Online education received a sudden and sharp boost in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Lockdowns worldwide forced educators to turn to technology to continue teaching and interacting with students and schoolchildren.
While most brick-and-mortar educational institutions have now reopened, the convenience and wide reach that virtual learning offers highlighted new opportunities within the sector.
That's the gap that educational technology start-up Ostaz, backed by Abu Dhabi's Hub71, aims to exploit.
The online private tutoring site, co-founded by Audrey Nakad, currently has 60,000 learners on its platform with more than 1,000 teachers offering tuition to pupils in British, French, US and UAE national curricula.
“The potential of private tutoring in our region is huge," says Ms Nakad, who started the company with her sister and another colleague in 2018 in Beirut.
"It's estimated to be around $8.9 billion. Now, with online learning, the potential is even bigger."
The company has since expanded its operations to the UAE, where it is now headquartered, and Saudi Arabia to meet growing demand in the region.
“If you will look at the landscape of the Arab region and the Middle East and North Africa region, you have the youngest population … and you have a lot of dynamics changing, for example, in Saudi Arabia [there is an] appetite to learn more”, as a large number of women and others join the workforce, Ms Nakad says.
Job creation is one of the key objectives of the kingdom’s Vision 2030 agenda, which aims to overhaul its economy and reduce its reliance on hydrocarbon revenue.
The participation of women in the labour force in Saudi Arabia rose to 35.6 per cent in 2021 from 33.2 per cent in 2020, a recent report by Jadwa Investment found.
“Higher participation from Saudi female [workers] is being driven by a larger number of first-time job seekers," the report said.
Not many schools are being built in the region that cater to the growing education needs of the young population, Ms Nakad says.
Nearly half of the Mena population is under 24, with one in five ages 10-24, UN agency Unicef says.
"For instance, in Egypt, you have a huge gap [for schools]”, which is boosting demand for online learning, Ms Nakad says.
“We are leveraging our supply of qualified teachers to teach … our vision is to be the number one online learning platform in the world and boost our presence in the region."
However, there is competition in the market and one of the factors that differentiates her company from others is “personalisation”, she says.
Having worked as a private tutor while studying at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada before embarking on the venture, Ms Nakad says her experience gave her proper insight into the industry.
“Our courses are live," she says. "So we really study the learners' need, we do an assessment test, after this assessment test, we propose a learning plan … we guarantee results.
“Second, we have a first mover advantage. We are the oldest in the ecosystem, so we learnt a lot.”
Another advantage the start-up has over its peers is that it is the "only player in the region that established so many partnerships that are big. For example, we worked with Taaleem in the UAE, we worked with the Abu Dhabi Department of Education and Knowledge, the Knowledge and Human Development Authority [in Dubai], American University in Dubai and others", Ms Nakad says.
The company has big plans to boost growth and aims to expand in the region.
The EdTech sector in the Middle East and Africa is set to grow to Dh26bn ($7.07bn) by 2027, as the shift to digital education accelerates because of the pandemic, a study by Report Linker showed.
The widespread adoption of smartphones, interactive displays and other digital learning tools is expected to drive growth in the next few years.
Ostaz is looking to raise $1.5 million to “accelerate our growth”, especially in Abu Dhabi and Saudi Arabia, Ms Nakad says. It has secured more than $2.8m since its inception.
Being part of Abu Dhabi technology start-up centre Hub71 is helping founders “advance their international ambitions by connecting them to the right corporate partners to investors and funds, because this is ... very crucial for the growth of our companies", Ms Nakad says.
Hub71 is a flagship initiative of Abu Dhabi's Dh50bn Ghadan 21 economic stimulus programme and was founded in 2019 by the emirate's government, Mubadala Investment Company, Abu Dhabi Global Market, Microsoft and Japan's SoftBank Group.
It helps entrepreneurs build tech companies with global outreach to support the emirate's economic diversification plans.
Hub71's start-ups have so far raised Dh1.5bn in investment through the tech ecosystem’s corporate partners, according to data released this year. The companies have been responsible for creating 1,000 new jobs.
“At Hub71, as a founder, you can make the impossible possible and they let you dream and you get the right push," Ms Nakad says.
Based: Hub71, Abu Dhabi, with offices in Dubai, Jeddah and Beirut
Launch year: 2018
Number of employees: 35
Sector: Education Technology
Funding: More than $2.8m
Q&A with Audrey Nakad, co-founder and chief executive of Ostaz
What successful start-ups do you wish you could have started?
I am impressed by two [companies] that are basically in my domain, Byju’s in India and GoStudent in Europe. They have done an excellent job in educating people to move to online learning and create personalised learning plans. Online learning did not exist before Covid-19 and they did an amazing job converting the offline market and education to online.
What is your vision for your company?
I would like Ostaz to be the largest online after-school platform in the world to enhance the academic performance of learners and prepare them for a brighter future.
What new skills have you learnt in the process of starting the company?
I learnt a lot of skills, but I think the most important one is resilience. It's about fighting every day because you go through a lot of challenges and problems. Being resilient and learning from your mistakes and standing up every day to continue to build your vision and get there is the most important skill that I learnt. And definitely, I would say, my listening skills, because especially after Covid, people went through a lot of tough times, you had to be close to your employees, even more so than usual, to listen to their problems and help them out in their daily lives because you want them to be happy in the workplace.
What is your advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?
Don't wait for things to happen, go out and make them happen. Just focus on your vision, obviously, focus is very important, because you have to keep going and build your vision and not be distracted by irrelevant things that happen in your day-to-day life. Just focus on your end goal.
Who is your role model?
A lot [of people], but particularly my father, because he is an entrepreneur himself [in the power sector of Lebanon] and is my inspiration. He fought it out and grew his business from zero to 100, despite a lot of challenges, economic downturns and a lot of things that happened throughout his life. But he stayed, persevered and made it happen.
The second person ... I would say is Elon Musk, because he is someone that ... when he pitches something you think he is crazy, and it is impossible to make it happen. And then he reminds you that nothing is impossible in this world. If you truly believe in it and if you surround yourself with the right people, you can make it happen.