“Lifting Up the Most Vulnerable Is the Most Important Thing that Global Equity Investment Can Do.”
Interview with Matt Greenfield, Managing Partner of Rethink Education, an impact investment private equity platform.
How much uptake of education technology are we seeing in emerging markets and in which segments, countries, and regions is this happening? How accessible to the world’s poorest are the apps and programs that can deliver innovative educational content? Matt Greenfield, whose venture capital firm Rethink Education has a wide portfolio of investments in this space, discusses key trends and outlines what can be done to advance education technology’s useful deployment.
Which emerging markets look most promising to education technology (EdTech) investors?
Education is one of the critical needs of every nation—emerging or developed—and that creates opportunities everywhere. India and China are notable for having a lot of capital and competitors. There are also tremendous opportunities in Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines, but they would not have the same level of competition. We’re extremely interested in Africa, too, where there are many attractive and socially responsible companies—Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa.
How much homegrown EdTech is produced in emerging markets? Where are the exciting centers of innovation?
India has a lot of companies that have offerings in every established category of education technology. There’s definitely a huge amount of Artificial Intelligence (AI) talent there as well. There aren’t so many other markets where you see a lot of AI-enabled innovation. Many emerging markets skipped wireline telephony—and to some extent desktop and laptop computing too— and went all in on mobile technology. This mobile-first orientation makes it likely that we will see an increasing amount of technology from emerging markets that migrates to developed markets, transmitted mostly through smartphones.
In which segments do you see emerging market EdTech growing most robustly?
Overwhelmingly, the successes have been with products directed at consumers such as parents of school-aged children. But there have been others focused on selling to schools themselves and to colleges. For example, there is a phenomenal company in India called Eruditus that partners with the world’s top business schools.
How hard is it to deploy cutting-edge EdTech solutions to the poorest and most vulnerable?
Even the very poor are increasingly likely to have a phone of some kind. In the not-too-distant future that phone will be a smartphone. Even today some extremely poor people have them—mostly android phones. There are some interesting experiments in educating people using text messages. Cell-ed, a company based in Silicon Valley but operating in emerging markets, is an example of that. There is at least one company in Africa using a similar model.
Edtech is used by parents to support their children’s learning and increasingly, education ministries are looking at how they can deploy this in government schools to support what teachers are doing. What are some of the issues for education ministries in relation to EdTech and how do you convince them it works?
There is huge interest but also an entirely justifiable suspicion of it because there is a lot of bad EdTech and false promises. In many emerging markets much of the decision-making power in this area is devolved to the city or region. Procurement processes are not always as broadly inclusive and rigorous as one might like. So often, a politically connected local vendor will end up winning the contract, which is not necessarily the best thing for the learners, even if it may be good for local enterprise. For example, visual content—even if it involves videos—is not necessarily the most engaging way to learn things. You need something that brings students together.
Where will EdTech’s leaders be a decade from now?
Because talent is everywhere and cloud services and the most cutting-edge digital information technologies are potentially available to anyone, it is hard to say where the innovation will come from. One interesting company, for example, was founded in Poland.
What types of products will be at the fore?
We will see a lot more products that help teach children—and adults for that matter—to read and write. For example, products that are delightful to use and can even be in the games marketplace but that teach people the full range of literacy skills.
How can the private sector help?
Lifting up the most vulnerable is the most important thing that global equity investment can do. If people cannot do the most basic arithmetic, then they cannot participate in a meaningful way in the global economy. The economic opportunities for those that focus on solving the problems of ‘the bottom billion’ are substantial. We are talking about big needs and large numbers of people. I hope that the payers for this job will end up being the cellphone carriers and other corporations rather than consumers themselves.
Employers can help too. In developed countries, there is already an incentive. They realize they have a problem attracting employees with the skills they need and the more they do to train employees, the more they will retain them and source the talent they need. But while that is a very attractive model for people lucky enough to be employed by prosperous companies, it doesn’t help someone living in a favela and working in the informal economy. We need to find other solutions for them.
This interview has been edited for clarity and conciseness.
Published in June 2020
Matt Greenfield is Managing Partner of Rethink Education, a venture capital firm focused on educational technology. He serves on the boards of Allovue, BrightBytes, CareAcademy, Kenzie Academy, NoRedInk. His non-profit affiliations include the boards of Southern New Hampshire University and Mouse.org.