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Kytabu: Innovative and Affordable Education

Tonee Ndungu recieving recieving recognition from Jeff Hoffman at the GIST Tech-I competition organized by CRDF Global.
Tonee Ndungu recieving recieving recognition from Jeff Hoffman at the GIST Tech-I competition organized by CRDF Global.

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Kytabu: Innovative and Affordable Education

How much did you pay for the last book you bought? If it was paperback, probably about $12. Do you remember how much you paid for the last textbook you bought? If not, you probably do remember that it seemed ridiculously expensive. Now imagine for a moment that the next books you buy will be a necessity but they are only available in limited numbers and the closest retailer is a day’s trip away. Let’s also assume that your family makes about $730 a year. Suddenly $12 for a book isn’t so modest. How about $175? That is the average price of a textbook in the United States according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Affordability and access to educational materials is an issue that spans the globe. In Kenya, a country that ranks 154th in the world on per capita income out of 183 countries, says the World Bank, it is estimated that the average family spends about half of its income on education with the majority of that figure paying for textbooks. Remember that $730 per year figure? That is the actual median income of an average family in Kenya according to the country’s most recent census

So what if that same technology we used to purchase and access books on our mobile devices here in the U.S. could be utilized in Kenya to reduce the cost of and broaden access to textbooks for students? Tech entrepreneur Tonee Ndungu asked that question found the right opportunity with the Global Innovation through Science and Technology (GIST) Initiative, funded by the U.S. Department of State and implemented by CRDF Global, to make his start-up venture, Kytabu, a reality.

Availability, Affordability, Access

Growing up in Kenya, Tonee’s resourcefulness helped him navigate through school despite living with dyslexia. He used audio books to absorb the information he needed to keep up with studies. He accredits the foundation of Kytabu, an affordable mobile textbook leasing service, to this particular challenge in his life.

Kytabu, meaning “book” in Swahili, allows students and their families to securely access and rent portions of required reading materials for a specific amount of time on a mobile platform. Considering Unicef’s report showing that 72% of Kenyans have access to and use mobile devices while only 32% utilize traditional access to the internet, the service seems to be on the right platform. Via Kytabu, every textbook in the Kenyan education curriculum becomes available pre-installed on Adnroid-based tablets (and encrypted to protect publisher copyrights) that are regularly updated over cellular data, and are made available to students through their schools. Reading material can be purchased for a set period of time by page, by chapter, or in its entirety for a fraction of what it would cost to buy a complete printed textbook. Kytabu is also equipped with an app store where users can download audio books, learning games, virtual classrooms, and past tests and exams.

“It simultaneously resolves the traditional problems of availability, affordability, and access,” Tonee explained. “With mobile money changing the fabric of society in Kenya, in the most tangible manner because of its convenience, it only made sense to incorporate and integrate it into the buying process.” He estimates that by using this mobile platform, textbook costs are lowered by about 60% over buying traditional hardcopies. In addition, the material becomes technologically relevant and up to date.
“The genius in the application is the ability to micro-pay for bite-sized content only when it is needed,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry praised at the 2013 Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where Tonee was honored for this venture as part of the GIST Tech-I competition.

Kytabu Will Make It

Tonee started developing Kytabu in 2012. As a self-described Social Tech-prenuer, he constantly strives to build innovations to help people while also creating a sustainable business model. Though his first start-up failed, he pressed on. With Kytabu, he reached out to CRDF Global and the GIST Initiative to seek world-class mentorship and networking opportunities. He heard about the GIST Tech-I competition through a friend who participated in the GIST Journey program, another start-up acceleration competition facilitated by CRDF Global and funded by the U.S. Department of State.

The Tech-I competition puts aspiring entrepreneurs through a rigorous processes of submitting executive summaries and pitching ventures to an expert panel of entrepreneurs and investors, and creating videos to gain support through public voting to narrow the field to 30 rising entrepreneurs. In 2013, those top 30 earned a trip to the Global Entrepreneurship Summit where they would complete a four-day mentorship program with the top two ventures honored at the conclusion of the proceedings.
After working with mentors like Jeff Hoffman, Co-Founder and Former CEO of Priceline.com, and Scott Hartley, Partner at Mohr Davidow Ventures, participants learned the tools and strategies necessary to help their ideas and start-ups survive and thrive.
“The Global Entrepreneurship Summit is where the crème-de-la-crème of entrepreneurs, investors, and policymakers go to identify the future’s most promising innovations,” explained Yuritzi Acosta, Associate Program Manager at CRDF Global. “The most valuable pieces of this program are the mentorship, the international exposure and networking opportunities; plus the validation they receive from high caliber investors and entrepreneurs.”

“Tonee is a very self-sufficient entrepreneur who utilized our time to really trouble shoot areas of his business that he was having trouble understanding,” Scott Hartley explained.

When Tonee accepted his honor as the 2013 GIST Tech-I Winner for the Start-Up track, he extended one hand to accept congratulations from Jeff Hoffman while fighting back tears with the other. “It was probably the best time I have had in a long time,” Tonee said. “I have to thank everyone involved for the help and support. Kytabu will make it because you are all watching.”

“I am inspired by entrepreneurs like Tonee Ndungu of Kenya,” Secretary of State Kerry praised during his presentation at the Summit. “By making textbooks more affordable he gives lower income students a chance to learn; one that they might not have otherwise had.”

Since the Summit, Kytabu has attracted global attention, including coveted support from two U.S. angel investors. In February 2014, Microsoft announced its investment in the venture through the 4Afrika Initiative, and Google identified it as “the education application most likely to change the world in this decade.”