Women-led start-up boosts math learning in Pakistan

By August 22, 2019 October 15th, 2019 Entrepreneurs, WBG

The team behind Pakistani start-up Dot & Line with co-founders Maheen Adamjee & Lina Ahmed (center)

News | August 22, 2019

Women-led start-up boosts math learning in Pakistan

Maheen Adamjee and Lina Ahmed, the driving forces behind the women-owned start-up Dot & Line, recognized an opportunity when they were discussing the low learning outcomes of Pakistan’s 30 million school-going children. Overall, unsatisfactory learning results are the main reason why an estimated two-thirds of them attend private after-school tutoring, largely an informal sector in the country.

Adamjee and Ahmed decided back in 2016 to harness this market opportunity and establish a formal education business with a tech-enabled training method. The two entrepreneurs, part of a growing array of businesses benefiting from the Women Entrepreneurs Finance Initiative (We-Fi), were convinced there would be high demand for a ‘new kind of math education’. Central to the teaching method are smaller chunks of content using a more iterative and playful process, guided by a teacher. Quality standards are transparent and online learning modules are be combined with personalized teaching and frequent communication with parents. The United Kingdom’s development cooperation agency, DfID, provided a first grant allowing the two entrepreneurs to develop their business model.

Fast forward to 2019, the two friends have a fast-growing firm that has reached 500 students of primary school age since late last year and just received seed funding from Pakistan’s leading venture capital fund Sarmayacar. The Pakistan-focused fund was recently supported by an investment of US$2 million of the International Finance Corporation (IFC) and US$500,000 from We-Fi. The We-Fi support was specifically brought in to incentivize the fund to achieve defined gender outcomes.  As a We-Fi implementing partner, IFC is working to help bridge issues around insufficient seed capital for women and strengthen the entrepreneurial ecosystem to drive economic growth and create quality jobs.

Network of female home-based teachers

Fundamental to Dot & Line’s business model is its network of 100 home-based mathematics tutors, the so-called ‘teacher partners’ who teach about 6 students, boys and girls, per class for a fee of 2500 to 4000 rupees (approximately 15 to 25 USD) per child per month. Teacher partners can teach up to a total of 32 students per week to keep classes small and ensure the quality of learning. The tuition can be adapted to the income situation of the parents and many children are from lower-middle class backgrounds. The firm has trained women in three major Pakistani cities to convert their homes into low cost, high quality learning centers where they receive and teach children. “There are about half a million highly-educated women in Pakistan, mostly stay-at-home mums who, for a variety of reasons, are currently not participating in the labor market”, says entrepreneur Adamjee. “After a stringent selection on our part, we offer them a flexible work environment; they can decide how many hours they would like to work and at what time of the day within the safe environment of their own home. On average, our teacher partners earn up to 55,000 rupees (approximately US$340) a month for two hours of work a day. That is more than double compared to full-time teachers in a regular school.”

The co-founder of Dot & Line calls the recruitment of female teacher partners ‘at the core of the firm’s business model’. “We are a for-profit company, but we strive for women’s economic empowerment. We hire very smart women who need a flexible and home-based work situation. Although we help them to become more financially independent, for many this is about developing themselves professionally, connecting with others and having a new purpose in life”, she explains.

Teacher partner Ambreen and her math class students

Financial independence and positive change

The company’s Facebook group, which serves as a support platform for the teacher partners, is filled with testimonials of women who see their work as a ‘second career’ and an enrichment of their lives. There is one by Swaleha, a former physio therapist, who shared an emotional post that after suffering from illnesses, teaching has been a source of positive change in her life. Zakia, another teacher partner, shares her experience of representing and promoting Dot & Line at a community meeting receiving many compliments from her teacher colleagues.

Mathematics as the base for learning

Dot & Line’s focus on mathematics is very deliberate. “We think that good numeracy skills for kids aged 7 to 12 are essential to learning as it teaches children logical thinking and problem-solving skills”, says Adamjee, an economist by training. She emphasizes that the company’s model is delivering results. On average, students have made a 30 to 40% grade jump compared to their initial levels. She believes this is due to the step-by-step teaching method; taking children gradually to the next level guided by the teacher. The entrepreneur underscores that they teach mathematics in a very ‘gender-neutral’ way and stimulate teachers to steer actively away from biases that girls ‘are not as good or less interested in math and scientific subjects’.

High ambitions                               

Dot & Line’s founders have big plans. By September, they will recruit 40 more teacher partners, bringing the total to 140. Later this year, the firm will start a learning module to stimulate reading skills. They are also developing a fully online module for high schoolers. In three to four years, they plan to reach 60,000 students using a network of 10,000 teachers.

Despite its early success, Adamjee admits that the company still feels like a start-up. “We are constantly working on our products”, she says. “Having Samaryacar Fund as an investor is a tremendous boost. They are not only our investor, but also a partner. They help with expanding our business model.”

About We-Fi and World Bank Group in Pakistan

The World Bank Group’s We-Fi Program is a US$75 million global program jointly implemented by IFC and World Bank teams. The IFC’s US$3.0 million seed capital investment in one of Pakistan’s pioneering women-focused funds, Sarmayacar (including US$ 0.5 million from We-Fi), is complemented by a US$1.9 million World Bank We-Fi Pakistan project focused on building the early-stage ecosystem for women-owned businesses. The project will also provide investment-readiness training to 20 incubators and WSMEs. The IFC investee fund was one of the key stakeholders in designing the program, intending to create a pipeline of investable women-owned ventures.