Millions of schoolchildren worldwide are learning at home these days, and educators are striving to ensure that learning continues. Like in most of the countries in the Arab world, in Libya, the Government shut down schools to combat COVID-19, while teachers, parents, and pupils are scrambling not to lose the rest of the school year.
Very few schools in the Arab world were doing something related to online education pre-COVID-19, but in Libya, since 2018, Aziza Al-Hassi, Tufaha Suhaim and Amine Kachroud were already undertaking first steps in this field.
That year, with the support of the European Union, the United Development Programme (UNDP) and Tatweer Research launched Tatweer Entrepreneurship Development Center (TEC) with the aim of building an ecosystem for entrepreneurship in Libya. In TEC, entrepreneurs can join various programs including business incubators, joint workspaces, Business and Technology trainings, and access to startup funding across all regions of Libya.
In 2018, during one of the TEC activities, Aziza, Tufahah and Amine met, shared their ideas and interests in the field of education, and eventually created their startup, “School Connect,” which aimed at connecting teachers and parents to follow up on the children’s education.
With funds from the European Union, UNDP and Tatweer Research awarded the team with a grant with the goal of empowering women in conflict-affected countries to create sustainable businesses. With this support, the App “School Connect” became “Panda” and nowadays counts nearly 10 thousand students and parents of 30 schools registered.
Solving Problems and Striving Forward
“We were attracted to the idea of building a small company that could create job opportunities in this harsh environment and spreading a positive impact in society," says Aziza Al-Hassi, Panda co-founder.
“We wanted to solve the challenges that students, parents and teachers were facing with the educational process in Libya and we realized that communication between the interested parties was key to solve these issues,” says Tufaha Suhaim, Panda co-founder.
“In many cases, information regarding a student’s behavioural and academic performance fails to reach their parents. Our platform facilitates the transfer of this information from the school to the parent,” explains Tufaha. “Our service also solves multiple problems from the school’s side, by summarizing much of the repetitive work school employees go through, in addition to helping the school forgo typical office expenses such as paper consumption, printing, and others,” she adds.
Aziza emphasizes that the shared vision and goals of Panda’s founders were the main impetus towards its establishment in the Libyan market. “This was a very new business concept and we were not totally sure that the school administrations and parents would endorse this method, we were concerned that they might resist Panda’s advanced technological solutions,” she adds.
Mr. Mustafa Belhassan, Head of one school in Libya, was however one of the first supporters of Panda. After several meetings with the team he decided to start officially integrating Panda at his school. He confesses: “I was impressed by the idea from the beginning and was surprised to find young people at their prime possessing such capabilities with practical technical solutions to the problems of education.”
"Mr. Mustafa is a passionate person who loves developing technologies,” express Aziza Al-Hassi. “Despite the complicated surrounding circumstances, he runs an excellent and very well-organized institution, but he was suffering from the difficulty of transferring information effectively,” she explains. “Traditional methods simply could not keep-up with the amount of information that had to be sent, which meant parents lacked the whole picture of their children’s progress,” concludes Aziza.
Entering the World of Entrepreneurship: Great Challenges Ahead
The idea of an electronic application is new to the educational system in Libya. Hence, Panda’s members decided to launch awareness campaigns on the importance of communication between parents of students and schools, and the tremendous role that technology can play. Their efforts however met great challenges.
"People in Libya are very much unaccustomed to using online platforms, other than typical social media such as Facebook and Instagram. They held an implicit fear of any new application or system and tended to jump to the conclusion that new systems are complicated” explains Amine Kashroud, Panda co-founder. “From this standpoint, we started holding sessions and seminars in our schools to introduce parents to the benefits of our service” he states.
COVID-19 and Sustainability
As the COVID-19 epidemic spread globally, in Libya, several educational institutions resumed teaching their curricula through electronic platforms, websites and social networks, the Panda team had to work intensively to adapt to the situation.
"We had to take a new step to automate our service so it can become suitable for transferring the academic content”, explains Aziza. “We started organizing the process of sending educational content to the schools we work with, in order to reach students at home”, she continues. “We also opened the door for any student, they can download the content even when the school is not registered with Panda."
Two Years Since Launch: Reflecting on the Most Memorable Moments
The Panda team has expanded considerably creating job opportunities for young women and men. They have organised 40 workshops and provided 65 training sessions to schools on how to use the application.
“It feels like a dream when I remember the beginnings of our work on the application,” says Tufaha Suhaim.
"Our start was tiring," says Aziza, "It was marked by hard work to get to where we are today,” she adds.
They are committed to maintain their goal of reaching 60 schools this year.
"We do not stop here,” says Amine, “we have created a mini curriculum that focuses on technology and we are giving it to all schools involved with Panda. Each school puts forward a team to participate in our trainings and compete against each other”.
This is not the end but just the beginning
The founders of Panda continue working to provide students with a greater number of lessons to avoid the interruption of their learning process. “Our company hopes, in the long run, to become a standard for educational technology in the country and the region," says Tufaha.
“My advice to anyone who wants to start creating her own business is to make sure to create the best team and get the best support. The work chemistry amongst the team members is essential to succeed,” says Aziza.
Since its launch, TEC has inspired many young men and women across the country to start establishing their own business projects, adopting innovative technologies and keeping pace with global developments in all sectors, with the overall objective of raising the efficiency and ability of the private sector in Libya.
“The role of the TEC Incubator team in providing support and guidance was crucial for Panda to adjust to the challenges imposed by the COVID-19 in the field of education, and we continue counting on its support to achieve all our business goals,” concludes Amine.
This project is implemented in the framework of the programme "Managing mixed migration flows in Libya through expanding protection space and supporting local socioeconomic development" financed by the North of Africa Window of the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa. The main objective of this programme is to comprehensively reinforce protection and resilience of migrants, refugees and host communities in Libya while supporting an improved migration management along the migration routes in the country.