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Education Basket Wants To Guide MENA Youth In Their Higher Education Forays Irrespective of the level of education (undergraduate, post graduate etc.), the enterprise presents students with global course options, in line with their specifications and credentials.

By Sindhu Hariharan

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@PamHachem of Education Basket
Jessica Naimé and Mylène El Fakhry, founders, Education Basket.

A report published by the Institute of International Education revealed that in 2016, the number of Middle East students travelling to study to universities in the United States increased by almost 5%, when compared with the previous year. This is just one indication of the interest in overseas higher education showcased by students in this region, and with MENA companies often citing inadequate skills among talent as major impediments to business growth, this trend is a healthy sign- but it comes with its own set of hurdles. After all, it's rarely (if ever) an easy task to get into these schools, and MENA students need to be prepared and guided to make the best out of their learning opportunities abroad- and that's what Education Basket's founders set out to do with their enterprise. Started by long-time friends Jessica Naimé and Mylène El Fakhry, who were formerly a journalist and financial consultant respectively, the duo picked Qatar to launch Education Basket. "Qatar, with its 2030 vision dedicated to transforming a commodity reliant market into a knowledge-based economy, seemed like the perfect place to kickstart [our] regional project," explains El Fakhry.

Launched in Doha in 2013, Education Basket today has operations across the GCC, with offices in Kuwait, Lebanon and Egypt, and its founders believe that the company's structure today has "successfully progressed from a startup to a medium-sized company." Explaining the full suite of services provided by the education consultancy, El Fakhry says, "Academic orientation is at the core of our business, and every case is unique, so the advice we give when it comes to choosing a major, university or country for higher education is customized depending on the student's current grades, requirements from the course, career plans and budget." Irrespective of the level of education (undergraduate, post graduate etc.), the enterprise presents students with global course options, in line with their specifications and credentials.

Image credit: @PamHachem of Education Basket.
At a time when every task is getting automated or being replaced by technology, Education Basket counts the personal and customized attention offered to students as being its USP. "We assist the students throughout the entire application process and later on, once an acceptance is received, throughout the visa procedure [for an overseas institution] and the hunt for appropriate accommodation," adds El Fakhry. "Finally, we do keep in touch with our students to make sure their transition period goes smoothly and we receive their attendance records as well as their grade reports to share with their parents and sponsors (at the student's discretion)." She emphasizes that the team's counselors offer unbiased advice, and they also "go the extra mile" to secure scholarships from various sources. In doing so, the company has managed to arrive at a pretty straightforward revenue model: "We are the official representatives for academic institutions in the MENA region, and are remunerated by them as a percentage of the tuition fee for every person we successfully enroll."

Related: Teaming Up: The Importance Of Collaboration Between The Corporate And Education Sectors

Speaking about why the company picked Qatar for its inception, El Fakhry is thankful to Qatar's emphasis on becoming an educational hub, and the government "allocating its second largest budget to education." She adds that the country's initiatives like Education City, and the World Innovation Summit for Education under the umbrella of Qatar Foundation have all helped boost their business, and "allowed us to operate profitably since day one." As for subsequent expansion decisions, "the intrinsic thirst of Lebanese people for academic advancement" prompted the entry into Lebanon, and the company has now even centralized their support functions (finance, marketing, administration) in Beirut, owing to the city's bustling startup ecosystem. While Kuwaitis' history of foraying into foreign education led to setting up an office in Kuwait, Education Basket is now also venturing into the region's largest market- Egypt. "We have already started a due diligence process in two new markets, one in the GCC (for Q4 2017) and another in North Africa (for Q2 2018)," adds El Fakhry.

Despite such high ambitions, the founders have been cautious and selective when it comes to raising funds for growth. The decision has been driven primarily by "the ability of the partner [investor]" to help them expand with their expertise and network. "After careful consideration, we decided to join forces with Eurotech [in January 2016], a 17-year-old Kuwait-based corporate training company with a very rich network of clients across the region and offices in Saudi Arabia, Dubai, Lebanon, Turkey, Malaysia and London," says El Fakhry. Considering the nature of business, references and relationships play a key role in scaling such a venture, and Education Basket has been quick to realize this. "Our numbers helped us sign our first agreements with education partners in the United Kingdom," says El Fakhry. "Just like students, partners who appreciated our work also referred us to other institutions, and instead of us approaching potential universities for agreements, we started being approached by them directly."

