Bridging the education gap in East Africa

Legatum Fellow sees need and opportunity for e-learning in Tanzania and Kenya

November 21, 2014

Iris Zielske and several of her graduating students in Tanzania

Iris Zielske and several of her graduating students in Tanzania

In Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, Iris Zielske, LGO ’16, would sit on a stool. Or a couch. Or a mat on a porch. She was teaching reading to young children and computer skills to young adults. And as she taught, she listened. She and the students got to know one another face-to-face. So when she returned to the United States and began Web-conferencing with corporate clients from a swivel chair, she felt something was missing.

Now, Zielske has an entrepreneurial idea that combines her technology knowledge with her experience on the ground in East Africa. It’s a cloud-based e-learning business that will enable companies in Tanzania and Kenya to train new hires and keep employees’ skills current—with some courses taught in Swahili. Her concept, called Akili Talent Management, has landed her a fellowship from the MIT Legatum Center for Development and Entrepreneurship funded by the MasterCard Foundation. “Akili” means “smart” in Swahili.

Zielske earned a BS in industrial and systems engineering—and, at the same time, a BA in linguistics, with a minor in African studies—at the University of Florida. “My best friend was from Brazil, and I spent time there. That opened my eyes to other cultures. So I started learning Portuguese, but that conflicted with my engineering classes,” she said. She took two years of Swahili instead.

In 2008, Zielske visited Dar es Salaam as part of an undergraduate research project on sustainability in building and housing construction. She volunteered at an orphanage during her stay, an experience that drew her to return after graduation. She taught after-school programs for Kujali International, a non-profit organization that helps orphans and other vulnerable kids get the tools they need to overcome poverty. The kids dreamed of becoming lawyers, doctors, accountants, and music producers. But their formal education was not providing them with the practical skills they needed to join the workforce.

After living in East Africa for a year and a half, Zielske took a job at a technology services provider, working out of Washington, D.C., for Florida-based Tribridge. “In a lot of ways,” Zielske said, “the work was better for my skill set.” But her Tanzanian friends never left her mind. Some lacked tuition funds for post-secondary education; others could scrape it together but then couldn’t afford the bus to get to school. Instead of sponsoring one student, Zielske thought about how her background in technology services could make a bigger impact. “I wanted to create a company that would employ people. I decided to go to business school, and I recognized the benefit of gaining business knowledge with a technology component at Sloan.”

Akili Talent Management could hit the sweet spot where social and technological challenges intersect, taking a holistic approach that’s a hallmark of the engineering systems department at MIT, Zielske said. It’s also a potentially successful venture because while some companies offer enterprise resource planning products in Africa, few have tapped the market for corporate e-learning. “The most commonly used management systems have partners and resellers there, and there are educational institutions using e-learning, but not many corporations are doing it,” Zielske said.

At a kind of speed-dating orientation event, the Legatum Center matched Zielske with a mentor, Flavian Marwa, SF ’10. He’s a consultant with the World Bank’s Africa Region group in Washington, and he grew up in Tanzania. “It’s an opportune time for Iris’s venture, because several multinational corporations are starting operations in East Africa, taking advantage of business opportunities in natural resources, telecommunications, and financial services,” Marwa said. “New skills development and practical training will also help local entrepreneurs to effectively participate in economic activities, complementing the highly theoretical education they get in school.”

The Legatum Center supports entrepreneurial ventures designed to promote broad-based prosperity in low-income countries. The center, which has been part of the MIT School of Architecture and Planning since its founding in 2007, became a part of MIT Sloan this past summer. The move will enable better integration between the center, MIT Sloan’s global initiatives, and the activities of the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship, said MIT Sloan Dean David Schmittlein in an email announcing the shift.

The transition will also support students—like Zielske—and faculty who want to impact the developing world. “The Legatum Center provides mentorship and the opportunity to develop my business idea. And the other fellows I am working with have a rich level of experience I can learn from as well,” Zielske said. “I would be thrilled to help create jobs for youth in Tanzania, and help organizations provide more effective training for new employees.”