SOCIAL BUSINESSES

“Divine serendipity” led Uche Onuora to help his son – and students around the world

Rachel Hickey - January 21, 2020 HITCH CEO and co-founder Uche Onuora created an education platform to help students in Africa access better classes online
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In Africa, it’s a nightmare for students and teachers to find educational resources.

While the primary source of content comes from local textbooks, these don’t always cover the depth of knowledge that students and teachers need, and often do not provide students with the right applications for their future careers.

That’s according to Uche Onuora, CEO and co-founder of HITCH, an education platform that provides “the world’s best educational videos” for exam preparation, general skills and academic topics for students, parents and teachers in areas like Africa where education just isn’t up to snuff.

And Onuora’s seen this problem first-hand, after graduating from Delaware State University. He travelled back home to Abuja, Nigeria, where he was called to work on a project that would put him at the front of establishing Abuja as a global city of commerce, entrepreneurship, and technology, much like cities like Bangalore in India. 

Working in a developing country, Uche saw a very promising future in Nigeria working to access global markets using technology to solve the problems he saw locally every day. And it inspired him.

“Tech is cool, but more to solve developmental problems. That has always been the premise of my work.”

– Uche Onuora, CEO and co-founder of Hitch

“I felt like I didn’t have the luxury to do technology for technology’s sake,” he says. “Tech is cool, but more to solve developmental problems. That has always been the premise of my work.”

The problem he solves today? Diligent teachers put in a lot of effort to search online in order to provide students with content that goes beyond the textbook, but are faced with a great challenge to actually find locally relevant resources, he says. That’s partially because it’s a daunting task to find and curate the right material by searching through thousands of videos online. But on top of all this, many schools operate in rural areas where slow, unreliable internet connection, makes content almost impossible to find.

HITCH solves this problem by allowing students and teachers to reach beyond their current resources and graduate to a large curated library of world-class educational videos. HITCH then uses their machine-learning algorithm to link each video to the learning outcomes in local textbooks and curriculums in a familiar and intuitive way which makes it easy for students and teachers to quickly find what they’re looking for as it is presented in a way that reflects what they’re currently learning in the classroom. Additionally, by providing the schools with a battery-powered hotspot that stores the videos locally, the platform is always up and running, regardless of local internet or power. 

When things don’t go according to plan

While Onuora was working in Nigeria, he and his wife were caring for their three young children. In 2013, they noticed that their second oldest child, at two years old, was missing some of his developmental targets.

When he and his wife tried to access local resources to help their son, he discovered that local resources were essentially inadequate. The problem became very personal. So they started searching for help out of the country, and were able to connect with a Canadian doctor through a family member.

“Our son needed help, but there were obviously no resources for Nigeria.”

– Uche Onuora

“We had to go on a waitlist but once a spot opened up, I brought my son with me to Canada,” Onuora remembers.

Then, the diagnosis. “They told us our son was on the autism spectrum. We needed to start therapy right away.”

But living in Nigeria, that just wasn’t possible. “We honestly don’t know why this could not have been detected earlier, and were in this very weird situation where our son needed help, but there were obviously no resources for Nigeria.” 

Steve Veerman and Uche Onuora work with the University of Waterloo’s Velocity program.

So Onuora and his family made the risky decision to uproot their entire lives in Africa and move to Canada, leaving behind everything they had built, including his wife’s promising career in radio, and his own influential role in building up a technology ecosystem in Abuja. 

They ended up in Kitchener-Waterloo, knowing that KidsAbility Centre for Child Development is located there and that it would be highly beneficial for their son. Then, through what Onuora describes as “divine serendipity,” he slowly started to discover the incredible tech ecosystem Kitchener-Waterloo has to offer.

With this problem in mind, he started tapping into the local community. Welcomed with open arms, he was surprised at how much the people around him were willing to offer without expecting anything back.

“I think Canadians generally are very helpful. I know that sounds stereotypical, but I think from my personal and anecdotal experience generally that’s the case.”

– Uche Onuora

Although he didn’t know anyone in Kitchener-Waterloo at the time, “My wife, she kind of hounded me to get off the couch and go out to meet people. So I went for a couple of meetups and started to realize all the resources that were available for me, and noticed how willing people were to lend a hand. It was crazy.”

That community connected him with the right people and resources he needed to solve the education problem he cared so much about, that hit so close to home.

“I think Canadians generally are very helpful. I know that sounds stereotypical, but from my personal and anecdotal experience I think generally that’s the case,” he adds.

Canadian support for students around the world

Eventually, Onuora applied and was accepted into the MBET program at the University of Waterloo, where he met the co-founders who would start HITCH with him in 2018.

Now, operating a social business is difficult wherever you are in the world, and Canada’s no different, Onuora says – especially if you’re serving a market overseas. Typically, Canadian investors would look to market expansion into the U.S., maybe China or India, but Africa isn’t even on the radar. In his experience, he adds, investors aren’t willing to take on the risk or levels of complexity that come with social businesses like his.

“So we basically couldn’t raise any money. This forced us to really think about the fundamentals of business and what we wanted to do in order to take it forward,” Onuora says.

“We know we had an important problem to solve. We just had to figure out a way to stay alive.”

– Uche Onuora

But he didn’t let that stop him. “We know we had an important problem to solve. We just had to figure out a way to stay alive to keep solving and growing.”

In the spring of 2018, the HITCH team traveled to Nigeria in seach of their first 10 customers. Eager to sign up schools, the team started knocking on doors trying to schedule meetings. Incredibly, 60 per cent of the schools that tested their product bought it right away, and almost all the others expressed interest in signing up next term, Onuora says.

HITCH is all about giving students in Africa access to the same kind of top-tier education that’s available to students here in Canada.

He believes this high conversion rate is because the market is so underserved, and other products just aren’t designed for Nigeria.

“At that point, I kind of realized this: the educational crisis in Nigeria is tied to a much bigger challenge, due to underfunding and corruption in the public sector. Education access, quality and relevance for millions of students is constrained, leading to massive unemployment and wider social dislocations,” he adds. 

So HITCH took that to their advantage and entered the diverse private sector of education, which Onuora says runs like small businesses. Depending on what families can afford, tuition for private sector schools can run as low as $5 per term, per student, in low-income families.

“The educational crisis in Nigeria is tied to a much bigger challenge, due to corruption in the public sector of education in Africa.”

– Uche Onuora

Onuora’s focus is on delivering quality education to students concerned about the integrity of public education systems, which actually gives HITCH an advantage, he says: they could launch their product into that market, test it out and get feedback, whereas in the public sector they’d be fighting long procurement cycles and a high barrier of entry. 

Now, HITCH is focused on impact, improving their hardware, fine-tuning their machine learning algorithm, launching an online version, increasing sales in Nigeria and securing content partnerships with educational video producers so they can provide even more content on their platform.

Ultimately, HITCH is about educating people and creating an opportunity for people to learn and connect to industry-driven career pathways, making education and empowerment accessible, on-demand, and top quality anywhere in the world.

DRAFT CARD

Draft Card Logo
  • Name: HITCH
  • Solution: Catalyzing potential of students and teachers to advance beyond their current educational resources and immerse in world-class educational videos with the help of machine learning and custom-designed hardware.
  • Owners: Uche Onuora, Steve Veerman
  • Employees: 4
  • Headquarters: Kitchener, Ont.
  • Founded: 2018
  • Contact: https://hitch.video
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