Interview: Charles Muhindo on bridging the digital divide in education with BrainShare

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Charles at a press conference launching BrainShare in Tanzania.
Charles at a press conference launching BrainShare in Tanzania.

BrainShare, the educational service with over 80,000 active users in more than three countries was the winner of the “Best Education Application” category at the MTN Innovation Awards last month. BrainShare was launched with the objective of connecting students to top content at reduced cost as well as empowering teachers and giving them an opportunity to earn more from their efforts.

Charles Muhindo, founder and CEO of BrainShare Ltd wasn’t at the MTN Innovation Awards Gala to receive their award because he was in Kigali on business and he is now in Tanzania, spreading the reach of BrainShare.

We had a chat with him about his work with technology in Education.

Give us a brief background of BRainShare. How did you decide to get into education?
For me Education is personal, after the way I made it through the system, I was inspired to use technology to help the disadvantaged learners who might be facing the same challenges as I did.

I somehow managed to make my way through school, and studied on scholarship and was able to progress. However there are some others that I grew up with who were not as lucky, and didn’t progress due to different challenges. However I know they were bright, but only lacked the exposure.

So when I was studying Computer Engineering, I decided to use the technology that I was learning to give others a chance, give them access to educational content and give them a better shot at the national exams.

I had the passion to make It easier for the students in Kasese to connect to teachers in Budo without the associated costs of studying in Budo.

We started with USSD, because we had in mind the learner in an area without electricity or internet connectivity, but with access to a mobile phone in at least every home. Then as we went along users asked that they have access to the content on different platforms, and that’s how we got to add web access and a smartphone application.

Tell us about what you’re doing in Rwanda and Tanzania?
We have regional offices in Tanzania & Rwanda, coordinated from head office in Kampala. We however spend some time on ground to train the people here, and when they are fully equipped they represent us. They are able to deal with nearly all local issues, and only escalate to us when they get stuck.

Also, because software changes very fast, we have to keep everyone on the same page. We have over 80,000 active users in 3 countries, and we are piloting in Kenya soon. I can’t confirm Kenya as our market now but we’re piloting soon.

How has the journey been since you started BrainShare?
I must say its been a learning journey.

I had the product ready at campus but didn’t have way to take it to the market. It was my final year project, so I had the product ready.

Every time I talked to an investor they wanted to take the business away. For example someone would ask for 70% of the business for only $2,000! I realized I wasn’t going to make headway in that direction and I decided to do it on my own with help of my friends.

The Problem is that they don’t have confidence in you. You aren’t a large company with a long history, so they aren’t confident to invest in your business.

Charles at the ICT in Education Exhibition organized by the Ministry of Education and Vocational Training, Tanzania.
Charles at the ICT in Education Exhibition organized by the Ministry of Education and Vocational Training, Tanzania.

What was the turning point? And highlights along the way?
When we were recognized at the Orange Community Innovation Awards and got some visibility, the business started to take shape, and some money started coming in.

I then started commercializing it more during my internship. In addition to the income from the internship, I was also getting more money from the product, so decided to go private, after my tenure ended and focus on growing the business.

Some of the highlights include being profiled on international media, like CNN, recognition from the government, and collaboration with large companies like Microsoft which has been very helpful in many ways. Most recently was “Best Education App at the MTN Innovation Awards” which was a very competitive category.

What challenges have you experienced along the way?
One of the challenges we’ve faced is that we’ve not yet gotten full support from the Ministry of Education. With partners help like Microsoft, we have been working with Ministry of Internal Affairs and Uganda Police, but you’d think that it would be easier to work with Education Ministry since our work is in their interest.

We need the support of the Ministry in many ways, including in getting all government supported schools to adopt BrainShare so that it can benefit the many learners in places outside the major urban centres.

Have you heard many success stories from the students and teachers who are using BrainShare?
Yes we’re always getting great feedback from users. The most touching recently was from a USAID project in Rwanda that we were the implementing partners for. The class captain of a group of Rwandan women who were able to continue their education without physically going to class gave a very touching speech.

Because their husbands didn’t want to let their wives go to school, but were willing to allow them to study at home, BrainShare with instructors at University of Rwanda created the connection with the learners who were given laptops. They were able to save time and money, they graduated and had really good grades.

Training teachers on how best to use BrainShare.
Training teachers on how best to use BrainShare.

What plans do you have for BrainShare for, say the next 10 years
The ultimate dream is to appreciate educators. Teachers are always forgotten, little credit is given to teachers, despite the very important role they play in society. Teachers are still seen as losers, and earn very little from their efforts.

On the other hand, I believe there are many students who need their content all over the world.

We are going to empower the teachers. Imagine if we have 1,000,000 students accessing teachers content on BrainShare, and each student is paying only $1, that’s already $1m. The potential is immense both for learning and for empowering the teachers.

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