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OUWA: the open university that will blow your mind

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The Open University of West Africa, or Ouwa for insiders, is a social enterprise based in California and with a subsidiary in Ghana. John Roberts and his co-founder have started it from scratch from a simple but contradictory observation: while higher education penetration in Africa is very low, a lot of great universities all around the world are starting to put their courses online through platforms like Coursera, edX etc.

Making use of this context, Ouwa is the last mile delivery system for open education resources for an online university but in an offline context. And this offline context may be the most important of all. Because the goal is not just provide access to those courses, but also help people become economically empowered by what is happening through those courses. In other words, it is to take learning beyond the classroom, apply it to real life, and help people bridge the gap between their studies and their professional life, so that the learning does not get wasted, but creates real value on the ground.

The real question John and his partner asked themselves was: “how can we address poverty?”. Education was the easy answer, but what they really wanted was education that affects poverty, that changes family’s life, not just education that helps you think better, or read better.

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So, concretely, what happens in Ouwa? The program works around 3 pillars: educate, incubate and invest.
First, they recruit the incubates through start-up competitions or week ends. It’s not only social enterprises per se in theory, but enterprises that are socially and environmentally responsible. The winners are offered spots at Ouwa, a great office space in the centre of Accra with computers, Wifi, meetings room, cafeteria etc.
It’s an incredibly dynamic and inspiring environment, where the incubates have access to all the educational resources that exist online. And as a good Internet connection is often very difficult to have in Accra, videos are already downloaded, which increases retention.

Beyond the material aspect, Ouwa offers mentoring along with access to their network. As for the 3rd pillar, the investment part, in addition to Ouwa’s funds, they work hand to hand with a new start-up, SliceBiz, incubated within the university, which has developed an incredible new model of crowdfunding for start-ups (article to come).

The full model, which is currently being tested in Accra, will be to have different faculties within Ouwa: agriculture, medicine, film etc. and each faculty will have its own business model. For now, they have started with the faculty of agriculture: they will soon be operating farms in conjunction with their graduates and a percentage of the output of those farms would go right back into funding the ecosystem of Ouwa.

The business model is simple: all those resources are offered in return for a 5% equity fee from the start-ups outputs, along with a very small membership fee like that is around $10 a year. But Ouwa is in fact a cooperatively owned model: John and his partner each owns only 1% of the company and they allocate the rest to their graduates. As John says: “It’s not charity, we want money to be made, but we want the money to go to the masses, to the graduates and their families.”

Ouwa is not a revolution, they were inspired by a lot of models but they add a lot of pieces from those models. And they have indeed innovated in this model: very small fees, incubates can enter the “program” at any point (Ouwa meets them where they are), and they are combining investment and incubation all into education.

Right now, Ouwa is incubating its model in Accra, Ghana. The context is indeed favorable: it is an increasing emerging city, and a lot of people here understand what it is about. John talks about “the easy way”, kind of a top-down strategy. They do tried for a while to do something similar in Burkina, but the attraction of what they were doing was too small. Accra is definitely the strategic place for the short term, to test and prove the model, but their real goal is to get to that second or third tiers city or places like Burkina or Mali that have very low access to education.

The next step? Using their very vast network across Africa, they intend to scale before the end of the year, and are targeting 5 countries for expansion. For now, they are helping continue to make Accra a real hub, and to prove to Africa that young entrepreneurs can be the real key to change.