Longhorn Publishers: A Leading Provider of Innovative Learning Solutions in Africa

Maxwell Wahome presents Longhorn Publishers, a leading provider of innovative learning solutions in Kenya, as well as eight other countries in Africa. Longhorn Publishers is a Pan-African publishing house that is publicly listed in the Nairobi Securities Exchange.

Interview with Maxwell Wahome, Group Managing Director of Longhorn Publishers PLC

Maxwell Wahome, Group Managing Director for Longhorn Publishers PLC

What is your assessment of the sector in Kenya and East Africa? What are the latest trends?

Longhorn is a content developer. We identify various learning gaps in the market and develop content that will suit our market. For a very long time, our market has been the educational market, primary, secondary, and tertiary schools. Our area of focus over the last few years has been the general reading and non-academic content market. We are in eight African countries including Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Zambia, Malawi, Cameroon, and Senegal. Over the last one or two years, in our key area of developing content for the textbook market we have seen a lot of government involvement. The impact has been so big that we are seeing quite a number of countries reviewing their curriculums, of course being driven by some of the global needs trying to focus towards the UN sustainable development goals of providing quality education. We are seeing a lot of countries, both Kenya and our neighbors, changing their curriculum. The impact of that is almost a complete overhaul of the content that we have developed for so many years that is available in textbooks in the educational space. But that has given us a huge opportunity to enter into new markets that we did not previously have a chance to enter, specifically the francophone market that was mainly dominated by French publishers or French speaking publishers. That is now an area of entry to grow our current presence in the anglophone space. Other than government, which will continue to have a huge impact in terms of our policy setting, we see digital transformation as another key area. It is a disruption in our business in a good way and a bad way. We are now creating a whole new market, totally blue ocean, that can now consume content that they would not consume before. When you wake up in the morning, the first thing that you do is look at your phone before you even say good morning to your spouse. Content has to be available on your mobile platform. Those are the channels that we are starting to look at. Looking at our business and some of our existing value chain processes and seeing the content, we had been focusing on textbooks and school age learners, but what about us? I consume content on YouTube daily. Why can’t I have content developed locally for the African market? That has immense opportunities for growth and it is scalable. Those are the key areas that we are looking at that are both disrupting and enabling our business at the moment.

How do you differentiate yourself from all this competition?

We are looking for partners that can support us in scaling our edtech business, digitizing content across Africa. We are an African business. Our presence is pan-African and we want to be the leading provider of innovative learning solutions across Africa.

In order to succeed in this market, the competitive edge has to be the distinctness of your content. How different is my content from their content? We are market leaders in Kiswahili. Kiswahili will very soon be an official language in Africa. There are over 150 million speakers in Africa. If you go to any major university across the globe you will find a Kiswahili department. We are now developing content in Kiswahili by drawing on our expertise which we have built over 40 years. How can we deliver this content to non-Kiswahili speakers or new Kiswahili speakers? Recently, South Africa adopted the use of Kiswahili in its basic education. That shows the potential growth of this language which is now one of the major lingua franca within this region. You always have to have a Kiswahili translator. That kind of content is only available at Longhorn. A few other players in the country might have that, but we have the ability to scale where others might struggle. If you go to the Google Play Store or the App Store and look for a Kiswahili translator or English-Kiswahili learning, there are tons of apps. That shows the appetite that the global market has for this language. It is a gateway to Africa in general.

What are you doing for content in the francophone market?

From what we have seen from our current engagements in Cameroon and Senegal, there is a huge appetite for localization of content. When you go to those markets, you will find content that is still very foreign. The language is not an issue. We have developed the capability of bringing in authors who are proficient in the French language, but the localization is what is lacking: giving that content a local touch and an African touch. Currently, a number of our creative works, novels and storybooks, are now being translated into French. They are doing quite well in these markets. Language is not a barrier for us to enter into any market. As long as you have rich, authentic content, you will be able to succeed in this market.

What are you doing for mobile content?

