SpellAfrica Initiative founder Elvis Austins says he was functionally illiterate at age 20. What education Austins received did not prepare him to achieve his full potential. In a country know better-known for Internet scams than International non-profits, Austins is a bootstrapped founder whose vision and tireless determination is challenging perceptions and, helping to unlock the human capital of millions of Africans who wish to read, write and join the global economy. This is his story.
I was born a victim of the poor standard of education in Nigeria. I practically grew up without formal education, in Benin City, Nigeria. Back then basic education was something for the elite. At age 20 I still had issues trying to spell my names correctly.
In late 2010, I watched an American movie by the name “Akeela and the Bee.” In the end of the film I was really thrilled by how an eleven- year-old girl could spell so well, and as such I challenged myself by starting to learn one new word daily from the English dictionary, I bought a small pocket-sized dictionary which I would carry about and study selected words at random. In a short while I discovered that I was truly learning something great.
My English vocabulary was improving. My goal was to study a word daily, but this was difficult as I had many challenges like house work to worry about. At a time I stopped, but after some few weeks break I said to myself, “You have got to continue learning these words from the dictionary.” I started thinking of a methodology that could provide a solution. I knew technology was my best bet. To be honest, I was thinking of apps on mobiles, but all of a sudden the idea of SMS short message service came to me as the right and doable solution to my problem.
I got bulkSMS online credits that would allow me auto-send SMS from a computer to my mobile phone. In my free time, I researched the dictionary of unfamiliar words and their meaning, and then I checked for some practical usages to such words. I had the challenge of making sure all words/meaning/usage falls into the 160 character limit allowed by SMS.
Upon completion I programmed the researched words into the online bulkSMS for sending to my mobile phone daily at 7am. Every day without delay at 7am I was receiving such words, so there was no need for carrying my dictionary around.
Studying such words really helped me, so the thought came to me, “Why don’t you help other people to benefit from it?” I knew a whole lot of people like myself who needed to improve on this vocabulary. I randomly picked selected numbers of my friends and family from my phone address book, and added them to the list of those to benefit from the daily message. Funny as I did not inform them about it, so the next day, they started getting the message alongside with me.
Validating the idea
After two weeks, the BulkSMS credit got exhausted, so I went round to collect feedback from them. I wanted to know of the opinion about the message before I told them I was the sender.
Although all of them liked the messages and wanted it to continue but when asked how much they would like to pay for such a service, 20 percent said 1USD \month while the other 80 percent wished the message was absolutely free.
Right then I started to see this mere idea as a career.
Turning an idea into a career
I started putting materials together, researching on facts and figures about the problem of poor English vocabulary across Africa. It became clearer to me that this little idea could be of help to help millions in Africa learning a word using SMS.
The beauty of SMS as against other solutions is that it is readily available in the continent. In Nigeria alone we have more than 120 million people actively connected to mobile phones, and all of these phones are capable of receiving SMS. I wanted to do something. I wanted to make a difference. I saw it as an opportunity to give back and help people like me who never had the privilege of getting an education.
After concluding all research work, the first major step I took was to visit the company registration office of my country to share my idea with them and also inquire of the cost registering a nonprofit organization, I was really shocked to hear that registering a charity in my country could cost about 1000USD, this was so sad for me as I was only worth 20USD at a time. It looked like the end of the road for me.
Dealing with roadblocks
For more than two weeks I was in deep frustration. I knew how difficult it would be to raise such money for a “mere” document. I had no choice but to start thinking of the alternatives. Since I am trying to help people learn better English, why don’t you check to see if I can get my organization registered in some other countries in the world?
My first choice countries would be English-speaking, starting with England. My research took me to the website of the charity commission of New Zealand, a small island country close to Australia. I was mighty glad when I discovered that it was indeed possible to register a nonprofit organization in that country without a fee. that was the biggest news I could ever imagine. Immediately, I started drafting deed of trust for the new organization, and since it mission was to help was to help people learn spelling, I named it “SpellAfrica” with the vision that everyone in Africa would benefit from it in the near future.
Just as I was about to submit in the application online, I came across a vey disappointing requirement. In the application form it stated that I would need the support of a New Zealander, i.e. someone from the country, before my application could be approved.At that time I had never been out of Africa. I did not know anyone from the country. I almost quit. My head was heavy with over-thinking. If this was Europe or American I could boast of knowing some few people, but not New Zealand. I started to do research about that country and started liking the people and culture, right them I came up with a possibility that worked.
