New Kenyan Schooling Platform Takes World By Storm

  • Kidato Founder Sam Gichuru.
    Kidato Founder Sam Gichuru.
  • Kenyan serial entrepreneur, Sam Gichuru, has secured a Ksh 151 million funding for his revolutionary schooling platform (dubbed Kidato).

    Unknown to many, as recently as June 2020, the budding businessman only had Ksh 1,500 to his name, and one game-changing idea revolving around a new & different type of school. 

    Driven by a need to solve the various challenges facing the current education model in Kenya, and armed with a Ksh 1,100 subscription for an online coding class on Udemy, Gichuru (and his three young sons) created the new schooling platform.

    In a candid one-on-one talk with, the Kidato founder shared exclusive details of his journey so far, including how his brainchild project is set to shake-up the education sector on a global scale. 

    Despite recently adopting the new Competence Based Curriculum (CBC), Kenya’s current education system has been argued as one that is deeply flawed, long before the Covid-19 pandemic struck.

    Some tutors available on Kidato strike a pose.
    Some tutors available on Kidato strike a pose.

    Before the overhaul of Kenya’s 8-4-4 education system, pertinent questions were being raised about its viability in a knowledge economy. Were classes more focused on memorisation, studying, and standardised testing? Was enough emphasis put on exploration, independent thinking, and creativity?

    These among other challenges such as overcrowded public schools, costly tuition fees in private schools, long tiring commutes for students, and poorly motivated tutors were the fuel that kept Gichuru’s burning desire to make a difference going.

    Here’s the story of Kidato, in the founder’s own words.

    What is Kidato?

    Kidato School is an online K-12 school in Africa - meaning from kindergarten to 12th grade/High School. 

    We have also implemented after-school interest based clubs for everyone else, such as robotics, chess, art, coding, and debate.

    This means families don’t have to drive to affluent neighbourhoods anymore like Lavington or Kilimani where most tuition centres are situated, they can access tuition for their kids on Kidato from anywhere, and find a live qualified tutor for almost any academic subject or interest- based learning.

    In just 8 months, this has attracted students from all over the world, including Kenyans in the Diaspora. 

    It’s like you run a small factory of ideas in your mind? Does it ever stop?

    I am sure many people have good ideas.

    I use a note-tool to write down my ideas. To ensure I don’t forget something that’s potentially important, usually one good idea, is a convergence of many other ideas.

    I have at least 50 ideas on paper, that will probably never see the light of day.

    No, I don’t think it (idea factory) does, I think it should never stop.

    What is your relationship with failure like?

    I have failed so many times that failure has become a friend. Failure and success are two sides of the same coin. One can’t exist without the other.

    I am not afraid of it, though we live in a society that will laugh and bully you when you fail, so protecting your peace is important when attempting something new, something that’s more like to fail than succeed.

    Let’s talk about Ksh 151 Million you just secured for Kidato. That’s tons of money for a new venture. 

    What will it be used for?

    It’s an ok amount, but our success is not hinged on the funding, it’s what we do with it.

    Work starts now, we have to grow and be the best school in the region.

    We are currently offering partial Covid scholarships to parents who apply. We also offer a free computer to every child that joins our school.

    Kidato is also working towards securing certain international accreditations. Let’s just say that there is a lot of work to be done in the next couple of months.

    How do you get investors to buy into your ideas?

    You get investors to buy into your ideas by not building for investors. You should always aim to ruthlessly focus on solving an existing problem, especially if it’s one you have experienced, if they (customers) like what you have, investors will too.

    Investors like customers, not ideas.

    You are like the guru of startup businesses in Kenya. How did you do that?

    There are a lot of amazing startup founders in Kenya who have built better companies and raised even more funding, some are my close friends and mentors.

    I am probably the most visible one due to my work building the Nailab, having had a visit from the president and hosting Jack Ma.

    I often wish I could work in stealth but seems that’s harder when people know you. Having visibility attracts fans and haters, just like success and failure, it’s a burden one has to endure.

    Kidato Founder Sam Gichuru.
    Kidato Founder Sam Gichuru.

    Why Kidato? Any challenge that stood out during the process?

    I was broke and I didn’t want to pay expensive school fees anymore, so I built a better school for my kids, I also had nothing else to do as we were under the nationwide lockdown.

    I was once disconnected for not being able to pay my hosting services which was $60 (approximately Ksh 6,500 at the current exchange rate), then another month I had zero cash to pay for my home fibre - I used bonga points as payment , then my lead developer left and I had to go on Udemy and pay for coding classes.

    That was really hard but very rewarding in the end.

    We read on the news that Jack Ma gave you $10M to manage for 10 years, I recently read that you were not paid for that work?

    Jack Ma through his foundation is always willing to give money to support entrepreneurs Most NGO's sometimes spend up to 50%+ of their budgets on operations & administrative costs, and very little on direct impact. 

    He wanted to have more impact and less administration or operations cost, it made sense to me and I agreed and took the offer, I am very grateful to him and his team for the opportunity.

