A grant of $1 million is on the line for Tembo Education, a group of five UT students and one USF student, who head to New York City on September 26 as one of the six remaining teams competing for the Hult Prize. Up to this point, they’ve edged Ivy Leaguers Yale, Cornell, Harvard, among others, to secure their spot in the Global Final.
The Hult Prize, founded by social venture executive Ahmad Ashkar, is a yearly competition in which student-run social entrepreneurship companies propose solutions to the most pressing humanitarian issues facing the global community. This year’s challenge, issued by former President Bill Clinton, is to “solve the lack of quality early childhood education in the urban slum,” according to the Hult Prize website.
Answering President Clinton’s call, Tembo Education (previously known as Athollo) crafted a plan to educate impoverished youth in sub-Saharan African countries by delivering information to them via mobile phones. This strategy is predicated on the fact that over 80 percent of individuals in urban slum communities in sub-Saharan Africa have access to a mobile phone, according to senior finance major Ulixes Hawili, director of economic development for Tembo.
Why make sub-Saharan Africa the target focus? Because 50 percent of children there don’t have access to early childhood education. Within the region, Tembo currently has partnerships in place with Nigeria, Ghana, Liberia, Uganda, and Kenya.
“The solution became clear to us when we started looking between the lines, at the dots we could potentially connect. We thought: ‘What if we could provide them something they don’t have–a quality early childhood education–through something they do have,the mobile phone.’ Sub-Saharan Africa is the fastest growing smartphone market in the world,” Hawili said.
Tembo’s plan of attack is essentially three-fold. First, an “evidence-based” curriculum of activities, developed in conjunction with Home Instruction for Parents of Preschool Youngsters (HIPPY), will be distributed via mobile phones to home educators (employees of Tembo). The home educators will teach parents the activities and role playing methods, who then teach their children accordingly. All this through the sharing of information via mobile phone.
“The core of the process is truly parental involvement in the child’s education from the ages of zero to six,” Hawili said. “The parent is the child’s first and most important teacher.”
To ensure that the cell phone component of the plan is reliable, Tembo has forged a partnership with a fast-growing provider called GloboCom. GloboCom will pay a percentage of royalties to Tembo for every customer that chooses them as their primary provider, and in turn GloboCom will receive a more captive audience. Whereas in the United States phone companies like Verizon and AT&T bind customers into lengthy contracts, the leniency of African telecommunications companies makes it harder to hold on to customers.
In order to bring this dream to full fruition, they’ll need one more victory in what has been a rewarding but lengthy journey. Applications for the contest began in October of last year, and in early January Tembo was announced as one of the regional finalists, affording them the chance to travel to San Francisco to compete against other teams based in North America. In San Francisco they notched a place as the lone representative from the United States in the Global Final.
“The key to winning is showing that you have the passion to turn the business idea into a reality. We feel confident because we not only have the passion, but have been in the slums making a substantial amount of progress living in the heart of poverty for over two and a half months,” says Phil Michaels, chief visionary officer of Tembo.
The Global Finals will take place at the Clinton Global Initiative in downtown Manhattan and feature entrepreneurial and political heavyweights like Muhammad Yunus, Julia Gillard, Charles Kane, and President Clinton himself. Teams will compete in one final pitch to the council, which will then decide who gets the million-dollar check from Mr. Clinton. The event will be live-streamed around the world, allowing the local African communities the chance to potentially watch Tembo make history.
While the Global Final is the last step in the Hult Prize journey, it is only the first step for Tembo Education. Victory or not, the team plans to continue with their mission of supplemental education in sub-Saharan Africa.
“Regardless of what happens in the competition, Tembo will continue operating,” Michaels said. “We are already collecting revenue, have already been provided with two verbal agreements for an investment, have been accepted into the IBM Smartcamp at the Barclays Accelerator in NYC, and we have also applied to other competitions, such as the Forbes HeroX $1M competition.”
Hawili echoed Michaels’ sentiments.
“We’re still competing in multiple other competitions, we also have investors waiting on the line, and operations are continuing in Nigeria. We’re not just going to pack up and leave,’’ Hawili said. “There are people out there who depend on us. This is real. This is something we can’t just let go of if we don’t win.”