May 30, 2007 — With IFC’s help, Nigeria’s SocketWorks has grown in just five years from being a small start-up company to helping 600,000 African university students overcome the digital divide. It is a good example of the way IFC helps meet the growing demand for affordable, high-quality education in sub-Saharan Africa — by strengthening innovative companies that provide essential services to the education sector.
Founded just five years ago by a former Apple Computer executive, IFC client SocketWorksis a Nigerian company that makes a difference in African education. It provides affordable information and communications technology (ICT) solutions that help educate 600,000 students at universities in its own country as well as in Ghana, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Kenya, and Uganda. In West Africa alone, it has successfully digitized more than 50 universities and polytechnics.
The company’s products meet two key needs. On one side, they increase the efficiency of African universities by making business process automation affordable. At the same time, they also increase students’ educational opportunities by providing Internet access that would not otherwise be available. Students pay as little as $25 per year for the access, gaining new opportunities for distance learning and other products that enhance their learning and subsequent employment prospects.
“The annual student user fee of 40,000 Ugandan shillings ($23.39) to access the service is incomparable to the benefits that await the over 8,000 Makerere University Business School students who may no longer have to purchase expensive text books,” the Ugandan publication East African Business Weekrecently reported.
IFC has worked with the company since just after it was established in 2002, providing advisory services that helped it identify Nigeria’s ICT needs. This led SocketWorks to focus on higher education as its key market and develop a sustainable plan to address its needs.
By 2006 the company had met with initial success and needed to finance a rapid growth strategy that included expanding from seven to 21 university clients in Nigeria. It approached IFC for long-term funding that was otherwise unavailable in Nigeria.
IFC responded by providing a $2.5 million loan while also strengthening the company’s management capacity through the deployment of an expert manager and improving its corporate governance. This year IFC has followed up with another $4 million loan that will help finance the provision of education and e-government ICT products to 17 polytechnic postgraduate universities in the country. It will also help the company expand into Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Uganda.
IFC’s financing has helped expand the reach of SocketWorks’ service from 110,000 to 600,000 students across Africa. In April, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf inaugurated a state-of-the-art SocketWorks computer lab at the University of Liberia with 200 computers, access to a university intranet, a VSAT Internet connection. Previously the university had only a small, 20 year-old library, but now its students have far greater opportunity, thanks to the instant access to digital libraries and university lectures in the United States that SocketWorks provides.