History & Overview
Bridge International Academies is taking a unique approach to education. The company is the world’s largest provider of nursery and primary education for low income families (extremely low income). In fact the average income of Bridge’s target market is less than $2 per day and their services cost a mere $6 per month! The company currently operates exclusively in Kenya but their reach is expanding quickly. They now serve over 60,000 children with 214 locations all across Kenya and they are the country’s fastest growing company.
Co-founders Phil Frei, Dr. Shannon May (CSO), and Jay Kimmelman (CEO) first met in the early 2000s while working on various education related issues in the San Francisco bay area. Jay was busy founding Edusoft, an education software company; Shannon was working on her PhD in Anthropology; and Phil was developing new technologies for IDEO. Shortly after meeting, Jay and Shannon started dating and in the mid-2000s moved to rural China for Shannon to complete fieldwork for her PhD dissertation. It was here in rural China where they first witnessed an extreme gap in education for impoverished communities.
The issues they witnessed were cultural and not the result of students lacking capability. For example, village teachers would often come to class intoxicated, completely unprepared, or just not show up at all. Even when teachers did come sober and prepared, the quality of the lessons was poor because most of the teachers were not properly educated themselves. According to May, “What the child is able to learn is always limited by what the teacher knows. So you can never have the child leap-frog previous problems within that town, city or country."
Another issue facing education in poor communities, is school sustainability. Many private schools in poor developing nations would shut down after a couple of years or even just a few months! Motivated by these observations, Jay and Shannon began researching to see if these issues were unique to rural China and soon discovered they weren’t. Impoverished communities all over the world, mostly in developing nations and especially in sub-Saharan Africa, were facing similar cultural barriers. Overcoming these cultural barriers is where the three founders saw a great opportunity, and they are using technology to solve the problem.
Obstacles & Opportunity
Due to lacking infrastructure and unreliable electricity supply, computer ownership in Africa is negligible. However, thanks to these same barriers alongside declining mobile costs, mobile phone ownership in Africa is booming! In Kenya, where Bridge operates, 71% of the population owned a mobile phone as of December 2012, according to market research done by the company TNS (see Appendix A).
Recognizing this trend, Bridge International Academies is using mobile technology as the tool to enable its entire business model. Also, because the company is “for-profit” and targets the poorest people in the world, costs have to remain low. The $6 per month that Bridge charges is cheaper than 70% of other private-schools in the same communities and even cheaper than most of the “free” government sponsored schools, which actually cost $2-$12 per month. The reason these schools are not actually “free” is another cultural issue. In many existing Kenyan schools, parents are forced to pay teachers bribe money to keep kids in the program.
Standardization & Automation
Bridge is able to offer a cost-effective product in some of the poorest communities in the world by emphasizing a lean business model. Through standardization and automation, Bridge has streamlined their operations and has largely removed “teachers” and “administrators” from the education process all together. Bridge hires some of the world’s most brilliant minds to centrally develop their world class curriculums, and also to design custom apps and software for managing all administrative processes. The apps and software are designed to run on an android device and the model requires only one non-teaching employee at each academy.
Bridge provides a simple Nook tablet to its teachers along with a smartphone for the academy manager. The curriculum is synced with a custom ERP system at Bridge headquarters through the school manager’s smartphone. Once the school manager’s smartphone has synced, all of the teachers’ tablets are synced to this phone using Bridge’s custom apps, and the scripted lessons can begin. From here the software tracks each teacher’s arrival and departure time as well as the amount of time he or she spends on every lesson. Thus Bridge academies don’t have secretaries, assistants, treasurers, etc. Instead, tuition payments, vendor transactions, teacher payroll, attendance, and student and teacher records are all handled electronically with smartphones. Parents make payments using Kenya’s mobile money system, M-Pesa, which allows money to be transferred with a text message. It’s an extremely cost-effective way to manage the business and the automated systems minimize opportunity for corruption because according to Dr. May it “helps make schools more transparent.” As co-founder Shannon May stated in an interview with Guardian Media Network, “[Bridge] leverages a tremendous amount of technology to ensure that the academies are run in an incredibly cost-effective and lean way. One of our investors actually lists us as a technology enabled service company.”
Cost Effective Cultural Adaptations
In addition to the standardized lesson plans, Bridge offers an array of cost-effective standardized tools adapted to the local culture. One example is Bridge’s Storybooks which are found in every classroom and are “locally developed using characters and situations with which pupils can relate.” Other examples include colored counters, ten frames, educational toys, Geoboards, science kits, and satellite imaged maps (see Appendix D). The tools are creatively constructed from things like bottle caps and recycled egg cartons; another way Bridge creates an interactive curriculum that meets their market’s cost needs. The standardized technology and learning tools ensure the exact same lesson is being taught in every classroom at every Bridge Academy. Furthermore it overcomes the cultural barrier of poor teacher education in most developing nations.
