teachers who can develop content for children. We then convert the content to enable users to read it in a digital way.”
At some point, Michael realised that he could move away from just digitising past papers. He focused on digitising a curriculum for primary school pupils, an interactive content that could help them learn and have fun.
“We realised that the education content was much bigger. We needed to have all the resources geared towards that area and that is why we dropped everything else to concentrate on Msingipack,” he puts.
Currently, the firm is working on virtual version 5.0 having started off with version 1 which had lessons and activities that enable children to learn better.
“Version 4 had games, multimedia and voice while version 5 will cut across all the devices.”
The product which primarily targets private primary schools was well received in the market.
With over 22 000 public primary schools in Kenya, and a further 13 000 private primary schools, the Msingipack product can easily reach every corner of the country.
But there are impediments. Only 20 per cent of private schools have some basic ICT structures. In public primary schools, a paltry two per cent schools have ICT structures.
“Our target is private primary because these have computer labs,” says Michael.
Secondly, digitising interactive content is not easy. “We had to go to KICD to get the whole curriculum. Using our in-house engineers, we develop interactive content,” he explains.
In the education sector in Kenya, publishers compete to provide text books to schools, but few have original content. Msingipack offers a different choice to schools in that the content provided is original.
“Traditional publishers’ compete to digitise content into pdfs. We create content from scratch and no one else is doing that. That makes us different.”
Selling Msingipack at a time when computers and the internet were not available in most homes was bound to be a challenge. “We had to keep on changing our plans. Our first change of plan was to enable us have offline content.” However, with the advancement in technology and the wide adoption of fiber for homes, Wachira and his team are developing online content.
The product costs kshs1000 per computer and learners can download parts of the lessons online.
Msingipack CDs hold one application which contains five lessons. The CDs go for Kshs2, 000.
Moving it to different parts of the country has been easy due to availability of partners in Nakuru, Mombasa and Eldoret. “We have 80 per cent activations in Kenya in around 41 counties.
Getting the right people to hire presents Wachira with another challenge. “We have a problem with millennials who are looking for big salaries and most end up failing,” he avers.
Michael says that most of the pupils using Msingipack report academic progress.
While his team of over 200 professionals is working hard to create the classes five and six lessons, there is demand from preprimary school and secondary school levels. “High school students feel there is a gap and that is our next target. We already have a team of over 120 engineers and 98 teachers to work on this project,” he offers.
Having studied Mathematics and Information Management Systems at the university, Michael’s background is in ICT. He has gained a wealth of experience working in the ICT sector before he founded Virtual Essence.
His views on entrepreneurship
Michael warns that it takes guts to start a business. There are so many hurdles one has to go through, the major being capital.
Getting capital to start the business was one of the hurdles he had to overcome. “We had savings and we also had business plans. We visited banks but we got no help. The traditional finance machinery understands buying of machinery but not to finance intellectual property,” he elaborates further saying that this is the main challenge facing ICT innovators today. “For us, we had to use our own savings. That is why we had to do it at a slower pace.”
Looking into the future, Msingipack might soon be available in Rwanda, if the founders’ intention to increase their footprint in the region bears fruit in the near future.