Craydel: Helping Students and Working Professionals in Africa Search and Apply to Their Best-Fit Higher Education

Manish Sardana discusses access to higher education in Africa and presents Craydel, an online platform that aims at re-engineering how students and working professionals in Africa search, discover and apply to their best-fit higher education. With offices in Kenya and Nigeria, Craydel is on a mission to democratize access to quality higher education throughout the continent.

Interview with Manish Sardana, Co-Founder and CEO of Craydel

Manish Sardana, Co-Founder and CEO of Craydel

Could you give us a historical background of Craydel?

This is my ninth year in Kenya. I come from India and I came to Kenya to work with an organization called WPP Scangroup. It is the largest marketing services business in Africa. I started as a General Manager for the Kenya office and eventually became the Managing Director for Africa. Historically, I have been working with startups here in Kenya and India as well. I have worked in education startups and skilled those businesses. I am also an author of an economics textbook. I left WPP Scangroup in early 2021 to build something of my own, and as per my background and my startup experience in education, it had to be in the education space. I was evaluating various ecosystems and challenges within the education space and one challenge caught my eye: the way in which students access higher education. Every year, 16 million students in Africa apply for higher education, and between them, they spend $30 billion every single year in fees that they pay to universities or colleges. We looked at the system and realized that it was fundamentally broken.

The problem is that deciding what course to apply for and what university to go to is currently fragmented in a sense that there is no transparency available from a student perspective in terms of what course they should be applying to, and what university they should be going to. The way students do it today, is that they talk to some study agents, who are business people with a strong financial interest in mind as they represent a small bunch of universities, which they push to the students. On the other side, you have universities that travel from wherever they are in the world to come and make presentations of themselves to students and professionals, therefore trying to sell their own university. There is no platform today where students can seamlessly and transparently compare and search for courses and universities on a single platform. There is no transparency in the system. So that was the first problem we tried to solve: once you decide you want to do an MBA, how do you decide what is the best university for you? How do you compare all the thousands of options available? You end up going to different university websites. You speak to your friends, you speak to some of these agents, you speak to universities, and then you make your decision. A lot of the decision making, when it comes to choosing higher education, is still not very transparent, and it is very fragmented as an experience.

Now, if you have to apply to a university or a college within Africa, most of these universities do not even have the information updated on their websites. They do not have fee structures. They do not have detailed course curriculums. It becomes almost impossible for a student to make an optimal decision when it comes to choosing a university.

Very recently, we decided going into high schools in Kenya and Nigeria, and one thing we realized was that more than 80% of the students who are about to graduate out of high school have no idea what course they want to apply to. In most cases, the decision in terms of what courses they want to choose is based on parental bias, such as your mother wanting you to become a doctor, engineer, lawyer or architect. It is based on societal biases and lack of information, because students do not know about careers of the 21st century at all. When we talked to the students, one thing that we realized was that they did not know what course they wanted to apply to. We want to build a system that gives scientific, unbiased, personalized recommendations to students when it comes to choosing courses. Once they choose the course they want to apply to, we give them hundreds of options across multiple countries, where on one seamless online platform they can compare those options and make the best choice possible for them. We have a team of people who are expert career guidance counselors, who then help those students in the application process, and help them secure visas in case they are traveling abroad.

We are trying to make this entire system a lot more transparent and personalized in terms of scientific, unbiased, objective recommendations, and we are trying to make it a lot more convenient. If you want to apply to any university, there is one single platform through which you can apply to universities and colleges within Africa and abroad. Just to give you an example of my own case, I came from a family where everyone is an economist. My sister is a PHD economist from the US, my uncles, aunts and parents are all economists. When we were growing up, it was very clearly decided that I was going to be an economist. After my high school, I got into an Economics Undergraduate Program where I did very well. After my degree was finished, I took that degree to my parents and said, “I’ve got this degree in my hand. What do I do with it? I do not know where to go from here.” And the obvious answer was to go and do my Masters. I entered Masters in a top college in India, and then, in my first term exams, I took a blank sheet of paper to my examiner, and I said I quit because it was very clear that I did not belong there. Just like my example, 40% of students today leave their universities in the first year because they find themselves in courses that they are not meant to be doing. 80% of students who remain in the university eventually end up in careers which have nothing to do with what they have studied in college.

If you look at a macro level, the cost the economy is bearing and the cost individuals, parents, students are bearing in making those wrong choices amounts to $30 billion being spent every year. 80% of that money is getting into helping students do courses where they are going to have no bearing in their eventual career outcomes. There is a massive wastage of capital and time, and that is the larger problem we are trying to fix using technology. We built a platform that uses psychometrics data to help analyze students’ career motivators, aptitudes and personality, and give them scientific recommendations in their best fit courses. Once they have decided on the courses, they can explore our career resources to understand, what it means to have a career in journalism for example. Once they are clear in terms of the ideal career path and their best course option, our platform allows them to compare hundreds of universities across 20 different destinations in the US, the UK, Australia, Canada, Turkey, Cyprus, and the Middle East, for them to see their different options. They can look at scholarships, fee structures, detailed course curriculums, and then make the best decision for them. That is overall Craydel’s ecosystem.

We started our platform last year. We are in some very high quality international schools and top national schools. For example, in Kenya, we are in Alliance High School, Statehouse Girls, Nairobi School and Lenana School, which are the top national schools. We started as a B2C platform, and now we have created a new channel, whereby our platform is being used by school students and their career counselors for students to find the best fit goals, options, and then be able to apply to universities.

