Young Zimbabwean provides free online classroom
“My vision is to see an Africa that is free from poverty. This can only be achieved if we, as business people, take the front role in empowering our people.”
This is the view of Farai Munjoma, the 19-year-old social entrepreneur behind a new e-learning platform in Zimbabwe, called Shasha Iseminar. The site offers A-level high school students in the country a free, online library of course and study notes, past exams, as well as career guidance.
Munjoma’s inspiration behind starting the platform came while at boarding school in Nyanga, in eastern Zimbabwe. He had a great history teacher who had been working at the school for the past 30 years, but Munjoma worried about him retiring.
“I wondered how, after he left, we could access the information he taught us, and also the way he taught it,” he explained.
Many professionals, including teachers, left the country around 2008 when Zimbabwe experienced one of the worst cases of hyper-inflation in world history that saw food prices double on a daily basis.
While Munjoma noted the economy has since stabilised with the adoption of the US dollar, the country’s brain-drain of teachers is still being felt.
“We as students suffered a lot in that period, and as we continuously changed ministries and ministers, the curriculum changed with them. It was very difficult to adjust,” he recalled.
“In 2011 the pass rate was down and that was also a turning point for me. I thought if we can’t have teachers because they are running away from this country, then why not use the internet to replace them?”
At age 17, and with the help of a co-founder, Munjoma started compiling A-level course content, study notes and test questions and putting it online. All content was first approved by teachers and course examiners.
He decided to make it a free service to reduce the financial barrier to information that the high cost of good textbooks had created for many underprivileged students. It draws revenue from selling advertising space to companies and organisations looking to specifically target Zimbabwean students, and a portion of these profits have gone towards paying the school fees of underprivileged students.
Munjoma’s efforts caught the attention of the Anzisha Prize, Africa’s premier award for its youngest entrepreneurs, and last year he was named one of its 12 finalists. Soon after, he applied to study at the prestigious African Leadership Academy in Johannesburg, and received a Global Merit scholarship to be a catalyst student. He will be graduating in June.
“The Anzisha Prize has opened doors to many opportunities,” said Munjoma.
“It has helped give me enough publicity to be able to reach out to my desired customers and other thought leaders. The opportunity to be a catalyst student at the African Leadership Academy has allowed me to build a bigger network to expand and develop my venture. And I am also currently completing an Anzisha course, which is helping to expand my business perspective and allow me to develop soft skills that I require as a growing entrepreneur.”
He believes the Anzisha Prize liked his application because he invested adequate time in providing enough detail about his venture, and was honest and realistic about communicating his vision.
“My advice to those applying this year is believe in yourself because that will go a long way in determining how far you go in qualifying. The most important thing is to realise that by applying for the Anzisha Prize, you have not just applied for a competition, but a lifelong dedication to bring positive impact to the continent.”
Munjoma has big plans for Shasha Iseminar and sees room to expand his service to neighbouring countries such as Botswana, Mozambique and Zambia. However, he first wants to be well established in Zimbabwe.
One of the major challenges his company is facing is acquiring the right technology and skills needed to implement many of his ideas. For example, he has a vision to implement web seminars where students can access virtual classrooms online and digitally interact with other teachers and students in real-time.
“It would be like social media for e-learning. We started to add a web seminar section to our site where students can just go online and watch a live seminar that is happening in another school, but we need the high-tech skills to make sure that we could take the project to this next stage. Africa is still adjusting to internet technology and its speed is not as fast as it is in the West,” he noted.
“It is also a challenge to make sure that teachers, students and parents are on board and actually understand that we are moving towards a more digital information age and need to shift from the traditional way of learning.”
Prepared for challenges
Munjoma was first exposed to entrepreneurship while growing up on his parent’s farm in the agricultural town, Norton. At age 11 he would sell tomatoes and cucumbers and learnt how to compete in a market place. But most importantly, he discovered he loved the challenge of entrepreneurship.
His advice to other African entrepreneurs is to collaborate as much as possible with others, be prepared to face obstacles, let their passion drive them, and focus more on having an impact than making money.
“And when you have a good idea and that burning desire within to bring change, do not have anyone tell you that you can’t do it – or let any situation stop you from achieving your dream. Because the first thing you will face will be challenges,” he emphasised.
“As I was coming up with this project I had people try discouraging me. But the number one rule is not to think too much – just do it. As you go through your journey it will make more sense to other people.”