Jordan-Based Startup Abwaab Is On A Mission To Change The Way MENA Students Learn Outside The Classroom
Founded in 2019, the edtech platform is the brainchild of Hamdi Tabbaa, Hussein Alsarabi, and Sabri Hakim.
With schools across the world diving into online learning as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, edtech ventures have been quick to capitalize on this shift and finding ways to thrive in this new landscape. Jordan-based startup Abwaab is filling a distinct gap in this space with a platform catered to secondary school students that offers a self-paced learning experience adhering to the country's national curriculum, access to bite-sized engaging videos, assessment and performance analytics to track progress, as well as chat and video tutoring options.
Founded in 2019, the edtech platform is the brainchild of Hamdi Tabbaa, Hussein Alsarabi, and Sabri Hakim. The trio has had their fair share of working in the MENA region's tech ecosystem, with previous stints at ride-sharing companies Uber and Careem, as well as Arabic content platform Mawdoo3 and retail venture Dukkan. Tabbaa, who leads Abwaab as its CEO, was driven to venture into the edtech sector following his personal experience with online learning when completing an online executive course from Harvard University in 2017. "I was left so impressed by the idea that I was able to receive [an] Ivy League education in the most seamless of ways, despite being thousands of miles away in my hometown [in] Jordan," he says. "In parallel, I could not stop thinking about the hundreds of millions of young students in our region who are in dire need of access to education, and who would benefit from an online ecosystem."
Hamdi Tabbaa, co-founder and CEO, Abwaab. Source: Abwaab
This experience, coupled with the impact Tabbaa saw firsthand during his time working at Uber, made it a no-brainer for him to disrupt education as the next step on his career trajectory. Partnering up with Alsarab and Hakim, the co-founders are united in their zeal to tackle a common problem that students face in the region. "In the MENAP, there are approximately 160 million students, most of whom lack access to high-quality education, and in turn, end up heavily depending on after-school tutoring, whether in the form of tutoring centers or private one-on-one lessons," Tabbaa explains. "This is where Abwaab comes in. Abwaab substitutes after-school tutoring by providing an online ecosystem that allows students to learn, solve, play, interact, and ask questions, anytime and anywhere."
Invigorated by their mission to fill the gap in educational resources available online, as well as to tackle the region's dependence on offline tutoring, the co-founders hit the ground running for their startup by diving into developing their minimum viable product (MVP) as soon as they started. "Abwaab has experimentation deeply rooted in our core values," Tabbaa states. "As Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn, says, "If you are not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you've launched too late.'" In Abwaab's case, the team launched their first beta product in February 2020, with it having only a basic functionality of simply viewing lessons in just three subjects of Jordan's 12th Grade curriculum. But once they went live, the team started going to schools to onboard students, while also trying out online marketing to gauge student appetite for their offering. "We designed and launched our first MVP while speaking and sitting with students continuously, so, technically, our first users were part of the process," Tabbaa says.
Going to schools directly has considerably helped the entrepreneurs in attaining the first users of their startup. "The beginning was humble, but promising, with thousands of students signing up," Tabbaa recalls. "I believe any startup needs to explore two routes of user acquisition, both the traditional methods of performance marketing through Google and other social media channels, as well as doing guerrilla marketing, with boots on the ground, to be as close to the users as possible. The ultimate goal should be strong organic growth." Being user-focused is an aspect that the startup takes on seriously, as it currently makes use of a direct-to-consumer (D2C) business model. The startup has also collaborated with schools in Jordan, as well as King Abdullah University of Science in Technology in Saudi Arabia, where it enabled students to practice standardized test (known as the Qiyas exam), ahead of applying to universities.
Currently, the platform, available on web and mobile devices, runs on a freemium model in Egypt, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq, and it also offers a discounted price of US$50 as an annual subscription fee for full access in Jordan. Catering to students from Grade 7 until Grade 12, it offers over 50,000 lessons on core subjects such as math, biology, chemistry, physics, Arabic, and English. Abwaab also develops and offers high-quality in-house content; moreover, it offers various forms of assessments such as quizzes, practice questions, and tests to give students the opportunity to answer questions and get instant feedback on their responses. "If a student is stuck on a certain topic and has a specific question, he/she can snap a picture of their question, and connect with a tutor instantly in 10 seconds," Tabbaa points out.
