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Techie rakes in cash selling online exam papers to schools

Virtual Essence CEO Michael Wachira.  PHOTO | SALATON NJAU | NMG
Virtual Essence CEO Michael Wachira. PHOTO | SALATON NJAU | NMG  

When upon graduation from the university Michael Wachira told his peers that he planned to engage in digital learning material production few seemed to understand what he was talking about.

Mr Wachira had just completed his studies for a Bachelor of Science degree (Mathematics) in 2001 at the University of Nairobi, which prepared him for a future career as a secondary school teacher.

“Only my co-partner and e-learning instructional designer Julius Momanyi understood my decision, which elicited strong disapproval from my family,” says the chief executive of digital learning materials provider Virtual Essence.

Lack of capital or a soft credit scheme for startups forced them to seek employment elsewhere to raise funds for their planned venture, which was remote to many since computers were then only found in cyber cafes.

“Kenya needs serious equity investors ready to put their money at risk by funding startups in the form of taking up shares. This is the new way to create jobs and new ventures that solve local challenges,” he says.

Mr Wachira took up various jobs at IT firms for the next five years and quit in 2006 to launch Virtual Essence. Initially the firm sold computer hardware.

The duo would later convince the Kenya National Examinations Council to grant them access to copyrighted material for the Kenya Primary Certificate of Education (KCPE) examination papers that they uploaded.

This saw them hire a group of 30 teachers to review all content, providing answers and detailed explanations for every paper.

With many affluent and middle class families now owning laptops and computers, their e-revision product with materials spanning a period of 10 years proved popular creating a new market for their branded product, MsingiPack.

They produced single-user compact discs that were distributed to leading bookstores, but the product was hit by piracy forcing them to change tactics.

This saw them crisscross the country visiting private schools to install the product in their computer laboratories.“We moved fast to provide Standard Seven revision papers by hiring another group of teachers to set exams, provide answers and detailed explanations,” he says.

Mr Wachira and Mr Momanyi, who had undertaken a newly introduced computer course at Strathmore University on information systems management, added a Standard Six pack to their offering before changing their marketing strategy to include a mobile software app. The app enables one to access their products at a small fee.

This saw them enter into an agreement with Safaricom but the partnership ended with Virtual Essence partnering with Samsung while Safaricom funded a new startup, Eneza, to generate learning materials for pupils and students.
“We enable children to ‘sit’ for a virtual examination that is automatically marked and results issued when the last question is ticked. The service has been upgraded to provide children with a realtime performance review showing their strength and weaknesses,” he says.

Increased their offering

They later embarked on production of lower primary educational parks which would conform with the government’s vision.

“We expect this to become a big boost for us as our digital learning materials for Standard One have been approved for use in schools by the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development,” he adds.

Since inception, Virtual Essence’s products have been installed in 2,500 primary schools across Kenya with more sold online to private schools in Uganda.

“Kenya needs to instruct all teachers to undertake an in-service course to upgrade their skills since the future is digital. Soon the entire world will have digital interactive boards, books and other learning materials that will be complemented with a teacher’s digital voice beamed from loud speakers,” he says.

They have since increased their offering to include Mathematics, Kiswahili, Social Science Studies, and Christian and Islamic Religious Education.

Mr Wachira says they are undertaking a survey on new offerings via mobile phones where individual parents can pay a small fee to access an examination paper and other learning materials.

They are also working on learning materials as complete packages for Standard Three, Four and Five. 

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