Born on March 28, 1991, Iyinoluwa Samuel Aboyeji, more popularly known as “E”, is really just another overtly optimistic 19 year old itchy for a gale of change in Nigeria. He has served in various leadership roles within several local and international organizations, including the World Youth Alliance, Imprint Publications, Harambe Africa and Empowerment Squared. Recently, he has co-founded Bookneto, an online initiative which promises to be the world’s best study tool. In this insightful interview with BN Editorial Assistant, Gbenga Awomodu, “E” talks passionately about education, Nigeria, and Bookneto, his latest project.
Could you tell us about yourself?
I am a young Nigerian – 19 years old – studying Legal Studies and Economics at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada. I was born and raised in Nigeria and graduated from the Loyola Jesuit College, Abuja, Class of ’07. I am very passionate about development economics, publishing, international advocacy, Nigerian politics and technology, amongst a lot of different things. Presently, I am working on a project called Bookneto that is sure to change the face of education.
Why did you choose to have your university education in Canada and for how long have you been there?
I have been in Canada for all of 3 years now. I chose Canada because it still has a very young educational system with much more academic freedom and experimentation. One particularly interesting thing that drew me to the University of Waterloo in Canada is the co-operative education system, which allows you to go to school for one semester and work the next semester, as part of the degree requirements. It enables you to apply what you have learnt in class in the real world, while building a formidable resume and earning some money in the process. Schooling here is also slightly cheaper than in the States or elsewhere, without a huge deficit in quality of the programs.
What has your experience been like studying in Canada?
It has been just fine. One thing I love here is their emphasis on real world experience. Just going to school in some sort of gated communities (like how they do in Nigeria with schools like Covenant, etc) is a death sentence here because all your employers expect you to have a beefed-up resume before you finish your first degree. The schools realize that and do everything they can to find you experience. Industrial Training is every other term, meaning: five IT’s before you graduate. How will Nigerian graduates, who hardly have more than two, compete with graduates like these in the local economy? In almost every school, there is a career action centre that helps with resume writing and finding jobs while you go to school. Also, there is a very close relationship between schools and business. Right next to our Campus at Waterloo is that of Research in Motion, the company that produces the BlackBerry Smartphone (whose messenger application I know Nigerians are crazy about). Many Waterloo students work there on their co-op terms and gain lots of useful experience they can put on their resumes. The companies here maintain an ecosystem that gives them access to some of the best Research and Development in the world from the Universities. It’s a system Nigerian businesses might want to adopt to do wonders in talent acquisition and retention, and reduce high cost of R&D. Finally, there is an emphasis on ‘doing’ here. In Nigeria, we talk too much and we depend on government for everything. Here, if you haven’t done anything, no one will listen to you. The worth of your words is directly correlated with how much you have done in your life.
The Canadian system has its own problems, just like other countries. The system is largely publicly funded so there could be a standards issue at times. Since the government just wants its citizens educated, there might be issues as to whether certain students deserve to be in the University or not (as University placements are a political issue, rather than a merit issue). A side-effect of this problem again is crowded classes. It is a lot better than Nigeria though, but sometimes you wonder about the value of attending lectures where there isn’t a lot of time to really concentrate on critical material or ask much more introspective questions. There is also the somewhat moot issue of discrimination. It hasn’t really registered in Canada that Nigeria is an English-speaking country so they keep asking you for annoying English tests. If you know your stuff though, it isn’t that big of a deal. As for overcoming challenges, given my Nigerian educational background, I have mastered the art of studying on my own so it is very easy coping in class. However, there are a lot of students who struggle with the class material because they are not getting the help they need. Bookneto is actually one of the tools that might really help institutions and students facing such problems.
You recently started Bookneto.com in partnership with a friend. What is Bookneto all about?
Bookneto is about entirely changing the world of education by combining easy access to academic material and resources with the power of social networking to help students interact and study most effectively. It is one of those things that are very difficult to explain without seeing so I am just going to say, make sure to sign up on our website so when we launch we can show you the world’s best study tool.
What inspired you to start BookNeto and what was your experience like until you eventually uploaded the site?
We haven’t launched our product yet so you might have to wait just a couple more days for that. What inspired us to start Bookneto was our concern for the student learning experience. We realized from personal experiences that the system wasn’t working. Students did not have the freedom to study as they should: with constant access to course material, without an overbearing content wall, with the help of teachers who care about their learning process and within a knowledgeable global learning community. We thought that the advent of the internet will change education just as it has changed so many other things, but it seems the educational system just moved the same problems online and even further complicated the issues (see online-for-profit Universities, for example). Bookneto was formed as a student response to the many problems with the education system. It is certainly not an easy thing to do, especially with school and other commitments in tow. We sought out students, staff, professors, publishers and did a lot of research, and we are not even done yet with receiving feedback. It has definitely been an amazing and impactful experience. Working with some of the most talented people I know gives me strength to work harder and press forward with Bookneto. It has been a joy working with very experienced and competent advisors and mentors.
What other similar initiatives exist and in what ways is BookNeto different?