The startup also tries to incorporate a fun aspect to the platform by introducing a gamified experience called the Abwaab League, where students can go head-to-head against each other, while collecting trophies and coins to promote healthy competition. On another note, there's a social aspect as well- the platform offers discussion boards to give students a space to interact with each other, ask questions, and also get support from verified teacher assistants who jump into conversations when needed. "This is one seamless app," Tabbaa declares.
That'd explain how Abwaab saw its membership skyrocket during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. "I believe our level of speed in execution propelled our growth as the COVID-19 pandemic hit, we quickly reached a million students within the first three months of launch," Tabbaa says. As a product that launched right before the onset of the global coronavirus pandemic, the team saw a chance for Abwaab to amplify its impact in the new circumstances the world at large found itself in. In mid-March 2020, when the product has only been operating six weeks, the team saw a chance to help the education system in Jordan. "Seeing what the Ministry of Education (MoE) in Jordan was planning to launch at the time, we just felt the obligation to show up and propose a better solution, where, otherwise, two million students would've been left without formal education for months, if not years," Tabbaa recalls. "We presented to the Minister of Education who fell in love with Abwaab, and asked us to take the project on, giving us only 48 hours before the schools were ordered to shut down."
The team created a consortium consisting of Mawdoo3, Edraak, a massive open online course platform by the Queen Rania Foundation, and another local Jordanian startup. The result was a white-labeled solution for the MoE named Darsak, an online platform that sought to teach over one million students at a time when schools across Jordan closed down to prevent the spread of COVID-19. While the Mawdoo3 team launched the product, Abwaab became the main provider of the educational content on Darsak, which quickly became popular among students in Jordan.
Three months into its launch, the team handed over the project to the MoE, and Abwaab went back to focus on its core offerings. In June last year, Abwaab launched its subscription in Egypt for the upcoming 2021-2022 academic year. It even partnered with Egyptian science influencer Abdullah Anna, who is behind the popular YouTube channel Shar3 el 3loom (Arabic for "Science Street") in a bid to create engaging and fun science lessons for Arabic-speaking students. Following the success of the kick-off in Egypt, in July 2021, the startup acquired Pakistan-based social e-learning platform Edmatrix in a bid to make its first move into wider Asia, and Abwaab has now started to operate in the country as well.
And investors are taking notice of the company too- having raised funds across three rounds, Abwaab's total investment now sits at $27.5 million. Abwaab started off by raising $2.5 million in a pre-seed round, followed by $5 million in a seed round, and then, $20 million in its latest Series A round. The enterprise has been backed by renowned global and regional VCs, with UAE-based BECO Capital leading its last round. It is also backed by Silicon Valley-based GSV Ventures, New York-based 4DX Ventures, and Abu Dhabi-based Chimera Capital. "Over a dozen of our ex-Uber and Careem alumni have also invested with us, after having worked very closely with them for five years each," Tabbaa adds.
As for what's on the horizon for the startup, Tabbaa reveals that he and his team are now focused on offering the best value to students in current markets. Next, they plan to serve the region, from Morocco to Pakistan, and potentially, further East as well. "This will be through continuous development in our product, as we build a strong learning community, a solid platform that enables students to learn at their own pace, and at some point, leverage the power of AI and machine learning for adaptive learning," Tabbaa elaborates. "Our vision is to unleash the human potential of our region. We are building an ecosystem for students to excel and get ahead in life." In conclusion, when asked for advice for those considering careers in entrepreneurship, Tabbaa shares a few candid, yet important, notes. "Building a startup from the ground up requires a certain degree of naïve optimism, with the strong belief that you will be able to create the value you are aspiring to do," he says.
And despite the challenges presented by the global pandemic, Tabbaa is optimistic about the future of the startup space. "[There are] unique opportunities for value-creation. Multiple industries have risen in the tech space during the pandemic, which, in the long term, will make life better for us." Keeping that in mind, Tabbaa believes that entrepreneurs operating in our current landscape need to "be optimistic, be proactive, and be bold"- that's what matters at the end of the day.