At just twenty-five years old Gossy Ukanwoke, a passionate young entrepreneur, has created and run several successful companies. He is from Abia State in Nigeria and grew up between his home state and Lagos. He graduated from Girne American University with a Bachelor’s degree in Information Systems Management and also holds a Business Intelligence degree from the North American University, Texas. Gossy’s latest online venture is BAU Online, a unique hybrid—online/on-campus—learning solution, which offers executive and professional programs. He is also in the process of building a private University in Benue State, in an area that is perfectly placed between Abuja and Enugu, major hubs which both have international airports. Gossy sees a huge potential in the project he has undertaken. Once called the Zuckerberg of Nigeria by Forbes Magazine for his first online venture, Student Circle Network—a free online repository of knowledge—we are keen to see how he and his team can revolutionize Nigerian higher education with their Information and Communication Technology research. Eyitemi Popo, Ayiba’s editor-in-chief, sat down with Gossy to learn more about him and his inspiring ventures.
Eyitemi: What wakes you up in the morning?
Gossy: Interesting. You know I was having a conversation with somebody about that recently. I said it was money, but the person I was speaking with said they didn’t think so. I really can’t say, but my personal motto is to get more people to have access to higher education. I know what that did for me in my life, so it saddens me that people don’t have access to good quality tertiary education. Whether it’s a function of not being aware of your potential and abilities or a lack of finances or the inability to gain admission, I am looking for ways through Information and Communication Technology (ICT) and good old fashion lobbying to provide better access for students in Nigeria and other parts of Africa.
Eyitemi: What can you tell us about your professional background?
Gossy: My professional background is a bit boring. I got out of university and started a university. That’s pretty much it!
However, before I got into university I started a technology company, which specialized in Internet access provision in Lagos and application development. We set up hotspots in concentrated areas in Lagos. People would then buy scratch cards to access the wi-fi, but now that the Internet has penetrated the market more and is in people’s homes and on their phones, the company is now defunct. I then built Student Circle Network while in Cyprus. It is considered the largest repository of non-video courses online. Student Circle grew into BAU Online, which has now grown into Beni American University, a physical private university that will open its doors in June 2015.
Eyitemi: What is your opinion on the state of the Nigerian tertiary education system?
Gossy: [Laughs.] I would say that as much as it is believed to be in a terrible state, it could have been worse. I would rather focus on the fact that it could’ve been worse and then find ways to make it better, than to focus on rhetoric.
Our education system in general is terrible. It starts from the basic education and the problem builds up from there. If we can fix basic education, we can fix the rest. If we can integrate ICT into the educational system here, many things can be done easily and cheaper. The issue now, is that so much time has passed and nothing has been done. If schools that were built for 1,000 students now have 10,000 students, it’s easy to see where the problem is. It would cost a lot to build new infrastructure, but if we can find a way to bring in new ICT, then we can reduce the cost.
To be honest, I thought it was much worse until I got into the system. In the last ten years things have gotten better. I think the universities are more at fault than the government. It’s an interesting opinion, but its mine. The universities are focused on raising money, which they are not to be blamed for, but their focus is too much on that, so much so that the quality of learning becomes secondary to the finances. How many universities here have endowments? How many alumnae donate money to their alma maters? The universities have to raise the money from tuition and supporting services, so you’ll find that they own the restaurant and water and bread-making factory. Their focus shifts off what is most important: the education. But the real question is what comes first? Do you put more money into the institutions so that they can change the way they run or do you get the universities to change the way they run and hope that more money will be put in? Someone has to do something. We graduate about two million students a year from secondary schools, but the universities only have a capacity to accept 300,000 so there is a huge backlog and that is why you see students going to Ghana and Benin Republic. There is a huge backlog of students and the existing private universities don’t really reduce that burden.
Eyitemi: Ok, let’s go back to Student Circle. How did you come up with that idea?
Gossy: Student Circle was started when I was an undergraduate. Many of my friends would ask me for help with projects and so I built a platform to manage how I answered their requests. I created a single stream where you could see what people were posting and gave each person an account, so I would know who was whom because some I knew and some were just people in my school who I didn’t know personally. Writing the program was fun. It wasn’t a problem.
Eventually, what happened was a user who owned task ten, would see that they could do task two and ask that person to let them have their place in the queue, if they did the project instead of me. So people started helping each other with the coursework and it grew from just my school to other universities in Cyprus. At that point, everybody was using it and I stopped helping people altogether. I began adding social layers like groups, chats, friend connections, and inbox messaging. It became so big that I thought it should be more than a social help platform. I wanted to make it a repository of knowledge and applied to the Open Coursework Consortium. We became the only student body in that consortium of universities like MIT. Students from Africa, Asia, and Latin America were logging on to use the resources as they pleased; slides, lecture notes, exams, homework, and quizzes. We eventually got professors who taught the courses to help students with questions they had. We had all non-video courses because our users were mostly from places where Internet access wasn’t that good, so watching a three-hour video for them was unrealistic.
Eyitemi: And how did that lead to BAU Online and the University?
Gossy: Basically, opportunities create themselves. When we were doing Student Circle, we found that students from West Africa in particular were asking us to test them. They wanted to use our resources, take an exam, and then get scored and receive a certificate. After a trip to Nigeria, we recognized the demand and that is how the idea for BAU Online came about. Initially the idea was to have a full-fledged online university, but we found we couldn’t get the license for that. So, we changed the focus with BAU online to be for executive programs and professional courses. However, we still wanted to do something in the undergraduate space and that is how we decided on a physical University, Beni American University.
Eyitemi: How are plans for the University going?
Gossy: It’s not as easy as I thought… [Laughs.] It’s very capital intensive and our investments are more for our research and technology based solutions. So, we are working day and night to keep raising funds. We are where we need to be with the licensing and construction process. Let’s just say, so far so good on that one.
Eyitemi: What would you say are some of the biggest challenges you have overcome while doing business in Nigeria?
Gossy: The biggest challenges would have to be the problem of first entry, skepticism to online education, unreliable Internet access, and computer illiteracy. It’s all a work in progress, but we are trying to make sure that anyone that can use Facebook on a desktop or mobile can use our platform.
Eyitemi: Can you tell us about Beni American University? What can students look forward to?
Gossy: Beni American University will be a full-time, private institution, which will offer Bachelor’s degrees in Benue State, Nigeria. We are building an American curriculum hybrid institution offering quality educational programs specific to the needs of African students. The campus will have a capacity for about 10,000 students and we will be building specialist schools and colleges that are not available in other Nigerian universities within Beni American University. The entrepreneurship and innovation school is what I am most passionate about amongst the specialist schools. We hope to graduate people who can create opportunities for themselves. There will be a venture lab where students can hone their entrepreneurial skills and secure investments for their businesses. We will also support our students in finding internship opportunities. Those are some of the things that we are doing to make sure we stand out.
Eyitemi: You are only twenty-five years old. Do you feel like your age works against you in trying to make all this happen?
Gossy: I don’t think my age works against me. In fact, it piques interest. I think at first people are taken aback, but then they are intrigued to see how far I am ready to take things. The higher education business isn’t a fifty-year or hundred-year business. Universities are as old as governments. I think it’s a good thing that we are starting off early, so that we can watch to see that the University keeps true to the vision and mission that started it.
BAU Online – @BAUOnlinex – http://online.bau.edu.ng
BAU – @beniamerican – http://bau.edu.ng
Gossy – @gossyomega – http://beniamerican.org