Image credit: @PamHachem of Education Basket.
But the business development efforts of Education Basket aren't limited to sealing partnerships. The research and market intelligence team has a huge task on their hands in staying updated of the dynamic regulations in the region's education sphere, and hence constantly screens websites of the region's education Ministries, local newspapers, and other official announcements for changes. They also participate in industry trainings, fairs, and other activities hosted by universities and consular services to achieve this. In fact, as part of the SME's expansion strategy for 2017, Education Basket is also organizing its first higher education fair within the next few months, bringing global universities and student community together in Kuwait, Qatar and Lebanon. Further, looking to leverage the online medium to develop a loyal customer base, the company has developed customized online content in Arabic and English, working with university partners. "We have allocated an important budget for our online strategy and developed an interactive web portal where students can create their private space to communicate with our team members, share their files and follow up on their application process." And to drive these activities, Education Basket claims to be blessed with a team of "dynamic people," in touch with students' needs and trends. "The diversity within our team often allows students to relate to our own experiences, but more importantly, feel confident about our services," adds El Fakhry.

With business fundamentals working in its favor, Education Basket has thus been successful in providing counseling for over 1500 students across the region, and claims to have placed over 600 of them in institutions based in the US, Canada, the UK, the EU, Russia, the UAE, and other countries. While the team admits that 2016 has been a tough year for GCC-based education businesses, Education Basket has seen revenue grow at an average 30% rate since their launch. As for the future, El Fakhry notes various external factors that serve as a positive influence for their growth story. An increase in the recognition of the advantages of an international education experience, coupled with the improved focus on human capital development by the region's governments, simplified global mobility, and access to institutional financing options for students, have all placed the spotlight on higher education, and these are expected to "have positive outcomes on the region, if channeled through a clear plan." Education Basket believes this is where they come in, and for those just out of school, feeling overwhelmed with the options facing them, the company has just one thing to say to you: "Get in touch!"

Image credit: @PamHachem of Education Basket.

Mylène El Fakhry, co-founder and Executive Director, Education Basket

What are a few key challenges you anticipate or already face in scaling up your business?

"[First], protectionist regulations governing "for-profit" educational businesses, and [second], optimizing existing resources to fulfill ambitious projects."

In your experience of running Education Basket, what are a few preferred vocations or courses that are in top demand today among MENA's youth?

"Medicine, engineering and law degrees are still very popular amongst high school students looking into education abroad. However, with the GCC's different visions to be implemented in the coming decades, the trend is about to change. Some Gulf nations are trying to shift towards more service-oriented economies, and humanities as well as social sciences are starting to trend amongst master students. Students tend to look for education excellence when they invest in higher education abroad. The outcome would be obtaining a degree from a recognized institution across the region in order to land a job when they come back. For others, studying abroad sometimes could be seeking a new adventure, opening up to other cultures and experience new ways of life. Finally, others seek more affordable university options abroad."

What are your top five tips for an entrepreneur to start a business in MENA?

"[Firstly], data is key but not visible to the naked eye, be ready to dig for it. [Second], cut costs on everything except salaries and legal advice. [Third], gut feeling and ambition are useless without a solid business plan. [Fourth], when hiring, think: trust, competence and resourcefulness (in that order). [Finally], make sure the expectations of your investor(s) are aligned with the nature and pace of your business model."

Related: The Struggle Is Real: The Middle East Has A Skills Gap Crisis

Sindhu Hariharan

Former Features Editor, Entrepreneur Middle East

Sindhu Hariharan is the Features Editor at Entrepreneur Middle East.  She is a financial consultant turned business journalist with a FOMO when it comes to everything technology.


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