"The private sector is the engine of innovation and growth providing incomes for rural and urban populations. It is also a tremendous repository of organizational and management expertise that can increase the effectiveness of service delivery. Where possible, countries should therefore draw on the private sector to complement governments in designing, delivering and financing interventions to achieve the [United Nations] Millennium Development Goals [for the betterment of all]."
Recommendations of the MDG Africa Steering Group
SW Global is an African-based application service provider (ASP) of information technology (IT) infrastructure and software. This article describes how SW Global, a for-profit private sector company, creates high-impact value at universities and governments in developing countries through an innovative business model anchored around service subscriptions, open source software (OSS), and open content.
Origins and Context
Dr. Aloy Chife was a director at Apple in Silicon Valley during the early days of outsourcing software development to firms in India. According to Dr. Chife: "I surmised that Nigeria and India shared much in common. I thought that the time had come to grow the talent in Africa, and I saw an opportunity to set-up a visionary software company that could focus on automation." With financial and advisory support from the World Bank, he founded SW Global (originally called SocketWorks) in 2002 in his home country of Nigeria.
Dr. Chife found the need for process automation to be particularly strong at publicly funded universities, colleges, and vocational schools throughout sub-Saharan Africa.Processes were typically manual, consisting of filing cabinets of paper records in separate departments with different areas of focus. Existing electronic records were often word processing documents or spreadsheets. Few public universities were connected to the Internet, and many faculty and senior administrators had never touched a computer.
However, he concluded that a traditional software business model would not be effective in this context. First, there was no established market for proprietary software. The use of computers was not widespread, and organizations were not familiar with the concept of paying for software licenses. Second, the upfront costs of deploying information and communication technology (ICT) systems were beyond the means of governments and publicly funded universities. Third, network connectivity was very expensive. A single VSAT satellite connection providing 1Mb/s of downstream bandwidth could cost between three and four thousand dollars per month.
SW Global became a market maker where no market yet existed. Rather than sell ICT products, they chose to offer configurable bundles of automation services used by administrators, faculty, and students. Working in collaboration with local IT departments, they built on existing systems where possible and deployed new ICT infrastructure, network connectivity, and learning content where needed. Their vendor-financed ASP model provides infrastructure at no cost to the university, then recovers costs through student fees. The university owns the systems and infrastructure while SW Global provides continuous training with the expectation to transition administration and first-level support to local IT staff, further empowering the university community.
Dr. Chife describes the value proposition to the university: "We're willing to invest our money to create efficiencies for you. You don't have to pay us a dime. We make money when your customers pay you - a service charge of pennies on the dollar." These access fees are distributed across the many users of the system. Annual access fees for students in Nigeria are comparable to the local cost of telephone talk-time for the average Nigerian student for a month.
The underlying software systems are built from an assemblage of software components, many of which are open source, along with high-value proprietary elements not available elsewhere. The adoption of OSS is pragmatic and business-driven to offer the highest possible customer value at the lowest possible cost.
SW Global currently employs more than 400 people in Ghana, Nigeria, Kenya, Sierra Leone, Liberia, India, Sri Lanka, South Africa and Uganda, and is in the process of opening new offices in six other countries in Africa.
SW Global service bundles can comprise several software and content components. The CollegePortal bundle is an integrated groupware, intranet, back office and e-learning platform. It includes student facing systems (such as course registration, results checking, and personal data management), administrative systems (such as human resources, finance, and operations), document management and learning systems, a library management system, and communication tools for an active eCommunity. SW Global hosts the application servers, provides infrastructure and maintenance, and dedicates support resources. SW Global's Enterprise Knowledge Management (EKM) software combines a learning management system (LMS), a content management system (CMS), and a collection of eLearning content that includes the eGranary Digital Library, MIT OpenCourseWare, Wikipedia, Project Gutenberg, and more than 1,200 other websites. Students and faculty can access this high quality content from local servers without accessing the Internet--an enormous efficiency when thousands of users may share a single low-bandwidth satellite link to the Internet.
cPortal is the SW Global Enterprise Portal Server, providing interoperability with other software such as legacy financial accounting systems, or new software packages such as open source LMSs.
These service offerings leverage OSS and open content to drastically reduce deployment costs. Much of the server-side software stack, especially middleware, is open source. Likewise, the software development environment is comprised of open source tools, and the eLearning content of the EMK package is largely a compilation of open content and open educational resources.
Three Service Deployments
The second section of this article provides brief descriptions of three SW Global services deployments: i) a software deployment at the University of Benin in Nigeria in 2004; ii) a software and ICT infrastructure deployment at Yaba College of Technology in Nigeria in 2006; and iii) a software, infrastructure, and learning content deployment at Makarere Business School in Uganda in 2007.
University of Benin
The University of Benin was the first Nigerian University to take its core processes online in a bold initiative by the university administration during the 2003/2004 academic session. It is a federally owned university located in the western region of Nigeria, with an enrolment of approximately 30,000 full- and part-time students across various degree- and certificate-granting programs at the undergraduate, post-graduate, and vocational levels.