    As a company, we thought of it as an opportunity to learn, I am aware this provokes emotions. I took a pay cut and earned less than Ksh150,000 gross salary in 2 years. So I survived a lot on my savings and they started running out mid 2019. I did question myself a lot if we had made the right decision.

    That experience was extremely helpful while building Kidato.

    Some of the lessons that stuck included working with little to no resources, and most importantly, attracting investors because they read about our work through him which boosted our credibility. 

    How is Kidato different from a traditional classroom setting?

    Our class setup is optimised for small but engaging interactions between tutors and students, imagine a highly enaging class of 1 tutor to 5 students.

    We know it's working as kids have been asking for classes to be extended on the platform. 

    A teacher and students inside a classroom at Kawangware Primary School, Nairobi, on October 5, 2015.
    A teacher and students inside a classroom at Kawangware Primary School, Nairobi, on October 5, 2015.

    Do you think the physical classrooms model is facing extinction?

    No, I think there is a place for physical in-person learning and other forms of home-schooling initiatives.

    We are building towards a hybrid model. Maybe once a week whereby you drop your child off at one of our future campus hubs/pods where they’ll get to spend an entire day doing practical learning such as sciences labs, debates, extracurricular activities, among others.

    That's the vision.

    How do you instill discipline to students in an online classroom?

    We have built rewards mechanisms that we use for behavioral management.

    To paint you a picture of how this works, students get merits, if they show up on time, or submit assignments or engage and help other students.

    The plan is to turn those merits into actual cash that kids can get, this is part of our financial literacy class for kids.

    Think about it this way, kids don’t know why they are going to school, we just force them, they go because we tell them it’s important, actually, most of us only realise the value of school in university,  probably during 4th year.

    However, by building tools that associate effort with actual real-world outcomes, kids start learning early, why discipline is important.

    Worth noting at this point is that Gichuru didn't start out 2020 with the thought or idea of building a school, he actually wanted to build a book swapping/subscription platform dubbed Swapkitabu.

    He had already switched his kids to homeschooling in 2019, as he could no longer afford private schools, after working for a long period without his full pay.

    It was during this period that the ‘magic’ behind Kidato happened, with some crucial input from his three sons.

    “I added a simple diary feature to Swapkitabu for the tutors to fill in and report their daily progress. I also added an interface for tutors to interact with kids without sending me Zoom links every other hour, that's how Kidato come into being,

    “My sons spent time thinking and coming up with features every day, they showed me how Roblox and Mine-craft websites work, they taught me “kid thinking” navigation and requested for gamification like giving out merits for timekeeping, doing homework on time, being attentive and engaging in class. It all started with my 3 boys,” he revealed.

    Where do you see Kidato in the next 10 years?

    The demand for online education has grown from the convergence of a fast growing middle class in Africa and high internet penetration with enabling infrastructure services such as Zoom that has seen easier adoption of remote work. 

    Additionally, cutting out commute time in highly congested cities is a welcome relief for parents as it means being able to spend more time with their children. I expect to see a lot more Kidato types of schools across emerging markets and at-home learning becoming the norm.

    We want to ensure we create better learning outcomes for our students, and create a path from Kidato to some of the best Ivy League universities in the world.

    We are focused on maintaining high quality learning even when we have over a million students actively engaged on the platform.

    Any additional benefits or challenges?

    Most families tend to move near schools and the rent is usually high, due to the platform they are now able to live in locations they can afford. This helps to cut down on expenses such as rent, school transport fees, uniforms, books, food and other extra charges.

    We have added an extensive extracurricular timetable for socialization weekly, our classes end at 2:15 pm and kids have a lot of time to play that they would have wasted probably sleeping through traffic. This also includes several education field trips one can pick from.

    Kidato is probably not for everyone, it works best for families with a good live-in house help in case the parents are not working remotely. While laptops with good battery life are used, it goes without saying that a consistent power supply and stable internet is also critical to making sure this reaches more people.

    In April 2021, Kidato released a press statement that revealed the details of its new Ksh151 million funding deal.

    “We are thrilled to welcome new parents and partners on board Kidato. We are also happy to announce that we had raised a seed round of USD 1.4 million from notable investors. It’s a special moment as we welcome our new investors: Learn Start Capital, Launch Africa Ventures Fund, Graph Ventures, Century Oak Capital, and the Ivy League University Endowment Fund, among other notable angel investors,

    “We are also very honoured to have some of our student's parents join as investors as well. Their faith and belief in our mission is truly humbling,” reads an excerpt from the statement.

    Since its launch (September 2020), Kidato has grown by over 100 percent. 

    It currently hosts over 700 registered students from 8 countries around the world namely: Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, UK, USA, UAE, Canada, and Switzerland, who are taking Coding, Chess, Art, Swahili & Debate courses priced for as low as Ksh 540 per lesson.

    Kidato Founder Sam Gichuru.
    Kidato Founder Sam Gichuru.
    armed steal armed