PassCo Africa: Using technology to boost student performance

By Mac-Jordan Degadjor on June 22, 2012


In today’s hyper-connected world, it is hard to believe that only 11 percent of Africans have access to the Internet through a computer or mobile phone. Africa’s information technology sector is ripe for development and ready for growth. The many new possibilities are applied in the education sector in many African countries. Let’s meet Ghanaian entrepreneur Adu Saarah-Mensah, founder of PassCo Africa.

How would you describe PassCo Africa in under 50 words?

“PassCo Africa is a company whose main goal is to provide an avenue, at a reasonable cost, for students in Africa to increase their performance in preparation for their standard examinations.”

What made you decide to start working on PassCo Africa?

“It was during one of my last MBA classes. Ten minutes before the start of class I was making a cup of tea and reminiscing about my educational journey up to this point. I had a fleeting thought of taking the Graduate Management Admission Test and my preparations towards it to gain admission into the University of Iowa. Out of nowhere, the question just popped into my head… Why don’t we have a computer-based program to help Ghanaians with the BECE (Basic Education Certificate Examination) and WASSCE (West Africa Senior School Certificate Examinations)? and presto, PassCo Africa was born!”

You founded PassCo Africa by yourself, what are the advantages and disadvantages of starting it alone?

“The disadvantage of starting PassCo Africa alone was that I wore many hats. I was the architect, web designer, developer, tester, marketer, cheerleader, and a played a host of other roles. This meant that it was very time consuming and could be overwhelming and daunting at times. It also meant that I took quite a hit financially too.

At the same time it was also an advantage to wear those many hats. This gave me a unique perspective on entrepreneurship. I got to understudy many roles of a business. It strengthened me as an individual by making me venture outside of my ‘geeky world’. I learned to be a sales person, which I did not care for in the beginning. I improved my public speaking, which I used to hate, by making countless pitches and demonstrations to students, parents and teachers. I sharpened my marketing skills and became very business savvy and patient by interacting with vendors, partners and the public.”

How do you think formal education can be improved with PassCo Africa products?

“Teachers can use PassCo to effectively identify weakness of students and address them before it is too late. I think formal education needs tools like this to better address the student’s educational needs. Often teachers are just adhering to the status quo of feeding students with as much information as possible and ‘testing’ them regardless of whether the student is ready for the examination or not. In our next version, the 3.x series, we are introducing several new features that will help students beyond just answering past questions. This includes examination papers, syllabus integration, performance analysis and search functionality so students can test themselves on specific topics after they have just studied or revised those topics. These features will immensely help schools track the performance of students over the years.”

What are the biggest hurdles you’ve faced or are still facing with regards to PassCo Africa?

“A big hurdle I have faced was evangelizing PassCo. Unfortunately, advertising costs are so prohibitive that effective advertising and marketing campaigns are not feasible in print and TV media. Another problem is that we do not currently have a far-reaching distribution channel. We currently sell PassCo outside of the Ghanaian capital Accra where we are based, by means of agents who are paid commission on sales. The structure is not set up right to effectively get good quality agents who are committed, for the long term, to marketing the software outside of Accra. We tried using a marketing company that made lots of promises to streamline and effectively run this process, but they failed miserably in achieving agreed goals. However, the ultimate problem is lack of funds. For now, PassCo Africa is bootstrapping and whatever profits we gain are pumped back into growing the company. This is a very slow process and holds back our plans to scale to other countries quickly.

You believe that in order to change the world, we must first change ourselves. Give us an example of how you have changed yourself with PassCo Africa products?

“One theme that kept ringing out when people first heard of the PassCo project was that it was not really a game changer and that it would never be commercially viable. I had one person even characterize it as a school project and not a real entrepreneurial idea. Well, it finally hit me one day that if I was to ask students to believe that they can better themselves (their grades) by using my software, then I had to swallow the same advice pill. I needed to believe that I can make PassCo work! PassCo did start out as a curiosity… as a hobby if you will. But once I came to the realization that I needed to pay no mind to the naysayers and believe in the idea of making PassCo Africa a variable business, there was no turning back.

Aside from resiliency and believe in the product, PassCo SMS changed my way of thinking from a pure profit mentality to a social impact business model with lower profit margins. I had vendors tell me that in order to make our texting service, PassCo SMS, work we would have to charge at least 30 pesewas (a little bit over 0.12 Euro) per text message. That could get really expensive to students when the goal is to answer as many questions as you can by texting. People would still use the service and huge profits would be made, but it would not go with the “affordable” part of our mission statement. Additionally, the goal of PassCo SMS was to level the learning field a little by making access to our interactive service very cheap so that students in the less privileged regions could afford to use it. So with tenacity, we pushed for our service to be made available at only 5 pesewas (0.02 Euro) a text message.”

Has PassCo Africa got the feedback and growth you expected since launch?

“Yes and No. Yes, PassCo Africa has received the feedback expected. There is always the ‘WOW’ factor when people see it for the first time. There is amazement that the app was done by a Ghanaian and that the content is for local and very relevant. Feedback and encouragement is very positive. No, PassCo Africa has not received the growth expected. The reasons are outlined in a question above, but to summarize the main problems to growth have been lack of funds to advertise, market and distribute PassCo on a national and continent level.”

What do you wish you’d have known five years ago? Where do you see PassCo Africa in five years time?

“Five years ago, I wish I had known how difficult it would have been to market and distribute PassCo across Ghana. I would have been challenged to move back to Ghana sooner, rather than try to run it from the US initially. I wish I had plugged into the Venture Capital/Angel Investors scene. I would have searched for mentorship and funding much sooner.

In five years time, I see PassCo well established in the West African Examination Council (WAEC) countries (Ghana, Nigeria, Liberia, The Gambia and Sierra Leone). I see PassCo Africa entering other African countries. I see all PassCo products (PassCo Desktop, PassCo Online, PassCo Mobile (iPhone and Android), PassCo SMS) being used in all the countries PassCo Africa is in.”

Since starting PassCo Africa, how did you see the venture landscape in Africa changing?

“The mobile apps bug has bitten Africa. There are many innovations coming out for mobile technology. Fortunately, these innovations are beginning to be noticed and getting lots of exposure on various social media and websites. This is opening up the venture scene with investors recognizing the potential in mobile technology in Africa. Consequently more matches will be made between global venture capitalists and local African entrepreneurs.”

Can you convince the reader to start using PassCo Africa?

“PassCo can help you prepare for your standard examinations. We offer affordable solutions that cut across several media and are interactive, easy to use and very informative. Use our computer and mobile versions to get feature rich software or simply TEXT and PASS using PassCo SMS!”

How can members in the VC4Africa community contact you?

“I can be contacted through my VC4Africa profile page, E-mail: saarahadu [at] gmail.com, Twitter and facebook.”

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