Edwin Ho and Deevak Premdas persevered through a series of failed startups before finally gaining traction with Edsy Bitsy, an edtech for low- to middle-income communities in Asia and Africa.
19 May 2022 / By SGN
If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try, try, and try again.
At least that is how Edwin and Deevak have navigated their journey as startup co-founders. Under the entrepreneurship minor programme at the Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS), the resilient duo conceptualised no less than six startups over the past four years.
“On average, one idea would fail every six months,” Edwin recalls. “Sometimes we killed them off after two or three months.”
United by a desire to improve the lives of underserved communities, they pursued concepts such as a community group-buy scheme that made daily necessities more affordable. When the pandemic struck, they turned their attention to education, as schools and students around the world started to grapple with online learning.
They decided to zoom in on the region with the lowest internet connectivity – Africa – with an initial idea to create an education app that compressed articles into short videos. But they quickly realised that watching videos wasn’t viable when data is expensive and digital inclusion is weak, and that the needs of those communities were, in reality, very different.
A low-data, offline-first learning app
“The first five startups were too focused on the solution or ideas we had,” Deevak recalls, “but with the help of our mentor at SUSS, Bryan Long, we spent more time properly identifying the root problem.”
Through remote interviews with teachers and principals in Kenya, Uganda and South Africa, the co-founders discovered that the core challenges students faced in e-learning were poor internet access, a lack of mobile devices, and no study guidance at home.
To address these needs, Edwin and Deevak developed a low-data, offline-first app on Google’s Progressive Web App (PWA) platform. They piloted the app in South Africa elementary schools and trained teachers to create exercises which parents could download through WiFi at work for their children to complete at home, even without an active internet connection.
Rather than teach fundamentals, Edsy Bitsy is designed to reinforce classroom learning and cultivate higher-order thinking skills. The app’s voice recording functionality allows teachers to provide additional guidance – in English or the students’ native language – and lets users verbalise their responses to open-ended questions that encourage critical thinking.
Eventually, Edwin and Deevak connected with an NGO that helped them expand their user base to high school students and trainee teachers. They also began to explore the potential of the Southeast Asian market, where education systems are shifting away from rote memorisation and towards problem-based learning.
A pilot in the Philippines is underway, and Edsy Bitsy is reaching out to high schools in lower-income provinces on the outskirts of Manila. While the price of data is not as prohibitive as in Africa, poor internet connectivity remains an issue in these communities.
The social (startup) dilemma
It has been an arduous couple of years for Edwin and Deevak: negotiating bumps and obstacles, introducing an app in regions they can’t travel to, while inducting teachers, students and parents into unfamiliar e-learning territory.
Before graduating last August, they would set aside two to three hours every day to work on Edsy Bitsy. At one point, they crammed modules into one semester so they could free up and dedicate the next six months to the startup.
Their hard work paid off. The pair were awarded Enterprise Singapore’s Startup SG Founder Grant of $50,000, which has helped get the business off the ground and grow their users more than tenfold in the past year. “It’s very encouraging to see that there is strong government support in place to energise Singapore’s startup scene,” Edwin notes.
Like other social startups, Edsy Bitsy faces the constant dilemma between making an impact and generating revenue. “Social impact startups pour their heart and soul into their mission,” Deevak says. “But if you don’t have money, you can’t really do good.”
And while they generally see attitudes towards entrepreneurship improving, not everyone is immediately supportive of the duo’s ambitions. “People give you that eyebrow raise,” Edwin says. “They go, ‘Really? Why? Just study and then get a job. It’s a safer route.’
“Even my mum couldn’t understand the idea of a startup because all she sees is my back as I face my computer for 16 hours a day. But after reading articles about me, she started to realise that I’m doing something meaningful.”
Scaling impact through education
Despite the headwinds, Edwin and Deevak remain committed to their mission to bridge the knowledge gap in underserved communities through technology. They believe that, through education, they can create a massive ripple effect – not just scaling a business, but also scaling impact.
“Students who master higher-order thinking bring it with them to university, to their workplaces,” Deevak explains. “Each person that we help can go on to help many others.”
For now, he and Edwin are heartened by glimpses of the positive change they create – hearing snippets of students’ voice recordings and seeing how the app they built has enabled children to experience digital learning for the first time and hone their valuable thinking skills from a young age. Through regular catch-ups and feedback collection, teachers have reported their students becoming more confident, outspoken, and willing to venture outside the box.
More than the growth of the business, the pair say that the startup path has developed their character tremendously. “I’ve become a lot more empathetic,” Deevak shares. “And I used to be someone who never liked to fail, but now I know failure is the most important thing, because that’s where you learn and grow the most.”
“Entrepreneurship has been an incredible journey of learning, self-discovery, trying and failing – but always failing forward,” Edwin adds. “I think that’s an attitude that I can take with me for the rest of my life.”