After speeding through the University of Chicago in 2.5 years, Evanna Hu,at age 20, parked for East Africa, moved with passion exactly one year ago.
She conceived the idea of g.Maarifa while she was attending the Chicago Ideas Week as a 2011 ThinkChicago Scholar. She had always been passionate about Africa, a fascination that started when she was 14 when she founded her first organization: nonprofit that focused on advocacy and emergency relief for Sudan. Chicago Ideas Week cemented her other passion of bridging the gap in access of education and the power of SMS technology.
“I first became acquainted with Kenya when I was doing research for my thesis on post-conflict economic policies of the DRC, and I was based out of Nairobi,” she said and added,” I ultimately chose Kenya because of its market conditions and of its resilient people and beautiful scenery.”
In March 2012, with co-founder Andrew Leventhal she launched g.Maarifa, a mobile technology company for the developing markets, specializing in education and training industries.
Hu says g.Maarifa’s primary product, named Orion is an interactive SMS platform to deliver low-cost education and training content and monitor participants performance and manage data for their clients. g.Maarifa works with clients, who are NGOs, governments, and corporations, achieve their missions by providing a remote mediated learning platform through which the clients can push out their proprietary content to their own benefiaries and end users.
The CEO says,” We give them our on-the-ground and user experience expertise to customize their content into the SMS format and to craft questions that reinforce learning.” The startup is focused on three verticals right now: mHealth, financial/entrepreneurship training, and agriculture.
“Though we are only one-year-old, we already have a stable product. In fact, we just finished building version 2.0 of Orion. We are expanding rapidly. Through our clients, we will reach almost 1 million by the end of 2013,” says Hu.
g.Maarifa’s other product, Sophia, aims to tackle the problem of the high youth unemployment rate in Kenya. It is an SMS job training, evaluation, and placement service for youths who do not go onto higher education. It identifies the higher performing individuals and put them into vacate jobs that are offered by a consortium of national and local employers that are partners of g.Maarifa. Sophia is offered to individuals, communities, and through the Ministry of Education. Its pilot testing of 230 students was highly successful- it placed around 30% of its students. Yet the company is putting Sophia on halt to work on Orion.
According to Hu, “while we value both Orion and Sophia, we have decided to focus primarily on building up Orion in the next year. We are a for-profit startup, and Orion made the most sense business-wise. Our goal is to go back to the very resources-intensive Sophia once we have sufficient the resources. Do we sometimes question this move? Yes, but at the end of the day, we are still making a huge social impact. The scalability of Orion allows us to reach more end users and give them access to information and content that they otherwise would have a difficult time obtaining.”
g.Maarifa is already talking to several investment firms who are interested in backing up Sophia starting 2014.
Now operating only in Kenya, g.Maarifa has plans to expand out of the country by year-end. However, it has already made a name for itself out of the borders.”We are looking at other markets in the MEA region- wherever that presents appropriate market conditions for our product and that gives us the opportunity to have big social impact”.
g.Maarifa also wants to grow technologically. Leventhal says, “as our end users start adopting more advanced tech, we will make apps that follow their adaptation rate. We go where our end users go because that is where the economic value is. We don’t go where the tech goes because our end users are the mass market who can’t afford the trendier tablets and smartphones.
g.Maarifa is using one stone to kill two birds.
The SMS messages act as alternative college or vocational school for youths who due to conditions dropped out of school. With topics ranging from financial, entrepreneurship and personal etiquette and a certification from the Ministry of education, g.Maarifa is also fighting joblessness in a country with over 60 percent unemployment. After the trainings the team has partnerships with various firms to give internships to their graduates. Some firms retain the best performing graduates.
Official figures put 16 million of the over 40 million Kenyans as unemployed, 80 percent of these are the youth. Most of the youth are unemployed due to lack of an employable skill. Something g.Maarifa is helping end.
She said, “We are tackling the high unemployment rate among the youths and cutting HR costs for employers looking to hire locals.”
There are several indirect solutions g.Maarifa is fighting. By giving underprivileged youth employable skills, they are also reducing incidents of crime , a move that will help make business people have confidence in the planned 24 hour economy in Kenya.
Evanna Hu knows there is much to do especially after elections to get more lives changed. This is not the first time the CEO at just 21 years, has made her move to change the world.
G.maarifa is her third startup but her first for-profit venture.
She founded a for-profit social business called DigiPrint in order to increase young people’s access to information technology so that they can develop into responsible digital citizens. picked up by the City of Chicago which is in the process of implementing it in the next two years.
Her other significant venture was the launch of the University of Chicago Microfinance Initiative (UCMI) in 2010 to educate the next generation about social finance, specifically microfinance, by consulting for socially minded organizations and investing in global microfinance institutions. While it started on the UChicago campus, the model now has spread to four other universities in the States.
Already, Evanna has been awarded for her young entrepreneurial spirit and potential. She was recently named a semifinalist for the highly selective Echoing Green fellowship and a 40 Under 40 in Entrepreneurship by the National Leaderships Council.
Asked for her biggest challenge as an entrepreneur, she replies, “initially, I had a hard time convincing people to take me and my ideas seriously, especially because I work in traditional and hierarchical societies and markets such as Kenya and international development. Being a woman and young- I look young too- used to set me back. It’s already hard because a startup does not have much credibility except the credibility of the founders. Before, the people across the table would be amused by my ambition. But I learned to deal with it and did everything I could to credibility. It worked. Now, I would say that my biggest challenge is to maintain focus. I’ve realized that I have the power to change the world if I work hard and smart and knock on the right opportunities. One mission at a time.”
g.Maarifa success is not propelled by Evanna alone. Her co-founder Andrew Leventhal has been instrumental in and at the centre of its development. Leventhal is g.Maarifa’s CTO and an MBA student in Finance, Entrepreneurship,and International Business from University of Chicago Booth School of Business.
The g.Maarifa dedicated team has also made the firm what it is today.