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E-Learning: South African Edtech Startup, FoondaMate, Is Helping Students Study With WhatsApp

South African Entrepreneurs, Tao Laine Boyle and Dacod Magagula are helping students in Africa study through an Edtech platform, FoondaMate which they launched on WhatsApp.

FoondaMate was launched in South Africa in August 2020, after the entrepreneurs realized that hundreds of thousands of students in the country were unable to learn because schools were closed due to lockdowns and the unavailability of appropriate technology products.

So, they developed a method for students to study online using WhatsApp. FoondaMate helps students with limited Internet access to study online using localised chatbots.

Students use FoondaMate to download research papers, search concepts, define words, and do simple mathematical calculations.

The name, FoondaMate is derived from siSwati, and translates to “study buddy.” Describing the WhatsApp API, Boyle says it’s like “messaging a very knowledgeable friend.”

Tao Laine Boyle and Dacod Magagula, Founders of FoondaMate

To access study materials, search the web, or download practice questions and memos, a link was made availabe where you’ll see a WhatsApp web-like interface on your screen asking you to send ‘hello’.

Intending users can click the green “Go to Chat” button and click on “Open WhatsApp” if they have WhatsApp installed on their devices. Users will be redirected to chat with Nelson, a chatbot.

FoondaMate wants students to succeed irrespective of the resources available in their schools or homes. They believe that talent is equally distributed, but opportunity is not. 

The edtech startup plans to change this by making opportunities available to everyone by using a platform most students with a smartphone already have.

Considering the cost of traditional educational materials like textbooks and group tutoring in South Africa, FoondaMate helps save costs by offering those services on WhatsApp.

Some students with limited internal memory on their smartphones can’t download the apps that give them access to online resources. So FoondaMate uses WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger already installed on users’ phones to help them study.

FoondaMate engages its users in their indigenous languages. “Making resources available in native languages creates a unique form of user delight that affirms its users while providing them with access to education”, Boyle says.

FoondaMate is available in ten African languages. However, they are faced with a challenge.

“Building FoondaMate is challenging because we are not only building a technology but also introducing it to communities,” Boyle says.

It’s pretty tricky because the majority of their users have never interacted with a chatbot before. So, ensuring that users understand they are not chatting with a human is tough.

“We had users who wanted to become friends with Nelson, the chatbot, asking to meet up or have phone calls. That indeed is a challenge,” Magaluga reveals.

“We have had to change our approach to make sure students actually understand that they are interacting with a bot so that they are not disappointed when they can’t hang out with their new friend,” Boyle expounds.

However, the edtech startup has recorded massive success since its launch in August 2020. FoondaMate has reached over 130,000 students within Africa, Latin America, and Asia, who have downloaded over 1.8 million practice questions. 

Though most users are from South Africa, people in other African countries like Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Tanzania, Angola, Nigeria, Malawi, and Kenya also use FoondaMate.

In Latin American, FoondaMate’s users come from Colombia and Brazil, while users in Asia are from Malaysia, the Philippines, and Indonesia. And FoondaMate is working on expanding to these areas.

“We are planning to double down on our growth in Latin America and Asia. We are seeing increasing interest in these regions, with requests to launch in India and Brazil, as well as customise the product for these regions,” she says

In Africa, fintech startups continue to dominate the tech space and attract VC funding, and the co-founders believe that African edtech startups are overlooked. However, they also think that FoondaMate is paving the way in the tech space. 

“With Africa being the continent with the world’s youngest population, and quickly growing, there is a massive demand for education here, and our growth really shows this,” Boyle concludes.

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