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What did we learn about EdTech in the region, and what insights does running this challenge present for us now?

Cate Noble

The focus of the Challenge

Octava Foundation recently announced the 10 winners of its Social Innovation Challenge, which aims to support EdTech solutions in improving learning outcomes for underserved learners in five South-East Asian countries: Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam.  The winners will each receive $50,000 and a program of support from Octava Foundation and MIT Solve.

The challenge aims to address an important need: despite recent progress, the quality of education in the region is often inadequate.  This can be due to poor teaching quality and teacher supply, large class sizes, and shortages of resources such as adequate buildings, teaching and learning materials, and technology.   As a result, many children who do attend school are not achieving minimum proficiency in reading and math, which constrains opportunities for young people to progress to further education or productive employment, ultimately limiting economic prosperity. A White Paper developed to inform Octava Foundation’s Social Innovation Challenge identified five areas where EdTech solutions can help improve the quality of education for underserved children:

Outcomes of the Challenge Octava Foundation received a rich and diverse pool of over one hundred applications, showcasing impressive solutions to address the region’s educational challenges. Applications came from 18 different countries, with strong representation from solutions based in the region (62% of solutions came from the five target countries, 74% including Singapore). 

Each of the solutions selected addresses at least one of the focus areas of the Challenge:

What we learnt

The applications and the process of selecting the 10 winners has yielded five learnings which may stimulate further discussion within the sector.  In particular we are keen to build understanding of the challenges and opportunities for EdTech, and how funders, policymakers, EdTech entrepreneurs and beneficiaries within schools and communities could work together to improve learning outcomes.

1-     Meeting the needs of underserved learners remains an intractable challenge

Across the region, COVID has rolled back the progress made in recent years; for example, the Philippines has seen some of the longest school closures of any country in the world, resulting in learning loss that is yet to be quantified, but is likely to be catastrophic.  The proposed solutions highlighted the many complex needs of underserved learners in the region. It is clear that the need for solutions that extend the reach of quality education is greater than ever. 

2-     Home grown innovations need more, and earlier, nurturing

Despite the high number of applications from the five target countries, the proportion of winners who originated in these countries was much lower.  For example, despite 20 applications from the Philippines, none made it through to the final stage.  It would be beneficial to understand more about the EdTech ecosystem in each target country, specifically what entrepreneurs need to be successful and how to nurture local innovation that succeeds. 

3-     EdTech start-ups want help to develop their commercial capabilities

Throughout the process, applicants consistently indicated that they needed support with financing and funding, market entry, networking connections and PR.  As one would expect, the winners of the Challenge have more developed business models than the applicant pool overall; along with this, however, for-profit entities are disproportionately represented amongst the winners (70% compared to 40% of the pool overall).  This raises questions about the competitiveness of not-for-profit players in the ecosystem, or the support they may need to be successful.

4-     A focus on sustainable business models needs to be balanced with more emphasis on impact

Being able to demonstrate a product’s reach alongside a compelling growth story is essential, especially when working with more traditional investors who currently dominate the landscape.  However, addressing the problem of educational underperformance across the region through EdTech will require entrepreneurs to do more to understand and emphasize the impact of their product on learning.  This includes using the evidence base on how children learn to inform product design, articulating how the product can drive better learning, and measuring learning outcomes generated through use of the product (rather than just numbers of users).  Funders should encourage a focus on learning outcomes, as well as on robust financials. 

5-     Effectively working with government remains a critical challenge

The Social Innovation Challenge exposed significant gaps between government and non-state actors in term of EdTech collaboration.  Many government systems remain complex, bureaucratic and impenetrable.  Many of the successful solutions have chosen a direct to customer route, which bypasses the need to deal with the public systems.  However, to address the needs of the underserved at scale and sustainably, solutions will have to work through government at national, local and school level.  More needs to be done to bridge the divide between the public and private sectors, to build understanding of the other on both sides, so the needs of the learner and their specific context are well understood, and solutions are workable. 

Our take-aways

Octava’s Social Innovation Challenge has surfaced some impressive innovators which will go forward into the Challenge program, and benefit from a range of support to help them grow their impact and reach.  Yet there is much more to be done, and funders and policy makers who believe in the potential of EdTech can assist the growth of a healthy and vibrant sector to drive more learning gains through technology.  This can include supporting local entrepreneurs through building their knowledge and networks, helping government and providers connect and learn from each other, and prioritizing evidence of impact in their expectations with entrepreneurs. 

Congratulations to the Winners of the Octava Social Innovation Challenge – we look forward to seeing the impact you will have!

Cate Noble is Managing Director of Better Purpose, a boutique education-focused consultancy that shapes and accelerates the work of education organizations seeking to make a difference to learning outcomes around the world. Find out more at

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