We have looked at content and then tried to map out channels to push that content. Mobile apps are one of the channels. However, in the current landscape of sub-Saharan Africa, over 60% of the mobile users are on a feature phone. Internet connectivity levels are still very low and the penetration is not very good. So, we have developed content available through USSD, which is text based. Anybody can use it. As long as you have a phone and a network connection, you do not need the internet. I can avail mini chunks of content through an SMS platform and that can reach millions of people within sub-Saharan Africa. Of course, that does not mean we ignore the mobile apps. Smartphone penetration is growing. Three years ago in Kenya, you could hardly find a smartphone, but now they dominate the market. We are also building capacity within the apps space. We are working with companies like World Reader and Amazon to see how we can develop platforms that can scale. It will take a bit of time before the sub-Saharan African markets can buy content on apps. You are telling them to buy three things: a smartphone, data bundles, and then content. That will not happen any time soon. So, we have to take it beat by beat. First, can you get your content on SMS? By that time, the penetration will be better. Can we now avail content on apps that do not have a huge data capacity that can be easily navigated with simple smartphones? Then, we can scale to more sophisticated content. The third channel is videos and movies. Africa is the home of numerous authentic stories that the world has never heard. Now, we are giving the world an opportunity to listen to the African story. We are now converting some of our old creative works, storybooks and novels, into movies that can be available in different languages in Africa. That will help to spread the African story further, both in the continent and across the globe. We are already developing and working with various partners on this.

What do you send through SMS?

For example, you wake up one day and want a 28-day meal plan. Maybe you want to gain some weight, lose some weight, or add some muscle depending on your preference. You have two choices. First, you can go to the internet and see what meal plan works for you. But that assumes that you know where to look and that you have internet capability. Now, I am giving solutions that if you subscribe to my USSD platform, *864#, you can select the “Lifestyle” option and I can send bits of messages and even a diet plan to you for 28 days daily from the teleco company that you are working with. That is content that is customized to you. You wake up in the morning and find the content that you want, you use zero data, and the only cost you have incurred is the cost of an SMS message once a day. The most common legal issues in Kenya are employment and family law. Your average person would want to refer to legal guidelines to get background on certain things before they can explore their choices of whether to see a lawyer, etc. I can give them specific bits of the law that they can consume and get them informed of their choices. I am not replacing a lawyer or legal practitioner; I am just informing them on what their rights and options are. That kind of content can be pushed through SMS. We now even have revision material for our learners in primary school. Many people cannot afford a book, but they can afford one or two Kenyan shillings, which is a very small amount per day to interact with revision questions structured to fit in an SMS. We are giving options to people who previously could not afford it using cheap and accessible means, 365 days per year, 24 hours per day.

Are you interested in attracting partners?

We are looking for expertise in edtech technology. The next billion-dollar company will be in edtech. In any country in the world, whether there is war or peace, people have to eat and children have to go to school. Education is a core pillar in any solid country. We are looking for partners that can support us in scaling our edtech business, digitizing content across Africa. We are an African business. Our presence is pan-African and we want to be the leading provider of innovative learning solutions across Africa. Those are the types of partners we want to work with. To conquer the francophone market, we need an edtech company, possibly from France, to come and look at the solutions we have. We know how to develop content, but we need support in scaling across the millions and billions of people in Africa.

Are you looking for investors?

At the moment, we are publicly listed on the Nairobi Securities Exchange and our shares are available for any investor out there who feels they can see potential in this company. It is a very open way of entering into the company through investing. I would welcome any investor out there to look at our shares. Longhorn was the best performing stock of 2019 on the Exchange. Over the last 11 months it has gained over 80%. That tells us the confidence that the market is starting to see in education and this business in general. As the CEO, I want edtech partners to come work with me to scale this business. We can grow exponentially with the right partners and the right skills.

What is one of your success stories?

One of our success stories is the content that we have availed in books and digital platforms, which are now starting to pick up. Some of our key success stories are projects we have done with the Kenyan government in developing and distributing books within the country. Over the last year, we have worked with the government and Longhorn itself has distributed over 5 million books and we have been key in ensuring a 1:1 textbook ratio. There is no other country in Africa that has achieved that. Longhorn is a key part of this group of publishers that is working directly with the government to completely change the narrative in Africa that you do not get books. In Kenya, every child has a book and we have been part of that great success story over the last 12 to 18 months. We have found ways of significantly reducing the cost of textbooks to children by looking at our value chain and areas where we can improve our efficiencies. We have passed the books to the government at a significant discount. That is mainly due to looking at our processes and ensuring that the Kenyan child and the African child can afford a book for each and every subject that they are studying.

What is your vision for the company in three years’ time? What would you like the company to achieve?

In the next three years, I see digital being a key pillar in this business, contributing over 30% to 40% of the turnover of this company. That does not mean that the rest will decrease. The business will grow significantly. We are looking into new markets to push our content, especially francophone. We are looking at further growing our market share to over 30% in our current existing markets. What will really be the gamechanger is digital and making Longhorn the leader of digital education solutions in Africa. We are well on course to achieving that with the content that we have and the scale that we are building within this organization. I am sure that the company will grow more than twofold in terms of valuation. To the partners out there who need to come in, this is the time. I might be too expensive for them two years from now.


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