As Saudi Arabia wants to diversify its economy away from oil, education is essential for the upbringing of a generation endowed with the necessary skills.
However, people do not consider education as worthy of their time and investment.
“Saudi Arabia does not have a fund for educational projects,” said Basma Bushnak, cofounder of Emkan Education, a startup that aims to offer various educational services, such curriculum planning and teacher training. “Schools tend to think that if you have a company, you’re after their money,” she added.
This false impression, added to the difficulty of doing business as a woman, has not stopped the three cofounders of Emkan. Now, they have Madarisna, an application to search for schools and evaluate them, and Aanaab, a marketplace for teachers to exchange their digital tools.
Learning to do business
In early 2014, Emkan was launched by three Saudis, Mounira Jamjoum, the CEO; Basma Bushnak, managing director of training; and Sarah Zaini, managing director of school and content development. The three met at university and each went on to have a career in the education sector before joining up on this venture.
Rather than opening their own school, an original ambition, they decided they would instead come up with a service for existing schools.
For an amount of money Bushnak describes as 'peanuts', they completed their first project in Jeddah in March 2014. “The school didn’t have a high confidence in what we were doing at the beginning. But after we went back to evaluate our work and plans, they were surprised,” she said.
Despite not having a clear vision, they went on to complete three projects in that first year, using freelancers.
By the end of 2014 they were making profits and were starting to learn more about the orientation requirements of their market, this enabled them to develop a proper business plan, and led to the launch of Madarisna platform. With schools beginning to know their name and their work, they changed their marketing strategy and started targeting schools directly.
Counting 12 employees amongst its staff, the company’s work and large projects are currently concentrated on schools in Jeddah (where the company’s headquarters are), and Riyadh. “We have been asked to work in other areas. We currently have a project in Jizan and have previously worked on a project in Tabuk,” Bushnak added.
Why settle for one product
Looking to cater to the other important factor in the education sector - parents - Emkan launched Madarisna, also in 2014. Effectively a marketplace for schools, it allows parents to get information on various schools, add specific comments and reviews, and communicate with school management.
According to Bushnak, these search and evaluation operations do not only help the parents, but also enable the school administration to improve its performance and the quality of education.
Then at the end of 2016 they launched their third product Aanaab, a marketplace for teachers to exchange their digital tools.
A snapshot of Aanaab’s platform for the sale of digital educational tools.
Education means profits
Working on small projects with around 30 private schools, Emkan started with making little profit. It then went on to larger projects, its second revenue stream, like the one with the Public Education Evaluation Commission, to train instructors expected to start in 2017.
Madarisna currently has 2,500 users, free for both schools and parents. However, there is a paid service for the schools that allows the school to control its account such as sending notices to students and their parents.
Of course, a lot of data is being generated, and most of it is not easily found in Saudi Arabia. This is what Emkan plans on using in “consultancy services and preparing data reports” to generate profit, according to the cofounder.
Though Emkan has not received any investments so far, the founder’s reliance on bootstrapping paid off, and so did this new plan. “We already sold data to a research company, and made our first income [within this plan],” she added.