Harvard-educated math whiz redefines local online learning

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Ed Magma. [File, Standard]

Ed Magema has always been an outlier. Coming from a nondescript high school in the belly of West Pokot, he came sixth in the whole country in the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education (KCSE) exam in 2009.

This earned him a place at the prestigious Harvard University where he studied mathematics as an undergraduate course – the only African student in his year.

It was at Harvard that Magema encountered its first computer. Today, he runs Univus, an education technology start-up. He is also one of the best fintech consultants in Africa.

“I came to technology late, I was not exposed to technology in these environments where I grew up and studied,” says Ed, who was born in Kitale and went to the little-known secondary school in Weiwei.

With his math degree from an Ivy League institution, he could have worked anywhere in the world, but chose to return his skills to Kenya.

“I used to have this idea of ​​an African renaissance in which there are a lot of problems on the continent and if you have an entrepreneurial spirit you can help solve them.” “I said to myself, let me use all the knowledge, the network and the experiences that I have built over the four years to do something for Africa.”

For the first two years after he returned, that meant working for someone else. He felt dissatisfied after realizing he was wasting his potential. Surprisingly, Magema has never used his math degree directly, but points out that he uses it daily thanks to his critical thinking skills.

He was behind the creation of a $2 billion (232 billion shillings) fintech company that facilitates cross-border peer-to-peer payments in Africa, among other payment solutions for businesses.

“I decided to quit my job and that was the start of my entry into the tech industry,” he says.

Prior to this, Magema ran a university consultancy firm that helped Kenyan students identify and apply to Ivy League universities in the US and other elite universities such as Oxford and Cambridge in the UK. United. He is also an author, having written a book, How to get into Harvard.

He worked for the fintech company for two years until early 2020. Mr. Magema, driven by his passion for helping learners, then focused on education technologies.

He first wanted to digitize the university consulting program he started on his return to Kenya.

“Together with friends, we started building an app but ended up abandoning it. I wasn’t happy with the idea because it was too small and constricted,” he recalls.

However, in January 2021, Magema had an epiphany. He observed that audio as a socializing tool was taking off. This new wave of audio had accelerated during the pandemic when social gatherings had been restricted.

Apps such as Clubhouse – a voice-based social network – had sprung up. Others, like Twitter Spaces, have since grown in popularity.

“Was this the medium we were expecting? Thought we could bring students together to talk, build relationships, network and support each other? ” He recalls.

Magema had taken on this challenge as a student in one of the most intense and demanding courses at an equally demanding university.

“I had this experience while working on an assignment at 2am and I can’t access a professor because they’re asleep or unreachable and there’s no way to easily contact other students.”

His innovation could be an easy way for students to define topics and other students could find them or formulate questions. They could then gather and discuss homework and ideas or even learn languages ​​from anywhere in the world.

This would eliminate the need for experts to help students understand overseas university admissions requirements. Perhaps even students studying abroad could guide prospective African students on applications at a low price compared to the huge sums charged by experts. The app, available on Android, combines audio with visual elements such as screen casting. It allows file sharing and students around the world can share assignments.

From its name, it’s “student universe” where students are free to live chat, learn and network in a fun and easy environment. It is a social learning platform connecting millions of students globally targeting Gen Z in particular.

“Univus helps Gen Z students learn with each other. Outdated learning models and a poor user experience continue to prevent this group from connecting and learning easily with their peers, despite studies showing that up to 60% of Gen Z prefer to study with friends using social media apps,” says Magema.

“Univus provides a mobile app for Gen Z learners to create, publish and share learning content with friends over audio. The audio is great because it allows our users to connect and learn privately, while reducing the “zoom fatigue” associated with prolonged screen time. »

Last month, Univus partnered with the University of Nairobi (UoN) for a public launch of the app. “The partnership has given us access to thousands of users that we expect to onboard once we complete app stabilization this month,” Magema says.

Univus is currently accepting students from seven universities including UoN, Kenyatta University, Technical University of Kenya (TUK), Strathmore, USIU-Africa, Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture of Technology and Daystar.

Since the launch of the mobile app in February this year, its user base has grown by 268%. Univus now has over 1,000 users.

Joining Univus requires an active university email address, which you will use to log into the app once downloaded, free of charge. Univus has raised more than $100,000 (11.6 million shillings) in venture capital to develop the product, Magema says.

The dream began with a capital injection from him and co-founder James Kimani, a UoN computer science graduate.

He says making money is not a major concern and the focus is on vision. “We are still in the early stages. Our concern is market fit, user satisfaction and, from there, reaching critical mass. For us, the critical mass is 30 million users and we don’t intend to be only in Kenya but all over the world. We are building a global product after which we can always understand monetization,” he says.

Startup survival statistics are grim with nine out of ten failing in the first few years.

Derisk the process

Magema notes that ways have to be found to reduce the risks of the process. For him, it goes through his co-founder, Kimani, the person with whom he realizes the vision.

“The challenge for startups is that sometimes the co-founders don’t match, so they end up going their separate ways – leading to the collapse of the startup.

“I found someone who balances my temper. I tend to be overly aggressive and push things. He is more technical whereas I am more on the business side.

Another problem with failing a startup, he says, is funding. “You have to make sure you survive the first year we call the drunken walk.” He notes that the Kenyan start-up scene has changed significantly over the past decade. There are more incubators, accelerators and funding.

This year, around 20 startups have raised 25.8 billion shillings ($223 million) so far, according to Disrupt Africa’s annual African Tech Startup Funding Report, which captured investment data so far. on March 1.

This exceeds what was raised in 2021 alone. “Investors are convinced this is the frontier market.”

He says the next big innovations will be in Ed-tech. “Learning is going to be decentralized, no longer being led by one institution or one instructor and the boundaries will also melt.”

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