In terms of funds, we raised a million dollars last year towards October, with some of the large institutional investors in the US, Europe, South Africa, Nigeria, and Kenya, as well as some strong angel investors who are very strategic for us. Currently, we are doing our pre-seed extension round, with a plan to close about a million dollars in the next few weeks.

We are about 30 people strong now, 25 in Kenya, 5 in Nigeria. We recently launched our office in Abuja in Nigeria, and we are opening another office in Lagos now. We have done about 800 plus applications for students to various institutions, both across Africa and the world. That is where we are in our journey. We will continue to focus in consolidating our position in Kenya and Nigeria, and eventually move to other markets across up Sub-Saharan Africa.

How do you want to position yourself vis-à-vis your competitive advantage on the African content?

There is no other platform like Craydel in Africa. There is no online platform that gives scientific recommendations and then allows students to compare and apply to universities. There is no competition doing exactly what we are doing. Our competition is status quo and a status quo is your analog study abroad agents. You would have seen street posts and billboards saying study in Canada or study in the UK. This fragmented ecosystem of agents is what we are competing against in terms of student retention. But, of course, we are extremely convinced that we have a solution that is far better than what they are offering today in terms of student experience. Our big advantage is our ability to get into schools. Once we are in high schools and our platform is deployed there, that gives us a massive competitive advantage because the students trust our platform. They see how our platforms reduces their anxiety and helps them make smarter decisions about their careers, which no agents are doing. Besides, our platform allows you to compare options and apply to multiple colleges from a same single system. The fact that we are present in the top schools is a huge advantage for us as well.

How does the platform work?

We have two kinds of users who come to our platform. One of them is typically a working professional who knows exactly what he wants to do. He has built a career in computer science. He wants to do a course in data science. That is what he wants to specialize in, and he needs help in understanding the best options for him to study that course. On our home page there is a search engine, you type the course that you want to study, and then you start seeing hundreds of options for those courses. Then, students can filter on those options based on their budgets, the country they want to study in, undergraduate program, postgraduate program, online courses, in-campus studies, scholarships they expect to get, etc. They filter on those options, they compare those options, and then they apply for the college that is right for them. Then, we have a team of admissions counselors. Once you zero down on the college that you want to go to, we help you in the application process. If you are applying to study abroad, we also help you in the visa process. So that is one customer segment.

Then, a very large customer segment, and the biggest customer segment for us, is the students that do not know what they want to study. They come to our platform, they subscribe to the premium service of about $30, they get to do a psychometric online assessment of about 180 questions where they get an understanding of their aptitudes, personality type, career motivators and value systems. That assessment gives them the recommendations of their ideal career path and then maps the right courses for them.

Apart from that, when students go to a university, universities pay us a certain amount of money for every student enrolled.

What are the benefits for investors to be part of this adventure?

A large number of our investors are very much mission aligned. They see the problem that we are seeing and they want to be a part of solving that problem. 80% of the $30 billion spent every single year is wasted on education that has not been on people’s eventual careers. Most of our investors want to be part of solving that problem, and they are helping us in two ways: with capital and their network. Some of our investors are sitting on boards of schools or universities. They have deep connections in the communities here. They are helping us get access to more and more students via the network.

Besides, not much has happened in the Ed tech space on the continent so far. If you look at the continent, most of the startup stories are still revolving around FinTech. In my opinion, FinTech is overvalued. Ed tech is very big in the US, Europe and Asia. Africa has the largest student population in the world with the least access to higher education. The gross enrollment rate in higher education across Sub-Saharan Africa is less than 10%. It is a very large, extremely under penetrated market, to which no one really has paid attention. Investors probably see that the size of the problem is very large with a significant opportunity for growth. It is not competitive. There is a big opportunity to take a strong first move and a pole position in the sector.

Lastly, it is the quality of our founding team. We have three Co-Founders. I come from a lot of startup entrepreneurial background, driving growth, designing products, building businesses, growing organizations, business development, etc. Then, I have my second co-founder, John Nguru, who used to work with me in my last organization in Kenya and has deep background in technology. He is the one who has architected and built our entire platform with his team. The third co-founder is Shane Premji, who has worked in investment banking, private equity, venture capital, and the World Bank for two years. The founding team has a very diverse background from technology to finance, to fundraising, to growth and product design, and that combination is very hard to find. That has been a big selling point for us as part of our fundraising process to investors.

Does this platform exist in other parts of the world?

The biggest platform in the world helping students access higher education is a Canadian platform. They were last valued at about $3.2 Canadian billion dollars. They work with agents to recruit students. We personally feel that this model perpetuates an existing problem, because agents do not keep the interest of students at the top of their minds, they are working for universities. They are trying to make money by pushing students into universities, and they more often than not end up pushing students in universities where they make the highest commission.

Then, there are platforms like Cialfo, which have been working with schools. It is a platform that has been very popular in India and some of the Asian markets. The challenge that we see with Cialfo is that they do not focus so much on student psychometrics and helping students understand the best course for them. They are more like an application engine into universities. They are not trying to solve the bigger problem, which is how do you advise students what is the best for them?

There are multiple platforms available, but none are truly being student centric and trying to figure out what is the best for them.

Our platform combines very scientific career guidance, along with university search and application, into one seamless whole. People are trying to solve one part of the problem, but no one is trying to solve the problem as a whole.

What is your vision for Craydel and what do you want to achieve in the next three years?

Fundamentally, we are trying to democracize access to quality higher education. We imagine a world where we can use science and technology to help students make better decisions about their career and higher education choices. We build technologies that equalize opportunities and give people a platform to be able to get the right recommendations, compare options and apply to the best one.


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