The social learning space is quite competitive and we have learnt a lot from what many consider “similar initiatives”. I can confidently say that Bookneto is very different from all the “competition” in this space – we have a student focus. Many other companies consider their clients to be professors, publishers or schools, and primarily market their products to those clients. We think these stakeholders are important, but are dependent on their relationship with students. At Bookneto, our primary clients are students. Every day, we ask ourselves, what can we do to help students study better and more effectively?
Amazing question. While others see copyright as the problem, we are looking at copyright as a wonderful business opportunity. The assumption underlying our revenue model is that students will be willing to pay for ease of access to academic material/content they need as well as the tools that will help them effectively study with these materials. We are working with students, professors, textbook publishers and authors, not only promoting content sharing as a profitable activity, but also offering publishers some of the world’s best technological and social defences against piracy. Our current research and forecasts show we can make up to a quarter of the current annual revenue of some of the biggest textbook publishers, with barely 10% of our North American student target market on board at prices that help students save 50%-75% of their current textbook costs. Most importantly, publishers get some amazing analytics with respect to what aspects of their content are most useful to students so they can improve their offerings while textbook authors are able to build reputation and relationships by communicating directly with the student audience for their textbooks.
What obstacles do you envisage in deploying Bookneto and similar internet-driven initiatives in developing and third world countries?
The obvious problems are internet access and lack of appropriately priced hardware for a web application like Bookneto. But again, I like to look at these “problems” as opportunities for Bookneto. For example, I am pretty sure Internet access in Nigeria is set to yield some of the biggest returns the world has ever seen. 44 million Nigerians are already on the internet with slow 54kb modem connections Starcomms and other telecoms companies manage to dash us every now and then. Imagine what will happen when there is really fast and cheap broadband. Hardware companies like Zinox and Encipher are breaking grounds by launching cheap laptop, netbook and tablet hardware options. The developing world market is rapidly ripening for web applications like Bookneto. People who overestimate these “obstacles” are definitely making a big mistake!
What establishments have you worked with and what leadership roles have you played in the past, both locally and globally?
Well, this seems like one of those brag questions I like to avoid. I’m going to say I have worked in and with many amazing global and local organizations that I am proud to have learnt a lot from. If you really want to know, you can check out my LinkedIn profile.
What are your future plans, especially after your first university degree?
It’s very difficult to be certain about things like this. I’m still praying. However, I think I will be with Bookneto for a while, depending on how things turn out over the next year. The entrepreneur lifestyle definitely appeals to me and I hope I can change the world by making products and services people cannot live without. One thing for sure is that if all goes well, I hope to return and tap into the bundle of business opportunities Nigeria is by being a super angel or venture capitalist focused on young Nigerian entrepreneurs.
How can BookNeto be useful to Nigerian students and the Nigerian government?
I can’t say how Bookneto will be useful to the Nigerian government primarily because the product wasn’t built with them in mind (I can’t wait to see how they might want to use it though…to retrain civil servants?). However, while we are primarily operating in North America for now, Nigeria is a huge potential market for us. We know Nigerian students are self-motivated learners and if my memories of Nigerian education do me any justice, we pretty much thrive on cramming large portions of textbooks. The trouble with these textbooks is that most of them are out of date and new editions take some time to reach our shores, not even considering exorbitant shipping costs, plus the extra booksellers will put on top. With Bookneto, all you require to access the latest academic content is an internet connection and a subscription. Also, Nigerian students will be able to tap into a global community of students and better-trained teachers when they have trouble with important academic concepts. This will reduce the impact of unqualified lecturers on students’ learning experience and also highlight the effectiveness of Nigeria’s best teachers. Ultimately, Bookneto will afford Nigerian students the kind of education that will adequately prepare them to participate actively in a highly competitive global economy.
What are some of your thoughts about Nigeria and do you plan to return any time soon?
Nigeria is an economic miracle waiting to happen; the economic facts reveal it. I am confident that, somehow, sometime soon, “UP NEPA” will be a thing of the distant past. We are moving quickly from the days of recycled military men in borrowed Agbadas to younger public intellectuals with relevant leadership and policy credentials. Also emerging are young and savvy Nigerian entrepreneurs whose creative engagement will yield much of Nigeria’s progress in the next decade. I don’t think government can or should create jobs for young people, especially because these “jobs” are rarely meritocratic, thanks to a unique combination of our ‘federal character’ and ‘arrangee’ system. The government should make it easier for young people to do business in Nigeria. As for my coming back to the country, it is only a matter of time. Even if I was a foreigner, it would be stupid for me to see all the amazing market opportunities that exist in Nigeria and not, at least, keep an eye on them. I just need to learn as much as I can here so I can bring home some badly needed experience and capital, instead of a looting bowl and an empty belly.
Any other thing you want to tell our readers?
We are coming. Nigeria is coming. Young people are coming.
Iyinoluwa blogs at iyinoluwa.posterous.com and you can access his LinkedIn profile here.
Gbenga Awomodu is a freelance writer and editor. He blogs at Gbenga’s Notebook!, a repository of his thoughts and other works.