‘We Can Build A Real Unicorn Out Of Africa, Creating Impact’: Kenya Co-Founder On Building An Edtech Startup 

Published 3 months ago
Craydel co-founders John Nguru, Manish Sardana and Shayne Aman Premji; image supplied
Craydel co-founders John Nguru, Manish Sardana and Shayne Aman Premji; image supplied

The Nairobi-based co-founder of Craydel, an online career guidance platform, speaks to FORBES AFRICA about its ambitions to democratize higher education and scale across Africa. But first, more on what sparked his entrepreneurial journey.

Manish Sardana is in the midst of a busy day, opening yet another office, a bigger one, in Nairobi’s upscale Westlands area when we catch up for a conversation on Craydel, the edtech startup he successfully co-founded in Kenya in 2021, at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Right now, we have five offices – three in Nigeria and two in Kenya – and about 70-odd employees and we are growing rapidly,” the platform’s 43-year-old CEO says about the growth of what was once “just an idea in his head”.

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At a time when most startups are battling to survive and retrenching staff, Craydel is hiring rapidly and on its way to profitability in 2024, he adds. On the cards: expansion to more markets such as Ghana, Uganda and South Africa. The investors are keen and Sardana is optimistic.

“When you are building something that has a real vision trying to solve a real problem, you get people gravitating towards you,” says Sardana of his platform that dispels misinformation and biases for students and guides decisions on college and course selection. Craydel is building the tech infrastructure to empower African learners to search, match and apply to their best-fit higher education institutions.

In 2021, Sardana, along with his co-founders John Nguru and Shayne Aman Premji, secured $1 million for Craydel in a pre-seed round led by Enza Capital, a private venture fund that invests in early-stage tech startups across Africa. Subsequently, they secured another $1.5 million to grow the platform.

Craydel – a play on the word ‘cradle’ –  hand-holds students wanting to pursue higher education – from graduation to post-graduation to PhD – at any point in their student or professional career. In fact, 50% of their postgraduate enrolments are working professionals looking for a career change, says Sardana.

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The tech startup has 380 direct partnerships with universities so far and seeks to democratize access to tertiary education, in turn, addressing the low gross enrolment rate, of about 9%, in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). This includes working professionals who have not been to college before, for want of access to capital and resources.

Two years in, Sardana says they have figured out the formula for success.

“We know that if you do X, Y and Z, you are going to be successful. That equation is very clear to us now.

We want to show that we can build a real unicorn out of Africa, creating real impact.”

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But there’s a reason why Craydel may as well be on its way to savoring billion-dollar success in the future. Sardana has a track-record of building and scaling successful businesses from the ground-up.

His penchant for entrepreneurship had its humble beginnings in India, and followed him to Africa, a continent that he now calls home and one that has “given so much” to him.  

“I owe it to Africa,” he explains of his mission to expand opportunities in education.

“One of the things I realized early on in life is to observe things around me… What I love is looking at ecosystems and how things work, and understand how it is broken, and use technology to disrupt that ecosystem. There’s also a theory I use, which is called ‘perpetuators versus agitators’; wherein perpetuators perpetuate an ecosystem because it benefits them, while an agitator can really shake this up from the outside and create a better, more efficient ecosystem,” says Sardana.

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‘Serial entrepreneur’

His first tryst with entrepreneurship was at the age of 10. From a middle class home in Delhi – with three rooms and 16 family members – Sardana was born to parents who worked in the government and instilled in him a love for reading.

He engaged this by creating “a sharing concept or library with a common pool of books and comics from everyone in one place”, renting books out to friends and relatives. The venture failed, but not without him realizing how much he enjoyed the process of creating it. All through school and college, he found enterprising ways to make pocket money, becoming “a serial entrepreneur more out of necessity than anything else”.

His parents allowed him these entrepreneurial bouts, so long as he was going to top his class, study economics and go on to become a civil services officer. Whilst studying for an economics degree in Delhi University’s Hansraj College, Sardana was also teaching students. But disillusionment set in.

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“I mean 90% of what I studied two years ago, I had no recollection of, and I could not see how that education was going to ever help me in life. And especially because I had kind of exposed myself to building businesses, I did not see any practical application of what I was studying.”

Along with a couple of friends, he soon set up his own publishing business – a college magazine in Delhi University that proved to be very popular on campus. He hustled, spending nights at the printing press and knocking on advertisers’ doors during the day, thumbing through the Yellow Pages directories and traveling across Delhi on his dad’s scooter. This was in the year 2000.

“My parents said I have got to stop this and do my master’s degree,” says Sardana. His mom filled out a form to the prestigious Delhi School of Economics. Some of India’s greatest economists such as Nobel laureate Amartya Sen and former Indian Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh have taught at the institution.  

Sardana cleared the entrance exam, quite by default. “I really did not study for it. The only way I cleared the exam was because I was teaching my classmates and charging them money for it. So I would [conduct] private tuitions for my own classmates, and in the process of teaching them, I would kind of learn myself.”

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Very soon, he realized it was all theoretical economics and he had no passion for it. It didn’t challenge him enough, so three months into the course, he quit.

After that, he tried to rekindle the magazine business but had to close it down. He also authored an economics textbook for class 12 students. A year on, he went on to do his MBA at the FORE School of Management and was subsequently hired by advertising agency FCB Ulka. Before long, he felt “jaded” in the industry doing marketing campaigns. But Sardana was also closely watching from the sidelines the big renaissance unraveling in India’s technology sector.

“That was in 2004-2005, the internet was coming up, Amazon was becoming a big thing and Google had come up. I saw the power of technology really changing and transforming ecosystems and got really excited about it,” he recalls.

After that, he worked four years in a successful edtech startup called Vriti, and the company managed to raise a total funding of $35 million.