An additional benefit of Bridge’s less-traditional for-profit business model, is sustainability and accountability. Just like any other service business, Bridge is accountable to its customers, the parents. If parents become unhappy with the product, they won’t enroll their kids in the program and the schools would not succeed. An environment where parents’ voices are actually listened to and acted on is different than Kenya’s traditional government-run public schools.
Bridge’s business model has been criticized by some educators who believe the model lacks engagement, and that student interaction is what drives learning. According to Ed Gragert, the U.S. Director of the Global Campaign for Education, “If somebody suggested that kind of an educational model in this country, they would be laughed out of the educational community." In an interview with Parallel’s Jason Beaubien, Gragert goes on to say “a robot could teach [Bridge’s] class”.
Still, it’s hard to argue with Bridge’s results which suggest reading fluency up to 205% higher than neighboring schools (see Appendix B for details); and Dr. May defends Bridge’s alternative view of the teacher’s role by saying, “they are not content producers”. May believes the teacher’s role is simply to deliver content and they should not be expected to be experts on every topic.
Bridge has attracted some large investors, most notably the Omidyar Network, a philanthropic firm created by the founder of ebay, Pierre Omidyar and his wife Pam. With the company’s already profitable operation and access to capital from investors like Omidyar and the world’s largest venture capital firm, NEA; Bridge International Academies aims to grow fast. The firm’s goal is to operate in 12 sub-Saharan African countries and have 10 million students enrolled by 2023. Africa’s fast growing mobile phone industry and its need for quality education in poor communities, suggests this goal will be achieved. The next stop for Bridge is Africa’s most populous nation, Nigeria, where approximately 5 million kids don’t attend school at all.
APPENDIX A: Keeping in Touch
Source: "Africa's Mobile Phone E-learning Transformation." Times Higher Education. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 Feb. 2014
APPENDIX B: Academic Results
Source: "Academic Results." Academic. Bridge International Academies, n.d. Web. 01 Feb. 2014.
APPENDIX C: Corporate Results
Source: "Corporate Results." Corporate. Bridge International Academies, 2013. Web. 1 Feb. 2014
APPENDIX D: Bridge International Academy - Tools
Source: "Corporate Results." Corporate. Bridge International Academies, 2013. Web. 1 Feb. 2014
Beaubien, Jason. "Do For-Profit Schools Give Poor Kenyans A Real Choice?" Minnesota Public Radio News. MPR News, 12 Nov. 2013. Web. 31 Jan. 2014.
Bridge International Academies. "Bridge International Academies | Knowledge for All." Bridge International Academies | Knowledge for All. Bridge International Academies, n.d. Web. 31 Jan. 2014. http://www.bridgeinternationalacademies.com/.
Global Impact Investing Network. "The GIIN: Omidyar Network / Bridge International Academies Profile." The GIIN: Omidyar Network / Bridge International Academies Profile. Global Impact Investing Network, n.d. Web. 31 Jan. 2014. http://www.thegiin.org/cgi-bin/iowa/print/23.html.
Guardian Media Network. "Democratising Education: Q&A with Shannon May." Theguardian.com. Guardian News and Media, 11 Nov. 2013. Web. 31 Jan. 2014.
Lumia. "Growing Use of SMS Payments around the World." Mobile Transaction. Mobile Transaction, 7 Apr. 2013. Web. 31 Jan. 2014.
Lumia. "Predicted Growth in Mobile Payments in Africa and the Middle East." Mobile Transaction. Mobile Transaction, 16 May 2013. Web. 31 Jan. 2014.
Times Higher Education. "Africa's Mobile Phone E-learning Transformation." Times Higher Education. Times Higher Education, 12 Sept. 2013. Web. 31 Jan. 2014.
Young, Robin, Jeremy Hobson, and Jason Beaubien. "Do Franchise Schools Offer Alternatives For Developing Countries?" Here Now RSS. Here & Now, 30 Dec. 2013. Web. 31 Jan. 2014. http://hereandnow.wbur.org/2013/12/30/kenya-schools-beaubien.
Prepared by: Jason Materi & Pat McArdle
Jason Materi: Jason currently works as a crude oil trader for Cargill’s Transport Fuels business. His previous roles with Cargill include real-time electricity trading and feed grain merchandising. Prior to commodity and energy trading Jason worked as an industrial engineer in the medical device industry. In this role he focused on optimizing production systems and implementing lean manufacturing principles. He holds a B.S. in Industrial Engineering from North Dakota State University and is an M.B.A. candidate at the Carlson School of Management.
Pat McArdle: Pat is currently working as the RZR Product Manager for Polaris Industries. He has previously held roles in service engineering, electrical engineering, sales territory management, materials / manufacturing supervision, and project management. He holds a B.S. in Electrical Engineering from the University of Wisconsin - Madison. Pat has extensive experience in product development, intra-plant logistics, and field sales and territory management. He also is an M.B.A candidate at the Carlson School of Management.