Enrolling supporters and creating a brand
It went on Facebook to search for a friends from New Zealand. In less than 30days I got connected to a lovely lady from New Zealand and we became good friends. We exchanges hundreds of emails and phone calls. In the next two months I was able to inculcate my idea of using SMS to help others learn English, and to convinced her of my intention to get SpellAfrica registered in New Zealand. With her help we got it registered with registration number CC. it was indeed a great victory for me. To be honest I was proud of myself, I never knew I could to it.
What would be next? I started envisaging an international nonprofit organization with head office in New Zealand, so I needed an image, a logo that befits SpellAfrica Initiative. I was faced with branding, an identity for SpellAfrica, A logo was the next step. Again I looked to the internet for help.
I searched for freelance graphic designers who will be willing to offer pro bono service, although many turned me down most especially since I am from a country that is known for internet fraud. I kept persisting. One guy, Mr. Eric from Florida, came to my rescue, just like others he initially thought that I was a scam, but I told him a logo is what I was interested in, not his money.
After some email correspondence he did some quick logo designs for me, but to his surprise I did not liked any. He was surprise, as I needed something free and yet, I am not willing to accept just any design. In the end he was able to design a logo I sill admire to date. That is how I was. He went on to design stationeries, like business card, letter head etc. in the end he said this ” I see you going far with this project so what is the next step for you”?
I told him a Website, yes I website was the next point of call for me, I was determined to go back online to look for a pro bono website designer, but it turns out that Eric is also a website designer, although he was unable to designed an automated website that I needed, but he was able to design a simple website for information purposes.
After Eric, a UK based web designer build our current website also pro bono, a branding company in Lagos offered us pro bono -tishirts and wristbands.
SpellAfrica Initiative at age 3
Today I am proud to say SpellAfrica Initiative started with practically no startup capital, although we are still trying to scale. In just three year I have been able to transfer this mere idea into an organization that has five staff members and more than 100 student volunteers, all of whom are youths.
Together we have been able to design new products for the purpose of helping millions learning English language. Besides our initial SMS program which we call mVocabulary, we also have a Radio and TV program called Spell101. Spell101 is designed to help young ones test their English skills on Radio, it is a live phone in program that gives young ones the opportunity to spell words for others to hear, while prizes are offered to successful spellers.
Challenges still exist
As a technology-driven organization we are also soliciting for technical partnership pacts. Our goal is to build the biggest database of mobile phone number in Africa for the purpose of education, we need DBA to help us with technical solution for database design.
Eighty five percent of our budget is tired to the cost we use in sending SMS. We are looking for SMS aggregates who can provide us with a cheap solution that could send SMS at a very friendly cost.
Due to the growing demand of smart phones across the continent we are looking at developing a mobile app, which will definitely reduce cost of sending SMS to our clients.
SpellAfrica Initiative although relatively new has been able to attract a good numbers of people and organization across the world.
Recent SpellAfrica Initiative Achievements
- SpellAfrica Association is a new registered club by student of the university of Benin, Nigeria who strongly believe in what we do and have indicated interest to join us make a diffidence in Africa.
- Over 300,000 people who registered for mVocabulary even without any formal publicity
- SpellAfrica came out as a semi finalist in the 2013 Echoing Green fellowship in New York
- SpellAfrica Initiative won an all expense paid scholarship to study a short course in social entrepreneur in Stockholm, Sweden. http://www.se-forum.se/outreach/entrepreneurs/
- SpellAfrica Initiative won a scholarship to global business in the 2013-2014 online GSBI online with Santa Clara University in the United States. http://www.scu.edu/socialbenefit/entrepreneurship/gsbi/
- I was recently selected by Malmo University, Malmo, Sweden to join over a 100 youths across the world to come over to Sweden to brainstorm on solutions to social problems. http://socialinnovation.se/en/news/acsi2013/
- I won a Scholarship as a volunteer to participate in the 2013 Social Enterprise World Forum holding in Clergy Canada. http://www.socialenterpriseworldforum.org/
- SpellAfrica Initiative recently signed a partnership with Action10 international a Swedish organization with a mission to fight extreme poverty. Together we are developing a training workshop that is proposed to benefit 50 business-oriented people from Nigeria.
I strongly believe that passion, dedication and more importantly resilience are the key to success in the world of social entrepreneurship. I encourage youths across Africa to stand up and start something.
For me as an African social entrepreneur, technology answered most of my questions.
Elvis Austins is the founder and CEO of the SpellAfrica Initiative, a New Zealand-registered educational non-profit whose mission is to spread the value of learning across Africa through vocabulary lessons delivered to students via SMS. He can be contacted via email: email@example.com
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