Digitally unconnected young people in developing nations are hungry for skills and opportunities but have a hard time accessing them.

Access to the internet should increase everyone's exposure to learning opportunities that can lead to income generation.

But online learning does not reach the people who really need these opportunities and communities. Traditional education systems are broken, inefficient and inaccessible.

That's why created uFunda, an online learning platform designed to give access to skills and opportunities using the platform that unconnected communities are already using: Whatsapp

With this solution we wanted to open up:

  • Quality accessible educational content - learn something new that could increase your level of skills and employability
  • Connections with communities - ways to easily connect with the right education/learning opportunities and peers to improve the learning experience and reduce attrition
  • Future opportunities - connecting learners with progression pathways through links with other partner and employers via our dashboard

Addressing SDGs 4 and 8 - this solution addresses the critical need to provide quality education and create pathways to decent work.

What it does

We built a solution to link and connect young unconnected learners to curated educational content, peer learning communities, and access to opportunities via Whatsapp.

Learners can join a course by sending a message to a learning provider on Whatsapp. They can then receive course content via Whatsapp messages - including video, text and file attachments.

They will also be connected by peer and mentor communities, to receive guidance and feedback that helps them navigate through the learning experience.

This solution will make it easier for learning organisations and social enterprises to deliver affordable, curated, relevant content to their learners, allowing them to track progress and provide information to other partners/operators for further pathways of progression. In the process, building communities for young people as well as the ecosystem of partners trying to solve social problems at scale.

We focused on using Whatsapp to function as a free or low-cost, versatile learning management system and community tool for learning providers to connect with users online. The reason being that it is an existing product that people know and trust and is easily scalable in implementation.

How we built it

Working closely with two of the subject matter experts, we developed this solution to fit their use case exactly. We used the Twilio WhatsApp API to allow us to quickly demo the chatbot experience. We then built our own fully-internationalized chatbot framework using Node.js and the Google translate API, so that each user can communicate with the chatbot in their own language. We used Prisma to expose a GraphQL API which we used as a data layer for both the chatbot back end and the partner dashboard. We then built the partner dashboard using React, Apollo and Chart.js.

Challenges we ran into

The decision to use Whatsapp versus Messenger was a purpose-driven decision based on solving SDGs, and addressing the brief to create the most scalable, practical and contextually relevant solution. Using Messenger would in some ways have been an easier choice for development and demoing a product, but the reality on the ground is that Messenger would not be as effective for the target audience.

A key challenge was to accommodate users with little to no money for data and limited access to the internet - how do you replicate an impactful learning experience for this type of user? Our workaround for this was to make content available via download links and explicitly show users how much data it would cost them to download. We will always offer a basic text version of content for the most restricted users.

It's difficult to demo the real partnership and ecosystem work that is evolving in the learning to earning space in South Africa. The Whatsapp messaging solution bridges a lot of the connections and communities for young people as well as partners trying to solve these problems.

Accomplishments that we're proud of

  • Solves multiple challenges in the education space in Africa: accessibility, language, curated and self-guided learning that is specific to learner needs and sensitive to barriers such as data cost.

  • This solution is based on an existing ecosystem of partners and can readily be scaled to reach young people and increase their reported access to income generation opportunity by more than 20%.

  • Finds users where they already are, in a free or low-cost solution: ie Whatsapp, making it a practical product that solves the digital divide problem.

  • Supports blended learning (ie when wrapped around F2F learning).

  • Creates administrative efficiency for learning providers.

  • Provides opportunity for organisations to scale impact of learning and to partner with other organisations in the same ecosystem (systems-approach to solving social issues).

  • This solution is implementation ready by two organisations working in the same ecosystem in South Africa. (The tech infrastructure and data structure for Whatapp API integration has been completed).

What we learned

From a SDG perspective: Building functional, scalable relevant solutions to developmental issues requires partnerships and system thinking just as much as technology Technology needs to enable the partnerships that work on solving these issues.

We realized the importance of working with the folks who would be using our tool, from the partners who would implement coursework through Ufunda, to the potential students who would use the platform to learn.

We learned that we must not add additional layers of difficulty for our users to learn with our platform, thus, we've minimized the effort for learners to start learning and assured that the bells and whistles to our app could not be a barrier for the most limited user. The heavy lifting is taken care of, enabling the digitally disconnected to enrich themselves with knowledge at little to no cost.

What's next for uFunda

With access to the Whatsapp API we could unlock even more features and functionality to enrich the experience, and allow us to pilot this with two organisations in South Africa.

Key features to add would include:

  • assessments
  • digital badges (accreditation)
  • CV builders
  • ability for users to report progress
  • integration with further pathways for learners to find opportunities.

We believe that this is a solution that Facebook could enable in an existing working ecosystem that can demonstrate scale and impact in a very short period of time.

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