“It was a lot of money at the time… Eventually, I sliced the part of the company I was running and set up as a separate company. I sold my company to a financial investor. So that was my first successful exit, which I was really happy about.

“And then, after seven years, I needed a break, I was very much done. Startups can also be an emotionally-draining experience, you know, especially when you are just married and have kids.”

A six-month break ensued, during which time he also helped his wife set up her bakery business, delivering her cakes door-to-door in their black Maruti Esteem car.

That was in 2014 when Sardana’s Africa rendezvous was just about to begin.

‘Owe it to Africa’

One of his former bosses who had been following his journey in the technology space told him about an opportunity in Africa with multinational communications company, WPP to focus on the digital marketing side of the business.

Within 10 days of receiving the offer, Sardana was on a plane to Kenya, his first trip outside of India. It took him three years to settle down, to understand the market and the consumers, and he was promoted to Managing Director for WPP-Scangroup in SSA.   

He won a lot of business for the company but the entrepreneur in him was beginning to surface, again. He built a marketing automation platform called Optimus for the company, which is when he met and worked with his current co-founder and CTO, Nguru.

He presented the product to the board but it didn’t work. He presented it to one of their clients, Barclays in Kenya, and thereby to the bank’s leadership in South Africa, who were very impressed and gave him a chance to deploy it across their markets, which he calls his “first lucky break”.

“Once Barclays happened, you know, success creates more success. Suddenly, at WPP, the guys woke up!”

Sardana says Optimus was also deployed by leading African entities such as Kenya Commercial Bank, Equity Bank, the Old Mutual Group and Airtel.

The epiphany after that was inspired by his wife, whose bakery business was also doing well.

“She said to me ‘you know, you guys keep building all this sophisticated technology for large blue chip companies, but what about building something to help small businesses like us scale’?

“That was my first moment in Africa when I said, ‘okay, I’m making a lot of money for myself, am building a lot of wealth for my organization and for my clients, who are very rich people to start with, but we are really not doing anything of any significance, of impact, using our skill sets, and our insights for the large masses, the small business sector. If you understand Africa, it’s really run on the back of very micro SMEs.”

This led to the creation of Optimus Mini for small businesses. Eventually, that platform was called Goby – “the smallest fish in the world”. He explains the philosophy behind it.

“The big fish eat the small fish. So we wanted to empower the small fish to fight and compete with the big fish, by giving them access to all the technology and resources they needed. It was essentially e-commerce-as-a-service platform, allowing small entrepreneurs to upload their product pictures and prices, and it will set up an entire e-commerce shop for them online, integrated with payment gateways and logistics partners to deliver the products.”

Manish Sardana; image supplied

It really was just Nguru and Sardana developing it at that point.

“John is an exceptional technology guy, he’s amazing. I would come up with a product design, the user experience, the strategy, the business side of things and he would build the technology. Technology was always my handicap – I always regret not learning to code. I have all the stuff in my head but can’t build. I tell John he completes my handicap,” says Sardana.

In three months, they had 3,000 merchants signing up, deeming the platform a success. This was while they were still with WPP-Scangroup, when they had the reach, the capital and client access afforded by the company.

When Covid-19 struck in 2020, e-commerce took off and so did Goby. Leading brewer AB InBev approached them to sign on for “a B2B version of the product” to take orders online and deliver alcohol. Diageo, too, came along.

But the time had come for Sardana to go on his own, even if it meant giving up a lucrative salary and the comfort of a full-time job at WPP.

“Working with Manish was always magical, a journey into the future,” remembers Serah Katusya of that time, when she was the Managing Director at Mediacom, a sister agency at WPP-Scangroup; she is now the CEO of Belva and founder of WildMango. “He challenged and inspired with the same energy. He paved the way for many of us into tech, into thinking and building business solutions. He was definitely an agency leader decades ahead of his time.”

By the time he left WPP, Sardana had enough confidence in his abilities to build and scale real businesses. He wanted to build something in a very different space, specifically, in education.

“I think that was a very big inflection point in my life… that I was wasting all my knowledge, talent and experience building things for big companies, and I wanted to solve real problems on the ground. So that kind of gave me an exceptional amount of clarity… seeing the lives of ordinary Kenyans, doing fascinating things with very little resources and transforming their lives became a real thing.”

‘A cradle for young students’

Sardana’s research showed that there were government subsidies and funding for primary education but there was not a lot of momentum in higher education.

“The higher education infrastructure in sub-Saharan Africa is extremely weak. The problem is that in most schools, the career counselor is essentially a teacher with the least amount of workload…. This entire industry is run by agents who don’t understand career counseling; they essentially push students to universities, and make money.”

According to Craydel, more than 16 million African students spend $30 billion on higher education each year.

As a continent with the youngest population in the world, Africa presents tremendous opportunities in this regard, and Sardana was quick.

“We wanted to build a cradle for young students in Africa, for them to get all the nourishment in terms of the right advice, the career counseling, the psychometric assessment, and the right technology to get them off on their own feet.”

Whilst they were setting up the company, and during the pandemic, Sardana met Premji, the third co-founder, who is now Craydel’s CFO.

“Shayne is Canadian, but like me, stayed in Africa for 10 years. We stayed on the same street in Kenya but never knew each other. During the pandemic, he was changing houses, and walked into our apartment building. That’s how we met. He had a lot of experience in investment banking, and was doing extremely well in his career…

He is also impact-driven, so said he wanted to quit his job and join us full-time… he was extremely instrumental in raising our first round of a million dollars,” says Sardana.

For now, the trio is looking forward to what lies ahead. Their “vision and impact story” is shaping up.

“We’re in a good space now, and really excited about building this journey,” concludes Sardana, as he sets off to launch the company’s brand-new office, surely, one of many more to come.