Part 4: Developing Haystack Africa, Our Online Education Platform

We spent many weeks strategizing on our business model. We knew that affordability was a challenge. We also knew that trained accountants with job-relevant skills were hard to come by. Turnover in an accounting department results in significant costs for employers. We were aware that large banks in East Africa are willing to pay large staffing fees to have trained and vetted bank tellers. We also knew of the Andela model, where software developers are trained on the continent and then subcontracted to American organizations.

The business model was obvious in our minds!

Flip the education model upside down by making employers subsidize the cost of education. We would charge a nominal fee to the student so that they’re committed to the course and then market our students to employers, who pay a recruitment fee (this representing the profit component of education delivery).

At the outset, I knew there would be three main challenges when it came to launching the online program:

  • Ensuring the course was interactive. What worked well in class was that students were put to work as opposed to just watching us lecture. A low-cost option to put our course online would be to create a series of videos, put them on YouTube, and launch our course at a fraction of the cost. However, if we were to do that, we would lose the techniques that worked well in class (practice, practice, practice).
  • Collecting payments. The majority of our target demographic don’t have credit cards. Instead, they have mobile money – a service provided by the telecoms (so a solution like Square is a no-go). Further complicating this issue, telecoms in Africa don’t have cross-border functionality. Each country’s telecom has their own API. With our goal to offer our course outside of Rwanda, we had to find a way to integrate a payment gateway on the website that could collect mobile money and allow for cross-border transactions.
  • Although we had a budget for an MVP (minimum viable product), the end product had to be better than an MVP. Our pilot was the MVP. Online learning is new to our target market. Surveying our students, we knew that a tiny percentage of them had ever taken an online course. The African Accounting Academy would be their first. If we wanted adoption, we had to ensure high product quality.

I scrambled to learn as much as possible in a short period of time about learning management systems (LMS), website development, e-learning methods, and payment technology in Africa. From October to December 2018, this was my life, while Erin was working full-time with clients to keep us afloat. I could write a whole book about this process, but for your sake, I’ll just highlight the key areas:

The Website

There are many great e-learning platforms like Udemy and Teachable that reduce the challenges educators face when launching an online course. Unfortunately, these platforms were not the right fit for us because 1) they focus heavily on video content, 2) they would not allow us to accept payments from our customers, and 3) we wanted more control over branding.

We decided to go with the WordPress platform; a flexible open source content management system that allows the easy launch of websites with advanced functionality. The LMS functionality was enhanced through LearnDash, a powerful plugin that layers on top of WordPress.

The E-Learning Content

The e-learning content itself was the area I was most concerned with. Our initial estimates to convert our entire library of content into an e-learning format ranged from $20,000 to $50,000. It was 120 hours of learning – no easy feat. We knew we couldn’t cut any corners here, because this was the core of our product.

We tested a few instructional designers we found on Upwork until we fortunately found a team based in Pakistan that produced affordable and high-quality development. Our total cost for the e-learning development was $4,400. They were extremely patient with us as we tirelessly went through multiple iterations of our problems and exercises together so that they were fun and interactive.

The screenshot below is an example of one of our exercises.

The student must drag the correct accounts, type in the numbers, and submit their answers. They get two attempts. After the second failed attempt, the solution and an explanation are provided.

The course is broken down into 15 lessons, covering a range of topics such as accounting fundamentals, internal controls, accounting processes, and Excel. Each lesson is broken down into bite-sized topics, taking around 5 to 15 minutes each to complete. Topics are followed by interactive problems (like those in the screenshot above), cases to read followed by multiple-choice questions to test one’s knowledge, as well as Excel-based exercises that the student downloads and must then upload the completed copy of to progress.

We used a minimal number of videos. In fact, Excel and QuickBooks were the only lessons for which we used videos, which consists of narration and recordings of our screens as we walk through how to use them. For Excel, we felt that it was important for the students to watch us apply formulas and functions before attempting it themselves. For many, this was their first time being exposed to Excel.

The Payment Gateway

Few African payment gateways offer cross-border functionality. At the time, there were only three options. We did not have a backup plan. We couldn’t imagine a scenario where none of them worked. The smart thing would have been to confirm that at least one of the payment providers would work before jumping into the project, but we had a compressed timeline. By November 2018, we had narrowed it down to one of the three, Direct Pay Online. Fortunately, our testing of the integration in January 2019 was flawless. We were now able to accept mobile money payments across East Africa in Rwanda, Uganda, Tanzania, and Kenya!

Preparing for Launch

Through much trial and error and assistance from a few freelancers, over the course of 3 months, I managed to configure the website, load the content into the LMS, integrate the payment gateway, and configure an email marketing service that automated delivery of emails over a 12-week period.

Overall, we hit our budget bang on, spending approximately $10,000 on software licenses and freelance developers.

Over the holidays while back home in Canada, we realized that the January 14, 2020 launch would likely slip away from us. At that point, we were very close, but just not quite there. Our content was fully developed and the website was 90% functional. The important remaining step was to test the course with our target demographic. We had lined up two Rwandan university graduates to go through the course from start to finish, our goal being to answer the following questions: 1) Was the course user-friendly? 2) Were there topics that were difficult to understand or do we have to add more exercises? and 3) Were there were any errors that Erin and I didn’t catch during our quality control checks?

We knew we were going to miss our deadline, since testing began in early January and was going to take a minimum of 3 weeks to complete given the length of the course.

Fortunately, the feedback we received was overwhelmingly positive and the issues were few and far between. We managed to incorporate the feedback as the students were completing their testing, revising our official launch date to February 11, 2019.

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