Somaliland: Exporting culture: Online schools in Somaliland and business innovation

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One of the teachers at Ali Suufi Home Academy in Hargeisa teaching Quran.In recent years online education has gained popularity and allowed millions of people to gain access to quality education who otherwise won’t have access to. Khan Academy and Courersa are prominent examples of online portals. Khan Academy has helped me get through my dull statistics course. In Somliland there is brewing new trend in online learning. Somaliland companies are popping out of the dusty roads of Hargeisa to offer online courses in native Somali language and Islamic courses to the large Somali diaspora communities in Europe, North America and Australia.

These companies are using basic technologies like Skype, screen-sharing software to interact with students. There are about twenty of these types of schools in Hargeisa. Their main clients are Somali diaspora, especially women and second-generation children, who their parents want to keep them informed about their culture and religion. Most Somali children don’t travel to Somalia for security reasons. I had the opportunity to meet sheikh Abdirahman, the founder and manager of Ali Suufi Home Academy, which is based in Hargeisa, Somaliland.

Abdirahman is a busy businessman who is always is online on his mobile phones. Using fancy two IPhones, he swaps international calls using Skype, Google voice talking to customers in more than 23 countries. The Academy’s main clients are Somali diaspora members, especially women and second-generation children who live in non-Muslim countries in North America and Europe. Coming to Hargeisa in Northern Somalia, I was amazed at the level of entrepreneurship and innovation in businesses. Listening to international news, one does not expect to see business using modern technology and innovative business models in country like Somalia. Schools like the Home Academy is exporting culture and knowledge in a new fashion. Unlike Somalia, commerce is booming in Somaliland. Twenty years of stability are finally baring fruits in streets of Hargeisa. Somaliland is a self-declared republic in North Western Somalia with no international recognition as a state. Somaliland has been beacon of hope comparing to the rest of the country. The region has had a relative stability and functioning democracy for the last twenty years.

Sheikh Abdirahman formed the academy three years ago. The school started with one desktop machine and one couple from Norway for the first five months. Current enrolled students are in the hundreds and span across four continents. Abdirahman employs about nine fulltime teachers that specialized in different fields like teaching the holy Quran, Islamic science courses, English, Somali and math. But majority of the students study the Quran. Small minority of students takes lessons in English, math, and Somali language. The school employs mainly Skype, screen-sharing software, and digital textbooks. All sessions between students and teachers are private, one teacher per on student. Teachers usually assign homework on every session that involves learning how to read new chapters of the Quran.

I interviewed two students of the Academy. One parent from Norway told me that he “prefers the online school because it is one-on-one. It brings the whole family together. My wife, two kids, and I study together with one teacher. Children learn more that way. We are able to keep track if my kids are learning or not, because we are studying with them. The Quran session has become a meeting time for my family, and we enjoy it very much and especially during the month of Ramadan.” Sheikh Abdirahman underlined this observation also. He said, “We observed that children who study in a group with their parents or with siblings perform much better than ones who take our courses alone. Also this applies in both directions. Because of low literacy level of parents in our society, we see children helping their parents in learning and studying. This has motivated parents to spend more energy on studying because they have help around them more often and their kids are their classmates.”

I asked another student from England about what are the advantages of the Academy of Ali Suufi over traditional schools. Lul Ahmed, a mother of three children told me that she prefers online education because it is far more affordable and safer for her kids in Birmingham in England. She added, “sometimes it is not 100% safe to let my kids go out after school to study the Quran. The Academy is convenient service comparing to other schools in Birmingham. I don’t stress about whereabouts of my children.”

Abdirahman said that the idea to open an online school in Hargeisa came after exposure to online education through Indian Universities where his friends where enrolled in distant learning in information technology courses. Abdirahman soon realized a business opportunity. Somali large diaspora mainly lives in non-Muslim countries, where there is a need to conserve culture and religion. Abdirahman found a way to help the Somali diaspora to preserve traditional early childhood education, which consists of teaching Quran and Islamic courses. This business model has been extremely beneficial for the students and profitable for the owners and faculty. The encouraging feature about these companies that the size of the market is relatively large and the initial investment is low. Abdirahman started with one couple and a single desktop machine but with aggressive online advertisement and excellent reputation, Ali Suufi academy is a profitable business with strong customers base.

Online school and other business based in developing countries offer the opportunity to lift thousands out of poverty and offer inexpensive products for students in more developed countries. There are Islamic schools in England and Norway but the Ali Suufi Home academy in Hargeisa and similar schools are able to provide competitive product and establish a niche customers in European and American markets. Technology allows innovation and reduces barriers for people in less developed countries.

What intrigued me about sheikh Abdirahman and his school is the audacity and creativity to start a business like an online education school from nothing and without blueprint in Somaliland. There were not many online schools in places like Somalia, where most people live on less two dollars a day. Relatedly, the academy employs the latest software and distant learning methods. What has facilitated and encouraged an experiment like this one. Is it because of absence of taxes in Somaliland and cheap labor? Or is it lack of regulation and presence of advance telecommunication sector? It is quite an audacious experiment that should be praised and encouraged. Additionally, the Academy is creating jobs for college graduates in Hargeisa. Currently, Abdirahman is employing nine fulltime teachers, who get paid above the average salary in Somaliland. People are forced to innovate in lack of development aid and strong central government. The private sector in Somaliland is vibrant comparing to neighboring countries. Somaliland has one of the lowest taxes in the region. But that is due to a weak central government and incapacity to enforcing tax laws. Here are some factors I think allowed private business to thrive in Somaliland:

1. Lack of regulations for most industries.

2. Lack of enforceable and sound tax system.

3. Cheap labor.

4. Lack of ineffective and corrupting international aid. The local market still provide most of service in Somaliland.

5. Diaspora investment in Somaliland. 40-60% of foreign capital is in form of remittance or funds to start small and medium size businesses.

6. Cheap communication technology.

Somali communities are recent immigrants that left Somalia because of ongoing civil war and instability in their homeland. The World Bank estimates about one million Somalis living outside their country. That is roughly 14% of the population. The Somali Diaspora is the major investor in the country and provided 80% of the start-up capital for small and medium enterprises (SMEs) according to report by UN development project. Online education for the diaspora is another form of Diaspora financial contribution to the Somali economy.

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