By: Moslem Ali
Cairo - Mubasher: With technological advancements and growing digital infrastructure, the digital education industry is growing in the Middle East. Remote learning, in particular, has gained increased importance with the recent new normal imposed by the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. The focus of e-learning extends beyond conventional education for school and college students, as it provides an opportunity for professional development among many fields.
Zedny is one of the Arabic learning and development platforms that use machine learning and gamification techniques in professional and personal development. Mubasher spoke to Basil Khattab, Co-founder and the Chief Commercial Officer (CCO) of Zedny to explore the journey of one of the region’s leading digital education platforms that focus on knowledge, skills, and culture within the modern workplace.
- Could you tell us about the journey of Zedny since its beginning in 2018 and where do you currently see your place in the digital education market?
It started more than three years back, building our methodology and Arabic content library to more than 200 online courses and more than 400 animated video book summaries of global bestsellers, all in personal and professional development.
When we established the company, we started getting the right shareholders to add value to our vision. We are all experienced professionals with various backgrounds who are passionate about learning and development. We all needed something like this in our region back when we were still starting our careers.
Arabic is the fourth widest spread language globally with close to 500 million speakers and with very minimal real presence in this industry, which is growing very fast.
To make a mark in this business, we needed to disrupt it and make it not only with high-quality content in Arabic but also very affordable to the masses.
After COVID-19, this became a major need for institutions and companies within Egypt and the Middle East and the demand could not be higher. Our Vision is to revolutionize, personalize, and gamify the learning experience for everyone, giving them dignity, hope, and opportunities.
- You offer a combination of courses and education books. How do your tracks and colleges help individuals and corporates acquire knowledge and develop new skills?
Zedny was built with the help and feedback of top human resource (HR) professionals to maximize the Return on Training Investment (ROTI) and deliver on productivity, performance, and personal wellbeing.
We know what is needed in terms of competencies and skills, their challenges and even their focus in the next one or two years. We are simply built by them for them to enable their companies to succeed.
We took those needs and got the best content available globally and localized it, adding examples from our own market that are relevant to the user. We took their employees as focus groups perfect what we do in terms of graphics and deliverables on the learning outcomes.
We have made learning paths generic and suitable for any industry and any function and even any level within the organization to assign the right path to each employee and track the progress live via our built-in Learning Management System (LMS), which we provide for free as part of the subscription.
- How do you view the rising role of gamification techniques in education?
It is still in its infancy but rising fast in terms of importance. We are the first platform in the Middle East to introduce it for our corporates who sign with us.
We have to use this carefully, and little by little, engage the learners and move them to higher levels of gamification and hence transforming their learning experience.
Our mission is to empower people to realize their true potential, which will only happen if we take the learners through a journey of all the skills they need in a big library of courses, book summaries, and other learning products we are launching soon.
- What are the roles of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning in your operations?
An AI-based platform helps us, learners, and companies to personalize the learning experience and to know about every learner identifying their areas of development as well as their strengths.
It is like having a private tutor for every learner who will in time, know more about anyone and guide them to their optimum path of development. This is just the tip of the iceberg and the possibilities are unlimited.
- Who is your primary target audience?
Our primary target audience is 20 to 40 years old people who want to elevate their skills to be better professionals as well as people.
Basically, any learner who is about to enter the workforce or started their career already up to becoming top management, basically, from 20 years old onwards whose mother tongue is Arabic and who want to elevate their skills to be better professionals as well as people.
Since we are online and live, we are available for all, individuals (B2C) as well as corporates and institutions (B2B), but our main focus in phase one is B2B2C, which are the employees in the corporates or the students about to graduate and join the corporate world. To reach them, we need to pass by the gatekeepers, which are the HR, L&D, and training heads to be able to convince them to subscribe in Zedny for their employees.
- As a startup, what were the biggest challenges you faced in terms of financing and investment?
There are so many challenges we went through in the last three years since we started until we launched, but I believe the most challenging things we faced were that no one has done it this way before and hence the people we had to hire, develop and grow were not available in the market here. It took a lot of trial and error to get the right people then develop them to get us to where we are today.
Secondly, everything is produced in-house. We have a tech team to build the platform; learning innovation team to get the best content from all of the worlds and adapt it to the e-learning standards and Arabize it; and finally, the media team who never did anything quite similar in their lives. It took some time, but the in-house strategy paid off since we are now in control of our own content and direction, and are very efficient in what we produce. Some experts from the region or even from another region have concluded that our video production capabilities are best in class standards.
As for investments, it took a long time to reach where we are today and we just launched three months ago, which means we burnt a lot of money until today. Having the right partners join us as angel investors was a challenge at a certain point but little by little, we were choosing our partners to join us with their investment and added value.
- What are your plans for expansion, vertically and horizontally?
Of course, we are very ambitious and the opportunity is very big around us so you can expect us to expand heavily. It is just a matter of steps, which starts with our focus on B2B and Egypt first. Then, we could focus on B2C in Egypt, B2B in Arab countries, then B2C. Here we will build our library even bigger in Arabic.
Then, we will enter the phase of other languages and hence more countries.
We could also, enter other online learning sectors other than postgraduate skill development market.
- Do you currently plan to seek new investments?
We had a good start and currently moving towards financial independence but to speed up the growth and expansion we need fuel for the rocket so soon, you might hear of an investment round.
We have been approached by local and regional, as well as some international venture capital firms (VCs) that showed interest in our work, but we told them to wait until we make a few success stories with the companies who started with us and have some traction before we move to the next round, which could be very soon.
- Do you plan to enter the conventional education segment and offer your services to school students, considering the new normal created by COVID-19?
We have a very experienced Board of Directors, which I am proud to be part of. We have MNCs CEO levels with us in the board so I am sure we will consider this one day, but not before making our mark in the segment we are currently in, which has a very high demand for what we do.
We are also proudly serving our country’s direction for digitization and to empower the human capital to be a productive force and with COVID-19 it became even a stronger push in that direction making the transition faster.
- How did COVID-19 impact your operations?
We are just like any other company facing a new world, which was created by this pandemic where if you are not online as a business, then you will be offline and possibly out of business.
On the job skills, which was expected to have one-third of it changing within five years, but now this is expected to happen in less than three years. We have 25% of our employees working from home and being tracked by many remote management tools.
We have to come up with solutions that are agile and affordable to help companies and people make that transition and be ahead of the curve.
The demand is really high now on an industry (Edtech), which is still in its infancy in the region. We are happy to pave the way for others to enter it.
We offer a year-long subscription in Zedny with all the library of more than 200 courses and 400 animated book summaries with the assessments and the LMS with less than the price of one traditional offline course per employee.