Unlike many universities in sub-Saharan Africa, the University of Benin had some existing ICT infrastructure in place consisting of approximately 260 networked computers distributed across 8 digital centres with two VSAT links to the Internet (providing combined bandwidth of 2Mb/s down and 512Kb/s up), and Internet cafes located around campus. Student registration, admissions, and other record-keeping functions were distinct manual processes. The Central Records Service Processing Unit (CRSPU) was tasked with collating results and processing electronic data across the university.
Building on top of the existing infrastructure, SW Global deployed new software, services, and training. MyUniben, a customized portal built on SW Global's CollegePortal technology, managed records for the university's internal programs. Processes taken online included admissions, course registration, payment, and student results reporting. Three new support staff provided first level support for staff and students, and liaised with second level support provided by SW Global. Online fee payments were enabled and streamlined with cards available for purchase from designated banks.
This was the first deployment of SW Global's CollegePortal software in a production environment. Two of the original developers, including one of the authors of this article, lived on site for two months of testing, customizing, and developing enhancements to ensure that services were robust to real life situations.
The deployment was a resounding success. One year later, the student database comprised records on 13,000 students, 6,000 part-time undergraduate students had successfully registered for their courses online, grades for 5,000 undergraduate part-time students had been successfully uploaded, the admission process was fully online for all internal programs, and payment of school fees was online for all programs. The introduction of CollegePortal brought about an increased awareness of ICT across the university, especially among users who had not previously used a computer.
Yaba College of Technology
SW Global's services deployment at the Yaba College of Technology was an ambitious multi-year project comprised of several phases. It required new ICT infrastructure, an expanded portfolio of services, and brought in a third partner for financing - the Zenith Bank, a leading Nigerian financial institution.
Yaba College of Technology is one of 47 polytechnics owned and operated by the Nigerian federal government. It is located in the Yaba area of Lagos state, the commercial capital of Nigeria. It offers more than 150 programs to a population of 17,000 students.
Unlike the University of Benin deployment, but typical of publicly funded universities in Nigeria, the initial ICT infrastructure was inadequate. The school's local area network was restricted to the administrative building and the computer science department. Too many records were in non-electronic formats, and maintained in stand-alone systems by various departments in different locations on campus. The few digital records that did exist were in multiple incompatible formats.
To deliver value quickly, the project to upgrade ICT facilities and automate core processes was structured in several phases, beginning with an authoritative student and base record database, a web portal interface, and automation of student fees collection. Later phases included course registration and other services. New infrastructure included a digital centre containing 200 thin client computers and a campus-wide wireless network as a temporary connectivity solution while the fibre optic network was being deployed. This was the first production deployment of an enhanced version of the CollegePortal solution that supports real-time online payment using debit cards and online vended personal identification numbers. This solution was powered by the switching company ETranzact. The Yabatech project was also significant for SW Global because it was the first three-way business partnership - a model subsequently reproduced in many other SW Global deployments.
One year later, more than 16,000 student records were gathered, more than 13,000 fee payments were processed, all departments were fully networked and connected to the Internet, a temporary campus wide network was established using radio links, and deployment of the optical fibre ring was proceeding on schedule.
Makarere University Business School
The Makarere University Business School at Makarere University in Kampala, Uganda, was the first SW Global deployment outside of West Africa. The president of Uganda launched the project in 2007. In addition to a full deployment of CollegePortal, it includes a human resource management system and interoperability with the school's existing accounting system. New infrastructure included two digital centres with 200 thin client computers and a link to the Internet. This deployment also featured SW Global's first proof of concept of the eGranary Digital Library to provide offline educational content to students and staff.
Dr. Chife sees the existing SW Global business of automating university processes as a stepping-stone to the future. "I think that the ASP model is going to transform itself into a consumer aggregation model of offering software for use for free to a community, and making money from advertising and content. Africa is far away from that right now, but it's how I see the future. The differentiators of a company like ours will continue to be content, because that's what is most lacking here in Africa. We have a team looking beyond eGranary, Open Courseware, and Project Guttenberg. We can add a lot of value there."
A June 2008 report from the Millennium Development Goals (MDG of the Africa Steering Group concluded that the education sector in Africa remains heavily underfunded at all levels. Tertiary education is critical for increasing economic growth, and requires additional financing beyond the funds currently committed. With under-resourced governments and schools unable to pay for ICT infrastructure and services, innovation from the private sector has an important and complementary role to play.
SW Global provides an illustrative example of a for-profit company combining an innovative business model with a service offering anchored around OSS and open content to improve the lives of people in developing countries. For at least one for-profit company in sub-Saharan Africa, innovation is good business.
The authors thank Dr. Aloy Chife, CEO of SW Global, for providing an interview during the preparation of this article.